Celtic Junction Arts Review
Celtic Junction Arts Center - Irish Central’s award for “Best Irish American Center/Festival” · Minister Ciaran Cannon on Irish culture and creativity in America · A Remembrance of Nick Coleman · A celebration of the vibrant and ever-growing St. Paul Irish Arts Week · Vice Consul Justin Dolan visits the St. Paul Irish Arts Week · CJAC’s Mural on the Midway · Irish of Minnesota
Welcome to the May edition of the Celtic Junction Arts Review
In this edition, according to the ancient divisions of the Celtic year, we celebrate Beltane (May1) and the sunburst arrival of the much-delayed and much-anticipated summer with articles portraying the ever-fizzing and bristling creative dynamism of the Celtic Junction Art Center’s community and pay homage to the passing of one of that community’s true advocates and friends, Nick Coleman.
Natalie Nugent O’Shea offers an account of winging to New York to attend Irish Central’s Creativity and Arts Award. She was pleasantly shocked to discover she had won for the stellar achievements of the Celtic Junction Arts Center and the Eoin McKiernan Library because, in part, of the online votes and support of Minnesota’s Irish (and Irish-interested!) community and the continued prestige and standing of the great cultural bridge-builder, Eoin McKiernan. She supplements her eyewitness account with a recounting of the speech given by Irish minister, Ciaran Cannon. She then offers a heartfelt homage to Nick Coleman, a brilliant journalist and powerfully adroit wordsmith, who unexpectedly passed away in May.
Toasting Irish Central’s well-deserved award to Celtic Junction became one of the key highlights of the Saint Paul Irish Arts Week, attended by the Vice Consul, Justin Dolan, who also celebrated the achievements of O’Shea school of Irish Dance and the Center for Irish Music.
Carillon RoseMeadows explains the contexts of place and the interplay of Celtic art and the Art Nouveau movement involved in the new massive mural that will soon grace the Celtic Junction building.
We conclude this edition with an account by photographer, Tom Dunn, of his ever-growing portrait study “Irish in Minnesota” which is a very successful ethnic-based variation on the famous “Humans of New York” photographic project.
Editor of Celtic Junction Arts Review/Director of Education
Irish Central held their inaugural Arts & Creativity Awards at New York’s American Irish Historical Society, celebrating the excellence and innovation of the Irish creative community in America just after the last CJAC Arts Review was released February 1st.
Celtic Junction Arts Center was one of five nominees for “Best Irish American Center/Festival,” chosen from across North America. Here is Natalie’s account of the events of the day followed by the speech from Minister for the Diaspora, Ciaran Cannon on the Irish Arts in America:
Determined to attend the inaugural Irish Central awards despite a delayed flight and a rushed dinner with my cousin Jake from the Lower East side, (my cohort for the night), I was delighted to watch the blur of the familiar lights of Manhattan through the taxi window. Swinging past the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I felt my memories here fly by too. I first arrived in New York as a twenty-three year-old designer & assistant director with the Theatre Exchange and fell in love with the bustle of the city, the intensity of the air, and the endless melange of faces. My stay lasted three years before Riverdance whisked me away, but that is another story.
The evening traffic up Broadway was heavy as expected, but I didn’t mind. The February evening was unusually mild, and I had the taxi window open just a bit. As we swung left across the front of the Metropolitan Museum on Central Park, the tap-tap-tapping of the buskers improvising in front of the museum snuck in through the cracked window. The music and the feet came and went quickly in a blur of joy, not an unfamiliar snapshot in my daily life. I mused at the small parallels with the scene I’d left at home at the Celtic Junction Arts Center with sweaty dancers sitting in the hallway, instruments out for a quick jam session. One of our Irish dance world qualifiers (who I didn't even know played an instrument) sat with another few dancing away behind him. I reminded myself quietly why I didn’t stay in New York - and how life conspires for you in different ways. As one door closes, others open.
Approaching the AIHS was impressive enough that my native Manhattan cousin remarked how Museum Mile is the most expensive real estate in New York. Certainly, it was a treat to enter such a beautiful building in the heart of the Upper East side.
Behind the great brick edifice and under the Irish flag, the entrance is a grand stairway of wrought iron and stone. Encased within are four beautiful floors, marble stairs, wood paneling, walls of historical portraits, and case after case of artifacts, awards, and rare books.
Upon entering, the award nominees were presented with corsages of red roses. We were invited to try the whiskey tasting, take in the lovely tunes, and rub elbows with the impressive array of Irish talent present. It was hard to hear the musicians over the din of greetings, networking and chat. One of the most beautiful elements of Irish music is that it matters little who shows themselves to be actively listening; traditional musicians play first for each other. I edged a little closer to their lovely bubble and felt the familiar echoes of home through their notes. I thought about home again, and how lucky we are that this is not exclusive, but part of the fabric of our everyday lives.
