DONNACHA CAHILL: Mad as a hatter, wise as an owl

For some people, art has always existed within them. Whether it’s biological or just something they’re born with, an artistic eye is firmly embedded in their head. Donnacha Cahill is one of those people. We had the chats with the incredible sculptor about the observational nature of his art, his upcoming exhibition at Galway Theatre Festival and the future of art within the city. From the minute Donnacha stepped into his office (or, more accurately, his jeep) the conversation was a mile a minute.

For Donnacha, his art is all about stimulating himself and making his imagination become a reality. He believes that there is a personality, a bit of divilment, in all of nature’s creatures. Take the two donkeys in his front field for example; they’ve been watching him for a while now, monitoring his routine so they can break out when his back is turned! “I always look at creatures and imagine this human element to them. What they’re thinking about and what they’re talking about. I think the two donkeys look at me with contempt!”.

Inspired through observing the world around him, Donnacha’s imagination knows no bounds.

“It’s everyday things; my surroundings, objects, nature, what’s around me, stories even. One day I was in Vietnam and I saw this rat climbing a wall and I wanted to do a sculpture of this guy. He looked at me as if to say ‘why do you care that I’m climbing this wall? Go along with your business’. It’s seeing the character come to life. There’s personality in everything, whether it’s an object or a piece of nature or something man made.”

There is a definite freedom within art, a freedom that Donnacha finds immense comfort in. The ability to see shapes hidden in patterns, to find a personality in a Volkswagen Beetle, to hear a story and imagine the meaning behind it – if this was fifty years ago, to embrace these things would be an act of insanity. But, as Donnacha says, the title of ‘an artist’ allows you to escape the title of ‘clinically insane’!

Donnacha Cahill

Therein lies the appeal. The ability to fully express yourself and build a colourful, creative conversation without the fear of what others will think. “It’s better to say, ‘oh look at that face in the tea towel’ than to look outside the window and say, ‘oh look it’s raining’ and having a conversation about the weather. You can have a debate, get angry, agree, whatever. That’s the thing about art, if you like it you like it and if you don’t you don’t – everyone is entitled to their opinion. That’s the great thing about it; a lot of people say, ‘oh I don’t know much about art’ but all you have to do is express an opinion”.

From May 7-18, Donnacha’s first solo exhibition ‘The Inquisitive Hare’ will be showcased in the O’Donoghue Centre in NUIG as part of Galway Theatre Festival 2019. But why hares?

A few years back, Donnacha was commissioned by a national school to create a piece of art. So came the Inquisitive Hare, standing atop a stack of books, looking out towards the Eskers, protecting the school. “I wanted to create a guardian for the school and from this hare, I started to develop the character more by thinking about what he would do. He’d have a whole back story – he’s just going through life as an adventurer of sorts. With these guys, it’s important that they each have a story and a character, a bit of history behind them. He’s just trying out things, enjoying life and doing things”, Donnacha says, a genuine appreciation for the characters evident in his voice. “I really enjoy making this work and that’s the most important part. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of pain and suffering that goes into each piece and oftentimes you just wish it was all finished. There’s love and hate with all work. I think that anyone who says they love their job full stop is a complete liar! There’s ups and downs to everything, work is work. You’d go mad if you were on holidays forever!”

In the past, Donnacha has been commissioned by several places to create pieces of art. He has even done an instalment for Electric Picnic called ‘Goat Mountain’, a mountain built out of old washing machines and rubbish with sculptures on top, serving a simple message about being environmentally conscious. While making an impactful statement is hugely important, Donnacha also sees art as light-hearted and fun. “You can just enjoy yourself! There needs to be more fun in art. It takes itself very serious, to a certain point. The Inquisitive Hare exhibition is just a load of mad hares, it’s not necessarily saying anything, but I don’t want it to!”

Donnacha Cahill

Speaking on his hopes for the exhibition, Donnacha wants it to be a social occasion. “For me, I enjoy making the work and I hope I can sell that work. I hope that people come that I can connect with. I hope that people who don’t usually go to exhibitions come because I think they can be very enjoyable as a social thing as well. Come and connect. I want them to enjoy it and that they will see the characters and their imaginations can lead on from these lads’ stories.” Donnacha continues, “Bring your kids along because my niece and nephew get lots of conversation and imagination from them. Come and enjoy it because it’s nothing heavy.”

The exhibition will be opened by guest speaker Meave Joyce Crehan, a woman who has been providing a helping hand to Donnacha for years. Through her words of wisdom, Donnacha has been able to prosper as an artist, setting off lightbulbs in his head with her guidance. Galway’s Westend will be sponsoring the exhibition, a group whose kindness to the sculptor does not go unnoticed.

Galway has an amazingly rich artistic community spanning all the way across the spectrum, from theatre to visual. Donnacha believes that while talent flows throughout the county, there is room for more of a connectedness within the community. Down the line, Donnacha sees collaboration with businesses being a mutually beneficial avenue. “It’s all about putting a name to the face and a face to the work. Businesses commissioning art that people can interact with and photograph themselves beside will be far more effective in the long run than these cardboard Instagram cut-outs,” Donnacha says. “Artists need to be allowed to express themselves and to be trusted. They know what they’re doing, they’ve been through college, they’ve built a portfolio – so why not trust them? There needs to be more public art everywhere! There needs to be more of a platform for artists in Galway to be showcased.”

Donnacha believes that “there’s not enough madness in the world”, and is steadily injecting more colour into it through his artistic expression, one inquisitive hare at a time. One mad hatter, that Donnacha.

WORDS by Sarah Gill
PHOTOS by Boyd Challenger

Donnacha Cahill