Tuesday 16 January 2018

Cowhouse creativity!

Colm Lambert

The Cowhouse Studios. Inset: Rosie O'Gorman.
The Cowhouse Studios. Inset: Rosie O'Gorman.

Rosie O'Gorman - artist and teacher.

Co-founder and operator of Cowhouse Studios, Rathnure.

Married to Frank. Mother of Michael (3).

Educated at NCAD and San Francisco Art Institute.

Host to artists on residencies each Spring and Autumn, and to three groups of twenty international students each year on three-week 'Art on the Farm' residential programme during the Summer.


Rosie and Frank set out with a vision for Cowhouse Studios which has truly come to pass, and it's one she takes both pride and pleasure in explaining.

'We had two initial aims - one was to be self-sustaining rather than overly dependent on grants, and the second was to co-exist alongside the family farm,' she says.

'Arts funding was being slashed each year round time we began in 2007 and 2008, so really we couldn't rely on that, so thankfully and through hard work we've been able to maintain and grow things our own way. As regards the farm, it's a major part of what we're all about. My father and mother are great - dad helps to look after the place, and mam does lots of baking that the people here really enjoy! - and the young people we have in the Summer, in particular, really enjoy exploring the land and the forest and pond we have. It's a huge part of the whole experience.'

They also set out to run two types of programme - residency facility for professional and established artists, and education courses for young people.

So popular are the Cowhouse Studio residencies that it's not unusual to have up to 100 applications for just four places. A team from Wexford Arts Centre is involved in selecting the lucky ones, and the connection between the operations can also Cowhouse Studios artists stage exhibitions in the Arts Centre at the end of their residencies.

Meanwhile, the Summer Programmes continue to attract teens galore, and the emphasis is often on fun as much as art, as they enjoy outings to Dublin and the West of Ireland as well as classes in Rathnure.

'It can be pretty exhausting when you're doing 14 hours a day or more with a group of teenagers, maybe kayaking off the Aran Islands or something - but you've got to have a bit of fun too,' Rosie smiles.

Rosie and Frank are involved in all aspects of the operation together - but there's one difference between them.

'We've had hundreds of people though here by now, and I remember most of the names and faces - but he doesn't. That's the biggest difference between us!'

Rosie O'Gorman looked at an old cowhouse on the farm that's been in her family for some 250 years, and saw potential.

It was an unlikely dream - to create a haven for artists and students from all over the world in Rathnure's rural hinterland - but it's one that has come to fruition in glorious style, as the aptly-named Cowhouse Studios now regularly hosts guests from literally all ends of the earth.

American accents are most common - during the summer 'Art on the Farm' residential programmes for teenagers, in particular - but other countries that are frequently represented include the UK, Spain, France, Italy and Greece. Further afield, there are a couple of Brazilian visitors due this year, while Chinese, Japanese, and Korean people have also come to Cowhouse Studios.

The townsland of Ballybawn - where the studios stand, just underneath the famed White Mountain - may not quite be the middle of nowhere, but it's not exactly at the heart of hustle and bustle either. Even getting there just from Rathnure requires no fewer than seven different instructions on the 'Directions' page of the website, with crossroads, T-junctions, a humpback bridge and a concrete lane all to be negotiated. It's a far cry from what many of the visitors may be used to, but Rosie says the remoteness is all part of the appeal.

'We get students here from Manhattan, for example, who have never been out of the city before, never mind seeing a live cow or anything else on a farm,' she says. 'It's great, because we believe art is all about developing an interest in the world around you and expressing it in a visual way. Art encourages you to be curious about your surroundings, and look at something that might seem simple to others and interpret it in a new way. When we get people here who have never before seen things we take for granted, it helps us see them in a new way too.'

The success story of Cowhouse Studios begins with Rosie returning home to Rathnure from San Francisco in 2002 with her then partner and now husband, Frank Abruzzese, a native of Philadelphia.

She'd gone to California after taking a degree in Art Education at the National College of Art and Design, and spent three and a half years there altogether, working in a gallery for a spell and then enrolling in the San Francisco Art Institute for a year. It was there that she met Frank, and they were soon talking about running their own art studio.

'Frank had dabbled in starting up an artist-run space in San Francisco, so it was something he really wanted to do,' Rosie says. 'Then, on his first visit here with me, we started looking at some of the old buildings and wondering if we could do it here. Dad had already converted part of the old barn into a studio space for me and my sisters (two of whom, Sinéad and Edel, had followed Rosie to NCAD), and so we had an idea of what was possible - we were just going to be doing it on a much larger scale.'

They discussed the idea with dad Michael and mum Mary, and were pleased with the reaction. 'Dad and mam were very supportive - but they probably thought we were mad too!' Rosie smiles.

So began the process of looking at the century-old stone cowhouse that stands beside the family home, and creating a new vision for it.

'We spent a year planning it at first - we had lots of motivation, but no business knowledge, so it took us some time to put a business plan together,' Rosie says. 'Then we had the whole planning permission process, for change of use from agricultural to commercial, and all that goes with it. It all took time, but eventually we were in a position to go ahead and start work.'

Most of that work was done by Rosie, Frank, and other family members and friends, with much of it being a new experience to many of them. 'I learned how to lay sewage pipes, and that wasn't something I ever thought I'd be doing!' Rosie says. 'I also spent a month on scaffolding putting up beams, and I learned how to re-build stone walls, and lots of other things. We had to get people in for work like plumbing and wiring all right, but most of the rest of it, we did ourselves.'

The end result was fine studio space that's far larger than you might imagine from the term 'cowhouse', as the building stands some 70 feet by 30 in size. 'They say it's the same footprint as the church in Rathnure, but I don't know how true that actually is,' Rosie remarks - but give or take a couple of pews, it shows it's pretty extensive.

Included are a large open-plan working area; several smaller studios; a fully-equipped darkroom for photographic work; and a large living/relaxation area on the loft, complete with pool and table tennis tables ('It's important to just chill out and relax sometimes too, particularly for the young people we get here,' Rosie says).

The studio was complete in time for Rosie and Frank to celebrate their wedding there in 2007, but they weren't done yet, as a year later they also began work on a neighbouring large barn, to convert it into accommodation space. It can now house up to thirty people at a time, and indeed Rosie and Frank lived there themselves for some time up to the arrival of their little boy Michael, now three years old.

They still faced the challenge of getting people to come, and initially that did prove to be hard work, but it's one they have overcome in style.

'It certainly wasn't a case of 'build it and they will come', and I'm not a natural salesperson myself, so marketing was a big thing at first,' Rosie says. 'We got help however from one of Frank's friends in the USA, where there's a real culture of teens going off to 'Summer Camp', and we got started from there. Frank and I now spend about two months in the States at the start of each year, basically marketing by visiting schools, etc. - but it's great because it means we get to visit his family too.'

Overall, it's way of life that Rosie really enjoys, particularly as sisters Edel and Sinead and mum and dad are all centrally involved too. 'It's very rewarding being our own bosses, and we can weave our lifestyle and business together - it's a really exciting thing to do.'

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