The room was an impressive array of who’s who. Just a few of the many nominees for the awards included Media & Innovation: Nigel Eccles, Founder FanDuel and Entrepreneur; Samantha Barry, Editor-in-Chief, Glamour, Voice of Today: Maeve Higgins, Comedian & Maeve in America podcast; Maureen Dowd, New York Times, The Written Word: The Poets' Theatre & ‘9th Annual Poetry Fest’ – Irish Arts Center, NYC, The Screen: ‘No Stone Unturned’ – Alex Gibney; ‘Emerald City’ - Colin Broderick; ‘Rocky Ros Muc’ – Michael Fanning and Máire Breathnach, The Stage: Crackskull Row - Origin's 1st Irish Theatre Festival; Beckett Women: Ceremonies of Departure, Fashion & Design: Margaret Molloy - #WearingIrish, Ciaran McGuigan and Shane McGuigan – Orior New York; Visual Art: New York Artwork – Solus (Graffiti Artist); ‘Here We Are’ - Oliver Jeffers (Author and Illustrator), and Irish Centers & Festivals: Ireland's Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University; Irish American Heritage Museum, Albany. We were the only ones I’d never heard of, I swear.
Tickets to the event were sold out, and I just learned that audiences could watch the ceremony live on Irish Central's Facebook page, with thanks to TG4. I considered notifying my in-laws back in Dublin, but surely they were sound asleep at that point. They are over-used to honors and awards themselves as Scoil Rince Uí Shé, one of the most successful dance schools in Dublin, so I decided not to bother them tonight. Clearly self-identifying as interlopers of chance, Jake and I giggled and wandered the halls, catching up on family news together. We adored people-watching and taking in the snippets of conversations while sipping and nibbling delicately under the watchful eyes of past AIHS notables on the walls whose prestigious members include tenor John McCormack, president Theodore Roosevelt, and entertainer George M. Cohan. From the look of the mustached gentleman passing me on the stairs to the grand ballroom, I just may have been singing the line: “I am a Yankee Doodle Boy” to myself and tapping my way down the stairs - but no one can prove that.
The presentations were hosted on the main floor under the chandeliers along the grand old windows overlooking 5th Avenue since the Historical Society’s founding in 1897. I imagined what a view of years-past these windows must have had over the outside, and what remarkable events they have looked over inside. They witnessed speeches of Irish presidents past and present, illuminated poets, shone on writers and musicians, and rattled with the voices of politicians. Tonight they were company to a pleasant party of well-dressed swells (and us - thank heavens Jake found his suit!) As the speeches began, we settled against the north wall’s fair view of the dignitaries of the night. We were all duly welcomed but as the commentary progressed, I was struck particularly with the words of Department of Foreign Affairs’ Minister Ciaran Cannon as he spoke on the arts, the Irish diaspora, and of its global footprint across the world and -- not least -- because he mentioned us, here in Minnesota!
I decided then and there that his recognition alone made it worth the trip, but then the hosts introduced their inaugural Anam (meaning “soul” in Irish) Award recipient and grammy-award winning artist, Susan McKeown. While I do love music, I revere words; songs are especially precious to me. When one hears a singer with the power and caliber of Susan, it becomes transformative. She introduced and performed her song River. I am compelled to share them now (and a quick fan pic.)
Susan’s heart-wrenching song is inspired by Cuchulainn's lament for his foster brother Ferida who he killed as the result of a geasa, or spell. Cuchulainn was badly wounded himself and soul-sick from killing his brother, so his men came and carried him to water. Ireland's rivers, named after goddesses, were all renowned for their own healing properties bringing ease, steadfastness, or lasting health. They bathed him in each of Eire’s rivers in order to soothe his war-weary spirit and heal his heart.
Bathe me in the waters of the Lagan of the Boyne
Of the Liffey of the Slaney, of the Barrow, Sore and Suir
Of the Blackwater, the Bann, the Lee, the Shannon, Foyle and Erne
Bathe me in the waters
O bless the water that flows from the fields
Into the sea that surrounds our little island of green
Hope is a river that flows from these stone walls
Into an ocean we have never seen
Hope is a dress that my mother once wore
A fiddle tune I heard that has no words
Hope is the one thing we have never lost
Though we are tired from the old war
Same anger in our hearts, same desolation and loss
Why are we divided
Bind us in friendship so rage will never rise again
In fair Eire between friends
Bathe me in the waters of the Lagan of the Boyne
Of the Liffey of the Slaney, of the Barrow, Sore and Suir
Of the Blackwater, the Bann, the Lee, the Shannon, Foyle and Erne
Bathe me in the waters
Susan’s song was made for healing, for the end of division, for unity. A poignant message right now in the current climate of the world -- or perhaps it is an eternal message. The personal irony of her song of rivers amidst my unlikely presence at this elite event was not lost on me. I owe the fact that I am here to a series of serendipitous events, but particularly to the current of the Lee and Liffey companies of Abhann (River) productions that birthed Riverdance. That show set me on a journey far away from both my St. Paul home and my New York dreams, only to return here in a new skin. I brought back with me an Irish husband and child, their deep traditions of dance and music and my own rediscovered birthright. This time, back in New York, my heart is not caught up in the strains of prose on a stage, no Shakespeare, Chekhov, or Ibsen. It is the twisted notes of a deeper heritage and the rough sounds of an ancient language that catch my breath. The primal rhythms -- feet flying, hands clasped, and bodies spinning have captured me and taken me away. That is how Celtic Junction was birthed, out of this dance. So here I am, as the waters cycle me round again.
