Tuam artist ‘fleeces’ her subjects by ‘painting with wool’

When Tuam-based artist Kathy Ross wanted to bring her subjects to life, she turned to wool.

“I studied fine art in NCAD and, after graduating in 2001, I moved back to Galway – finally settling in a small rural community outside Tuam,” she said.

“I have always found inspiration in my surroundings and have created a number of collections of paintings based on local marts, farmlands, outhouses and livestock,” said Kathy whose mother is also an artist, with her dad having worked in NUI Galway.

“I grew up in a very rural part of Galway, in Doughiska. There were only a few houses on our road and we were surrounded by farms.

I was always fascinated with the livestock and how the farmers’ routines followed the seasons. As kids, our favourite part of the year was helping to bring in the bales and riding up on the back of the tractor.

While working mainly in watercolours, she became frustrated with what she saw as the two-dimensional quality of her work and felt there had to be a more effective way to bring her subjects to life.

Experimenting

“I started experimenting with textiles, painting on fabric and using different tones of undyed sheep wool to build up forms and shapes. I also began to use embroidery to add the finer details to my work. I was essentially painting with wool and drawing with thread,” said the Tuam artist.

“This new way of working gave inspiration in itself and I found myself texting some of the local farmers asking if I could make portraits of their rarer sheep breeds.”

The artist commented that the agricultural community was fascinated that she could use its sheep shearings to create “hyper-realistic portraits” of the different animals.

I was getting phone calls from farmers telling me about sheep breeds I had never heard of and asking me to make them. I also began coming home to envelopes of sheep wool left in the post box for me to use.

“The word began to spread about the unique style and quality of my work, and I was approached by a group called ‘Project Baa Baa’ run by the European congress of sheep farmers and shepherds to come on board and exhibit with the group at its launch event in the run-up to Galway 2020 Capital of Culture.

SHEEP 2018

“As part of the launch at Teagasc Athenry SHEEP 2018: Farm to Fork, I exhibited a number of my portraits, and also demonstrated how I make my work, using blending fleece shorn from a Suffolk sheep at the show and felting it to create that sheep’s likeness.

“The reaction to the work was incredible,” she enthused.

“What people found amazing about the pieces is that on first look they appear to be paintings; it’s only on closer inspection that you can appreciate the level of work that goes into every piece and see the fibres and thread blended together to create every portrait.

“Smalholders and farmers alike wanted to have their sheep immortalised in my artworks and I have been getting commissions from rare sheep breeders, both at home and abroad, looking to get their livestock made into hyper-realistic artworks incorporating their own fleeces and wool into each piece.”

Kathy, who moved with her family to Togher in Tuam last year, said: “Now my own kids are growing up with the same love of rural life as I had.

“My studio is actually in our home here in Togher, and all my windows are looking out at the local fields so I can’t help but be inspired by livestock and surroundings.”

Her work varies in size, depending on subject matter. Most of the sheep portraits  are A3-sized, framed and sell for approximately €300.

“I sell both privately through my social media pages, and also through galleries such as the Kenny Gallery in Galway.

Social media

“I find social media fantastic for exposure and word of mouth really travels. I’ve had commissions from the US, Australia and even the Far East for pieces all through my Facebook, Instagram and Twitter feeds,” said Kathy.

She is currently working on a number of rare breed sheep portraits for commissions.

“I’ve also started to make a number of landscapes incorporating outhouses and livestock, using the same textiles.

“I’m needle-felting the skies, using dyed merino wool and using a combination of applique, embroidery and inks on fabric to create further definition,” said Kathy.

“I love how diverse textiles are as a medium. You can really blend the wool tones as you would paint, and stitching with threads has a similar quality to drawing with ink.

“I have also started to make a few cow portraits and I’m really enjoying trying to capture the character of the animals in my work.”