When you think of contemporary art, what’s the first thing that enters your mind?

Whatever shapes and forms you’ve conjured, it’s quite likely you’re imagining them in a spacious city gallery – right?

You’re not thinking about art installations dotted around the streets and shops that make up a small town in rural Ireland, are you?

However, for Askeaton Contemporary Arts (ACA) – based in the west Limerick town of the same name – that’s very much the case.

As opposed to white-cubed galleries, this town with its medieval ruins and the River Deel flowing down its centre, is the gallery. The art has been in empty shop fronts, in and on pubs, in a graveyard and around local landmarks.

Welcome to the Neighbourhood, ACA’s week-long contemporary arts festival, first ran in 2006. In recent weeks the festival celebrated 16 years. The public programme of events took place from 16-25 June and the artists’ residency was a two-week period around the same time.

Art in Askeaton

Askeaton has become accustomed to welcoming artists from across the world. As mentioned, there is residency for artists, alongside a public programme of events and more. The woman behind all this is Michele Horrigan, curator of ACA, visual artist and an Askeaton native herself.

Michele fell in love with art in primary school and knew by the time she went to secondary school that she wanted to go to art college. Her family, although they had no major cultural background, were very supportive of her career choice.

However, they had one concern, she wouldn’t be getting a job locally.

“When I first went to art school, I remember my parents at the time were saying, ‘Oh sure, I suppose you won’t get a job here in Askeaton anyway, or Limerick.’ Where would it be? They were absolutely right at the time,” says Michele.

“I come from a family who were very involved in the river, they were sailors and fishermen. My dad worked in the Aeroboard factory here. There was no cultural background. It was a real point of departure for me to do it. But they were extremely encouraging. I could have said I wanted to be an astronaut and they would have been behind that, pushed it, researched it and tried to find a way to support me to do it.”

After majoring in painting at Limerick School of Art and Design (LSAD), Michele went on to study art at the University of Ulster in Belfast. There her art turned more towards photography, videography and installation. Her next move was to Frankfurt in Germany to do independent research.

Welcome to the Neighbourhood

It was in Frankfurt that the idea for ACA first came to Michele. And so, in 2006, she decided to run Welcome to the Neighbourhood, a once-off artists’ residency in the town – or so she thought at the time.

“I started to really look at the town with new eyes because I was away. You have that nostalgia associated with living away, thinking about home and what it is. Also at that time, being a fairly young artist, it’s quite hard. It’s tough being in the cultural sector and I started to think about just creating opportunities for young artists, like myself, because there didn’t seem to be a place for us.

“It was just figuring out a way of running something, and to be honest, we were really only supposed to have it one time. There was such positive feedback from people locally that I was going, OK, let’s do it again. That first one was just one week where artists came and lived here. Then it just expanded over the years,” Michele explains.

A work from a previous Welcome to the Neighbourhood week, Joyride by Jonny Lyons - Askeaton's card players on the River Deel.

ACA has now developed a year-round programme. Welcome to the Neighbourhood is still the focal point, but there are various events and residencies throughout the year.

For ACA’s 10-year anniversary, a printing press was launched to facilitate making books of work, all of which are available to download for free. For the 15-year anniversary a media channel was launched, where the artists’ films can be displayed. One of these films, by Michael Holly, is based on local wood artist Seanie Barron (previously featured in Irish Country Living) and it was longlisted for an Oscar.

International and local

Over 100 artists have come from all over the world – Argentina, Mexico, France, the US and more - for Welcome to the Neighbourhood, and ACA is now renowned in the contemporary art world. The festival still aims to support artists starting out in their career, but also now attracts mid-career and established artists.

This years’ artists – who spent two weeks in Askeaton this June – were Laurie Robins, Chloe Brennan and Adrian Duncan.

Chloe is Dublin-based, but from Carlow. She is interested in ecology and the environment and spent time filming the local rowing club and the river. Adrian came from Berlin to the festival. He has a long-term relationship with ACA, as he is conducting an ongoing project on bungalows in the Irish landscape. A publication based on his research will be published by Lilliput Press.

Laurie Robins flew in from Philadelphia. His Welcome to the Neighbourhood project is about something many readers of this publication will be familiar with on a daily basis – some a twice-daily basis.

Artist Laurie Robins filming a robot.

“He’s looking specifically at modern farming methods within the region,” Michele explains. “During his time here he visited Cooper Hill Farm in Clarina, which belongs to the cement factory. He was shooting footage there of robotic milking machines. He also went to Midleton to a robotic farm machinery fair to look at robotic milking machines.”

Of course, the locals and local artists are not to be forgotten about either. As Michele and I chat, we are sitting in the middle of an exhibition of walking sticks, by the aforementioned Seanie Barron. Someone whose art was greatly encouraged by Michele and ACA.

This might be the appropriate time to address also that Michele and this writer have something in common, we are both from Askeaton (plot twist) and we agree that the artists always seem particularly taken with the town.

“I think we’ve developed a standard of working and it’s very particular, because it’s not in a city. The welcome is very warm here from the locals. They’re interested and willing to help the artists in making a project too.

“There are huge resources in a city for making art, but I think often times the countryside is overlooked for that. We have just as many resources. I’ve seen artists come here and make incredibly ambitious work with the help of local people who are either there to offer expertise or offer spaces – like the community centre, this space here in the Civic Trust building or empty shop units. People give their time too.

“Things happen quickly here, whereas if you’re working in a city sometimes and you’re asking for help or support, there’s more of a procedure with that or a rigmarole. Maybe you have to send a letter or talk to somebody who has to talk to somebody else. At the end of that time the answer could be no. Whereas here, the answer is rarely no and if it is it happens quickly, so then you can move to the next option or figure out another way to do it. There’s more immediacy in a rural area.”

For Michele, looking back, it’s great to see how integral ACA has become in the world of contemporary art. And also, that through ACA she is able to do what she thought was not possible – make a career out of art in her hometown.

“I’ve made a career out of art in Askeaton, which is sort of a little ironic when I think about how my parents were saying, ‘How are you going to manage it?’ The festival is well-known because I do work hard, but also very importantly, the welcome here from the people of the town with their ‘let’s get doing it attitude’ has really accelerated everything and made things work here too.”

So now, what enters your mind when you think of contemporary art?

For more information on ACA and its associated works, see www.askeatonarts.com

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