Champagne in hand, and perhaps a little dizzy, I hear them introduce the award for “Best Irish Center.” Here we go, I thought. The Phoenix Center & McClelland library in Arizona had an amazing year, expanding their facility, but my money was on Los Gatos and their tremendous writers’ festival. But then, I heard “Our winners, from Minnesota…” If you would like to see Jake catch my face at that moment and hear my stumbled speech, click HERE.
The first thing I did, of course, was to call my husband, Cormac O’Se, co-founder of Celtic Junction. He was the other leg of its unlikely start in 2009, the dreamer with me and literal builder of both Celtic Junction and the Eoin McKiernan Library. We should have been there side by side, but he was at JFK airport a handful of miles away, waiting for his flight home to the All Ireland Dance Championships. So close! I hung up as he boarded the plane, and we were whisked away to a private room upstairs for interviews. I waited beside the camera, lights, and backdrop watching Colin Broderick talk with TG4 about his film Emerald City and the difficult history that led to its creation. I stood with Honor Molloy, director of Crackskull Row, for the Origins Festival of Irish Theater as she spoke about her groundbreaking work (particularly as a woman) in theater. I was not so transfixed not to notice that the lovely lady next to me had a corsage gone all askant. I helped Margaret Molloy, instigator of @wearingirish to re-pin before it was my turn. The interview they did with me is HERE - I hope I passed the test!
My alarm rang next morning for an early flight. Cliché aside, I wondered whether it had all been a dream. The award stared back at me from the kitchen table before I packed it in an uninspiring suitcase to head for the airport. Cousin Jake bid me farewell and joked that he was happy to have joined me for “a typical Friday night.” Ha! I flew with a sense of relief for St. Paul, remembering how happy I used to be to be flying anywhere away from it. I delighted that my beloved Twin Cities is not New York or Boston or Chicago or any of the places I have loved working and living. In fact, I can’t imagine being anywhere else. I am fiercely proud of our modest prairie state, and its steady stronghold of Irish culture in America. This thought in mind, I landed just in time to make it to Irish Fair of Minnesota’s Halfway to Irish Fair party to celebrate the news with friends and collaborators. As midwesterners, we are not always the best at touting our talents and achievements, but we are very good at sharing them…
The Celtic Junction Board of Directors and I wish to thank everyone who voted and shouted out about our shared history as a community. We are grateful to Irish Central for this award, and humbled to be included with such esteemed company as nominees. We offer our deep appreciation to our Irish Consulate of the Midwest & to the American Embassy for their guidance, support, and especially for instigating the inaugural meeting of Irish Cultural Centers. The consulate is working to bring everyone together in strength; we believe that is what it is all about. We also remember Eoin McKiernan. We named our library after him only partly for the books, but especially because he was a gentle man among men and a pioneer for Irish America well before his time. He believed in connection. He believed in collaboration. He believed he could do anything, and then went and got the folks together to do it. We are honored to be humbly following in some very grand footsteps.
Lastly, and most importantly… we share this award with the village that is the long-standing Irish community of the Twin Cities, especially O’Shea Irish Dance, Center for Irish Music, Irish Fair of Minnesota, and the Irish Music and Dance Association. The collective support of all the the students, families, donors, leaders, partners, patrons, volunteers, and board members of each of the incredible organizations that have come to operate together under a common roof is what has made this moment possible.
Celtic Junction Arts Center and its Eoin McKiernan library exist only because of many hearts and many people, as an incredible, collaborative effort. We count our blessings daily and thank each of you for making “The Junction” not just a place but a home.
Natalie Nugent O’Shea TOP
They came with no possessions to speak of. However, what they did bring was, I believe, much greater than material possessions. They brought their music, they brought their culture, and indeed, they brought their art.
As Moya Cannon, in a beautiful poem says, “Songs were their soul’s currency, the pure metal of their hearts.” And those songs, that culture, gave our people a great sense of pride, of community, a sense of togetherness - including when they faced discrimination, and when they were struggling to establish their own place in this melting pot of this land and in a rapidly developing society.
They kept that culture alive - they kept that tradition of singing, music, theater and literature alive and it is constantly being woven into the fabric of this great country, the United States. Ireland’s tradition of music, dance, and increasingly, our language, continues to attract both people who have Irish heritage, AND those without Irish heritage. All those special things continue to attract people to Ireland.
Now, by celebrating and promoting Ireland’s contemporary culture, which is really rich, and with that creativity that is very much part of who we are, it reinforces our place in that village.
I believe the traditional and the contemporary can sit side by side, sometimes even in the same event, as we saw in Dublin recently with the New York Irish Arts Center bringing Liam O'Maonlai together with Jazz singer Cassandra Wilson. Those kind of collaborations are particularly exciting, and I think we need to encourage and support more of that in the future.
But of course, creativity is about much more than the arts, and rightly, tonight’s awards ceremony recognizes that. The arts may be what fosters creativity and allows it to grow, but it touches on every other aspect of our lives as well. It is manifest in engineering, business, fashion, design, and in science as much as it is in the arts themselves. I think it is Steve Jobs that once remarked that the Macintosh came about because “The people working on it were musicians, and poets, and artists and zoologists and historians who also happened to be the best computer scientists in the world.”
We saw some of that creativity being showcased in 2015, as we celebrated the “Year of Irish Design”, but it is something we need to pursue more consistently as a people across the world because creativity sets us apart and yet keeps bringing us to a greater good in everything we do.
In my home county of Galway, in the west of Ireland, companies are applying that creative talent of our people to addressing serious challenges in the medical world, and developing very complex methods for creating devices and addressing challenges in the broader life sciences. The creativity of the Irish is at work in these and many other areas. I think it is very important and special that Irish Central has chosen to celebrate a very broad based view of Irish creativity.
Those of you here this evening that are New York based - you are very fortunate, I have to say, because you have a wealth of Irish culture to draw upon on an ongoing basis. You can see it side by side with the best that the world has to offer, and see it holding its own in that context. It reaches other places also, beyond the east coast thanks to the likes of Catherine Barry, of the Los Gatos Irish Festival and to the O’Sheas of the Celtic Junction Arts Center and to those wonderful people who organize the Milwaukee Irish Festival.
That reach, I believe, is not what it could be - there are other parts of this country which are not adequately served by Irish culture, in particular by contemporary Irish culture. There is a real demand for that - for presenters and from consumers. It is not always easy to meet that demand. So with this in mind, at the beginning of the year, Ciaran, our NY Consul General, and the team in the Consulate, in partnership with Culture Ireland, convened a meeting of Irish Cultural Centers from across the whole of the US. Representatives from sixteen states and Canada turned up to that meeting. It marks the beginning - we knew it would be a process to build a stronger network of Cultural centers and groups capable of sharing information and performances, and ultimately deepening Ireland’s cultural reach across the whole of North America. It is a collective endeavor, and we are open to participants and to ideas. We want to work with you to make that happen, so please feel that you are very much a part of that endeavor.
Irish Central’s founder, Niall O’Dowd, recently wrote in The Irish Times of the challenges faced in maintaining Ireland’s broad diaspora across the world. While I might not agree with everything Niall wrote in that piece, he is right on the scale of the challenge, and he is right that we need to be innovative in trying to meet that challenge. In successive US censuses, the number of people self-identifying with Irish America has declined. We have lost a connection with millions of our people. I believe strongly that culture is the key, is essential to maintaining, growing, and reestablishing those connections.
You people in this room, you represent some of the best of what Irish culture and creativity has to offer here in the United States. You can make those connections, remake those connections with young and old alike, and support Irish and indeed, Irish Americans. I hope that we can lean on your talent and your achievements, as we work to prepare those lost links, and to build new ones across this country.
Ladies and gentlemen, in a podcast last year, one of tonight’s nominees, Maeve Higgins, said that creativity is a form of “Speaking Truth to Power.” It is - it always has been. It can make it possible to say things that might not otherwise be said. Please keep that spirit and that possibility alive in yourselves and in the work that you do.
“Speaking Truth to Power”... A perfect segue to remember Nick Coleman
As many of you will have heard, Nick Coleman passed away on May 15th at the age of 67, shortly after suffering a massive stroke. Nick was a journalist, of course, but also a dear friend and supporter of local Irish organizations the Celtic Junction Arts Center, the Eoin McKiernan Library, and especially the Center for Irish Music. “Rough", "cantankerous", and "controversial” are some of the colorful words that politicians and adversaries have used to describe Nick when armed with words, which he wielded so very well, but at the Junction (home to these arts organizations he championed) we were blessed with a very different facet of his edgy passion.
He would roll in a couple times a week through the front doors of Celtic Junction donning his t-shirt and baseball hat du jour. Often heard before he was seen, Nick would pile in with his youngest children and all of their instruments in tow. He would often hold court in the vestibule on the topic of the day, but sometimes it was just the perfect time for a long, quiet chat. He was generous with his opinions, yes, but also with ideas and advice. Nick’s voice was softer in these things, but he was right there guiding us, a coach to the end.
Nick held a special place in the heart of the Junction and in the hearts of many others both young and old, who make magic happen there every day. While he was with us, whether it was because he was mellowed with age or touched by the muse, he lent his sharp ear and keen eye not to goad or query, but to coach and champion the beauty of a tradition passing on through the generations - his heritage.
Slán, Nick. Thank you for your advice, for your wit, and for your fervor for the arts. Suddenly Celtic Junction Arts Center has gotten a lot quieter without you in it. We will always remember you, and we will be raising a fist, a glass, and our voices in your name when we do.
A GoFundMe campaign has been started in Nick Coleman’s name. For details, click here.
By Patrick O'Donnell
“Passion,” wrote the Irish poet, W. B. Yeats, “sets one’s feet on a rock deeper than life.” With eyes glinting with icy passion, the dread Morrigan, the shape-shifting Irish battle goddess from the Ulster cycle’s Táin Bó Cuailgne, stares out from the 2018 Arts Week’s brochures and posters.
Resting an ominous crow in the palms of her outstretched hands, it is as if her stare is halting time in place and yet inviting it to expand beyond its usual mundane parameters.
This Art Nouveau-inspired image created by local St. Paul artist, Carrie Finnigan, is an appropriate mythic symbol for the Arts Week which, like the Morrigan, was the product of energetic shape-shifting conversations and brainstorming over many months with a vast array of people passionate about the deep Irish roots of Saint Paul and their contemporary expression and reinvention. Erin Cooper, Michelle O’Connor, Natalie and Cormac O’Shea, Eddie Owens, Kathy Luby, Dan Gleeson, John Concannon, Susan Kelnberger, Tom Jeffers, Karen Rene- Peterson, Norah Rendell, Geri Connelly, Katherine Curran, Audrey Leonard, Laura Valentine, Paul McCluskey, Teresa McCormick, Michael Sturm, Gary Murphy, Tom Crann, Christopher Fitz-Simon, Jim Rogers, Tony Curtis, Tom Dunn, and Mike Wiley (to name only the most visible participants) helped make the week possible.
The third annual Saint Paul Irish Arts Week, determinedly expanding the presence of the Irish Fair of Minnesota beyond its usual calendar weekend of August into April, had its most successful year so far over its ten days of bustling activities from April 20-29, 2018. It did so by bringing in more international talent than ever before while highlighting intriguing locally based content and by celebrating the awards gleaned by the Celtic Junction Arts Center which have placed it on a national platform of importance for Irish and Celtic culture and heritage.
The purpose of the Arts Week continues to be interlinking the international, national, and local energies of Irish culture. This year, it highlighted three talents directly from Ireland. For the first time, it presented superb professional theatre with Gary Murphy’s performance of Frank O’Connor’s “The Genius,” which was presented before a large and appreciative audience on Park Square’s Proscenium Stage and was followed with an on-stage interview with Minnesota Public Radio’s, Tom Crann. Also, author and literary historian, Christopher Fitz-Simon read from his witty and irreverent collection, Rise Above! The Letters of Tyrone Guthrie (Lilliput Press 2017) in the McKiernan Library. He also presented Natalie O’Shea with a black and white photograph commemorating the meeting of Irish playwright, Brian Friel with the founder of the Irish American Cultural Institute, Eoin McKiernan, in 1963 when Friel was visiting Minnesota to observe the inaugural rehearsals at the newly created Guthrie Theatre. Finally, the Center for Irish Studies at the University of St. Thomas brought in Tony Curtis, a Dublin poet with an effortless showman style who dazzled audiences with an endless fund of humor and anecdotes, as the 22nd winner of the O’Shaughnessy Poetry Award. Supplementing these offerings, from Toronto, Professor Mairtin Coilfeir offered an innovative accelerated Irish language learning seminar based on the teachings of Michel Thomas.
The main highlight of the entire week was the ‘Welcome Reception’ which celebrated the multiple awards garnered by the O’Shea Irish dancers at the World Dance competition and awards collected by the Center for Irish Music. Most importantly, the large audience came to toast and celebrate the Creativity and Arts award given by Irish Central recognizing the Celtic Junction Arts Center and the Eoin McKiernan Library. Justin Dolan, Vice Consul from the Consulate General of Ireland-Chicago was the keynote speaker acknowledging these achievements and also commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement undergirding peace in Northern Ireland.
With the third annual Saint Paul Irish Arts Week, founded by Irish Fair of Minnesota and run by director Patrick O’Donnell, came the culmination of many moments that are worthy of note.
We were delighted to host Justin Dolan, Vice Consul General from the Irish consulate of the Midwest. Justin came up to us from the Chicago office to visit Minnesota for the first time. He joined us for the weekend, beginning with the SPIA Opening Welcome Reception. The reception was sponsored by Celtic Junction Arts Center in a collaborative celebration of kudos and awards. The evening began with a reception with music by the Center for Irish Music’s Young Adult Ensemble, followed by a speech by Mr. Dolan on the strength of Irish Culture in the Midwest and an impressive array of awards won by members of the various partner organizations including the Center for Irish Music, O’Shea Irish Dance and the Celtic Junction Arts Center.
Here is a little photo-album of the events, marking some of the history-making moments that defined this year for Irish Arts in St. Paul and, indeed, in Minnesota.
Justin Dolan was hosted Sunday evening by Mr. Jim Rogers, of the University of St. Thomas. Returning to the Junction on a sunny and beautiful Monday, he was whisked away by Natalie O’Shea on a short whistle-stop tour of Highland Village (Quixotic Coffee), the Mississippi River’s Lock and Dam #1, Hiawatha Falls, and to have ice cream at Sea Salt Eatery at Minnehaha Regional Park before heading to the MSP international airport.
Thank you for your time and recognition, Justin! We look forward to having you back soon!
By Carillon RoseMeadows
“Public art is a part of our public history, part of our evolving culture and our collective memory.” - Penny Balkin Bach
Ideally, murals are a form of collective expression, making visible a community’s experiences, history, identity, and vision. Located on streets that people traverse daily, public art can have a powerful appeal, drawing people in, igniting change, and alerting passersby to the richness around them.
It’s not difficult to see that art contributes to community attachment (“an emotional connection to a place that transcends satisfaction, loyalty, and even passion”, as The Knight Foundation’s Soul of the Community initiative puts it). It may be surprising, though, how powerful the effect can be.
The initiative, which ran from 2008 to 2010, surveyed thousands of people across 26 cities, Saint Paul among them, in an effort to find out what deepens emotional connections to a place, causing people to feel a sense of belonging and attachment - or in other words, a sense of “home”. Out of a comprehensive list of factors that included safety, economy, jobs, and education, they found it was social opportunities (including arts and cultural events) that ranked first and the aesthetics or beauty of a place that ranked second.
A Blank Canvas
When The Celtic Junction opened its doors in 2009, it was clear that our stretch of Prior Avenue was in need of rejuvenation and renewal, having marginal aesthetic appeal at best. Our work had to begin on the inside of our own industrial-use building. We were bringing people together for a purpose - to celebrate and nurture the Celtic arts - but first, we asked them to pick up a paint roller. Our community volunteers covered the walls of the Celtic Junction in blue, green, ochre, and red - luminous colors pulled from The Book of Kells.
It’s been nine years inside these colorful walls that echo with strains of music, poetry, and dancing feet. In that time, Can Can Wonderland and BlackStack Brewing have moved in across the street, opening their doors in January of 2017— and they are two of the beneficiaries of a mural project currently covering six of the building’s nine garage doors, adding color and life to our shared neighborhood.
It’s time to show our true colors on the outside of our building - a mural that will be a Ten Year Anniversary gift to ourselves, our community, and the Midway neighborhood.
A mural on our south wall, to be visible as one approaches from University Avenue, will reflect the four pillars of The Celtic Junction Arts Center: music, dance, education, and community. Celebrating the activities inside the building in four specific panels outside will interest passersby, invite the intrigued, and visually enrich the area.
Artists Marty Ochs and Carrie Finnegan are co-designing and will be producing the large 70'x20' mural of our thriving Celtic arts scene. Both artists come with the resumes to successfully take on this ambitious project; and both have a strong connection to the arts center.
Marty Ochs has been a fixture at The Junction since it opened its doors. Her son began dancing at O’Shea Irish Dance in 2007, so she made the move to the new digs in 2009; taking part, like so many others, in the renovation and redecorating of the space. That’s when she learned about Celtic knotwork, “I didn’t know anything about it before then, but I had the skills to add some hand painted signs around the building, so I learned a lot about knot design.” After the building opened, Marty’s family discovered the Center for Irish Music. “My whole family started taking music lessons! Then my husband discovered his Irish roots—which made his Irish mother very happy.” Marty’s boys grew up at the Celtic Junction, the younger is still a dancer, and they are both outstanding musicians. If you keep an eye out, you can catch the boys playing as a duo around town, or if you are lucky, the whole Ochs family might perform. Marty is now co-proprietor of Casey’s Cache, where she, along with her husband, create and sell unique Celtic inspired leather art and items at Celtic fairs and festivals in the Upper Midwest.
In contrast, Carrie Finnigan became deeply involved in The Junction just two years ago. “I came to concerts over the years, and went ceili dancing a few times,” but it was her friend Patrick O’Donnell, Director of Education at the Eoin McKiernan Library, who really pulled her in. “I got involved in the Celtic Collaborative, so I acted here in a couple of productions.” Then Patrick, along with others at Irish Fair MN, created the St. Paul Irish Arts Week in 2016. Patrick approached Carrie about creating artwork for the SPIA promotional materials, which she has now designed for two years. At present she finds herself teaching Celtic art classes in the Eoin McKiernan Library - still open for enrollment as of this writing - and co-designing this huge mural for the Irish community hub.
The design is divided into four panels, the center of each representing a major element of the organisation. Each panel has its own intricate border that includes references to a phase of the moon and one of the four main divisions of the Celtic year. As inside the building, the vibrant colors in the design are taken from The Book of Kells; vivid contrasting colors will draw the eye from panel to panel.
The Music panel features a fiddler on a field of green with a waning moon and the harvest festival, Lughnasadh, referenced in the border. The Dance panel shows a pair of dancers on a blue background, with a new moon and Samhain, the start of winter, gracing two corners. Next comes an ochre panel for Education, displaying a lovely tree whose branches resolve into books; the waxing moon and Imbolc, the beginning of spring, are included in the border. Finally, on the Community panel is a group of people gathered around a red fire, a reference to the bonfire in Newell park that wraps up the Saint Paul Irish Arts Week around May 1st, or Beltane. In harmony with this, the border’s corners feature Beltane, when life is bursting forth and summer is just beginning, along with a full moon.
Marty and Carrie are fusing traditional Celtic artwork with a fresh contemporary interpretation of the Art Nouveau style which incorporates the curves and strong lines distinctive in Celtic knots without the strict and time-consuming rule-based approach of knotwork. Art Nouveau combines the sense of impressive complexity in Celtic art design with a fluid, organic, and natural feel. The arts practiced inside the Celtic Junction are part of a living tradition and not rigidly bound to historical precedent; reflecting this, the artists have playfully explored their take on Irish art during the design process.
Carrie and Marty are in good company, joining a small number of artists who have recognized the beautiful potential of fusing Celtic art and Art Nouveau. Popular in Europe and the US, Art Nouveau was a movement in fine arts, crafts, design, and architecture which had its heyday from 1890 to 1910. Inspired largely by organic forms seen in nature, and influenced by Japanese woodblock prints, the curves of the Rococo style, and even the vegetal styling of some La Tène items, Nouveau’s long, sinuous, asymmetrical lines and patterns became popular with artists such as Aubrey Beardsley, Louis Comfort Tiffany, and Gustav Klimt. No object was too mundane, no purpose too common, to escape the curvaceous and extremely decorative motifs of the various international and local iterations of Art Nouveau.
Simultaneously in Ireland, spawned by a growing sense of Nationalism, a renewed interest in ancient Celtic culture and arts had sparked the Celtic Revival. The Celtic Revival is most famous for its Irish literary component spearheaded by W.B. Yeats with the likes of Lady Gregory and Edward Plunkett. However, the movement also encompassed the visual arts which had plenty of ancient and medieval material culture to fuel it, including: the Tara Brooch found in 1850, the La Tène hoard discovered in 1857, and the “Insular Art” that decorates stone crosses and illuminated manuscripts like The Book of Kells. The designs are complex, geometric, zoomorphic, and feature dense intricate interlace.
One Irish American artist combined the two styles in a stunning and enduring way. Born in 1870, Thomas "Gus" O'Shaughnessy was an Irish American artist whose coming of age occurred during the height of the Art Nouveau movement. Additionally, he was fortunate to see the Celtic art exhibit which visited Chicago in 1893 which had a lasting influence on him.
Between 1912 and 1922, O'Shaughnessy personally designed, built, and installed 15 stained glass windows in Chicago’s Old St. Patrick’s church. The church, founded in 1846 by Irish immigrants, came to be known as the "cornerstone of Irish culture" in Chicago. It has the added notoriety of being the oldest public building in Chicago by virtue of surviving the Chicago fires of 1871.
The first twelve windows O'Shaughnessy placed on the sides of the church are in the Celtic Revival style, drawing on inspiration from examples of insular art. His final three windows deviate from that pattern. Placed on the eastern facade, they are a balcony triptych espousing the virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity which stylistically evoke both Art Nouveau and Celtic Revival. The central piece memorializes Terence MacSwiney, an Irish playwright and patriot who died during a hunger strike in 1920 while in British custody. Regarded as the best of O'Shaughnessy's work, the MacSwiney window contains more than 250,000 pieces of glass in 2,000 colors, and displays elements of the two art styles at their finest.
It’s interesting to note that the installation of these windows is credited with restoring a shrinking Old St. Pat’s community and kickstarting the revitalization of the surrounding neighborhood which had fallen into disrepair and neglect.
Part of a Bigger Picture
The Midway Murals project is the brainchild of Jonathan Oppenheimer who set out to transform a half mile stretch of Snelling Avenue from a neglected thoroughfare to a thriving arts corridor. In 2015, Jonathan earned a grant to commission four murals whose design would be the result of collaboration between immigrant business owners, the artists, and the Hamline Midway neighborhood.
The resulting murals delivered a dose of excitement and larger than life color to the community. You’ve likely seen the murals yourself, and if you’ve not yet stopped and gotten out of your car to take a close look, it’s well worth it.
In 2017, Midway Murals was back, joined by The Midway Public Art Working Group and Hamline University to restore a thirty year old mural, Picnic at Newell Park, originally painted by artist Chris Baird in 1987. If you'd like to see a video of Chris discussing and restoring the mural, click HERE.
An outdoor museum, with a permanent and evolving exhibit, will be born.
Those were Jon’s ambitious hopes when he first founded Midway Murals. Today, as he had hoped, others have built - and continue to build - on the foundation he laid. The arts "corridor" is expanding in all directions, including westward to Prior Avenue.
The Burlesque Public Works Division will be finishing painting a series of murals on the final three of nine garage doors on the former American Can Company building across the street from CJAC. This massive display presents the history of the Hamline Midway neighborhood in bold images from Minnesota history: the railroad, JJ Hill, Porky’s, and even Babe the Blue Ox make an appearance. Part of the creators’ goal was, like our own, to contribute to the renewal of the Prior Avenue area.
Jon Oppenheimer has been a supportive resource for a number of murals, including ours. When asked if there was anything that sets CJAC’s project apart, he said, “That it’s Irish is very unusual, as is the fact CJAC is non-profit with their own building and is leading the project themselves - even providing their own artists.”
Of course, we realize that it only looks as though we are doing it ourselves; actually, we are doing it with you. Please support our Murals on the Midway campaign!
Additionally, watch for a call for volunteers when it comes time to paint inside the lines on the wall!
Carrie and Marty hope to begin the mural process in mid June and finish in August. First steps are cleaning the wall and priming it. Next they’ll get the design transferred to the wall via a projector, set up their scaffolding, then paint their design with highly pigmented outdoor latex paint. Finally, they will seal the whole thing with a UV protectant. At that point the CJAC mural will be the latest addition to a line of outstanding public art enhancements to the Hamline Midway neighborhood!
In the Soul of the Community initiative, arts and cultural social opportunities ranked first in people’s attachment to place, followed by the beauty of the setting… At the Celtic Junction Arts Center, we are striving to spread our feeling that CJAC is our “home away from home” into the neighborhood. After all, as the initiative states, “A community’s most attached residents have strong pride in it, a positive outlook on the community’s future, and a sense that it is the perfect place for them.”
By Tom Dunn
When I started the Irish of Minnesota photography project in early 2016, I never thought about it being an immigrant story. Then immigration became a hot topic at the dinner table.
As time went on and my photo sessions continued to grow, I realized the project was a deeply personal immigrant story. It is a tale that has been re-experienced in the United States’ young existence and throughout the world since human beings started roaming and exploring. The Irish were not welcomed in America when they first stepped off the boats in mass numbers, especially in the 1840s and for decades beyond. They were called names and spat at and told to “go back to Ireland,” as they were not welcome here. But, they held fast and true to their beliefs and values and overcame the stereotypes that were creating understandable fear in their new nation’s neighbors. Today, the Irish are an integral part of our community’s fabric.
This Irish of Minnesota project has been an incredible journey. The stories and intimacy of the photo sessions have changed me as a person and how I think about all people. We here in America are labeled “the great melting pot,” but, when I travel to Canada and Europe, I see as many, if not more, diverse cultures. During my photo shoots, I have listened to stories that entice tears and sadness. But, most of all, I have heard stories of love and memories of immigrant Irish compassion, love, loss and adventure. This is one of the many reasons the project is so important to me. I know it has meaning. It has heart. It has tears. It has laughs and memories. It expands beyond borders and the Irish. This is a story about all immigrants. This is a story about overcoming our cultural differences that in the end, unite not divide us.
I did not grow up with my “Irishness” on my sleeve. It was only when my Grandpa Joe passed away in 2001 and received a full fireman’s funeral for his 50 plus years of active volunteer service that I started thinking about being of Irish descent. For years after his passing, I wore his Irish cap but never really knew what it meant. This project has helped bring me closer to my grandfather and what he meant to me as well as my Irish roots, and I’m grateful for the opportunity.