Rachel Brown's photography exhibition at La Grua highlights Irish poetry and landscape
Ireland is known for its rich tradition of medieval folklore and Celtic mythology and, of course, for its mystical creatures and magical properties. Where exactly that magic plays out, however, may not necessarily be confined to the country itself.
Such was the case on a recent Saturday at the La Grua Center in Stonington, where Irish poet Paul Muldoon was giving a reading — and was surprised to see a photograph of his hometown in County Armaghon hanging on the wall behind him. The photo was taken by Rachel (Giese) Brown, who was in attendance that night, and is part of an exhibition of her work on view at the center celebrating Irish heritage over the month of March. Brown’s photos, all featuring Irish landscapes, were also inspired by Irish poetry and was a collaboration with renowned Irish poet Seamus Heaney (with whom Muldoon had also been close) for their book “Sweeney’s Flight,” published in 1992.
The photographs, 34 black and white images, are featured throughout the book alongside excerpts from Heaney’s famed poem “Sweeney Astray” — an English translation and interpretation of the medieval Irish poem known as “Buile Suibhne.”
After marrying young and raising five children in Mass., Brown decided, at the age of 40, to occupy her time with photography. She took two semesters of darkroom developing courses at MIT (she now resides in Well Fleet, Mass.) and then started experimenting with the art form while making solo trips to Ireland. Her first visit was in 1976, where the only photo she took was of a donkey. On subsequent trips, Brown would bring her bike and cycle straight out of Shannon airport into the countryside. The voyages, she says, were inspired by her curiosity about the country’s desolate, harsh scenery and by her lifelong adoration of Irish literature.
The rugged northern landscapes of the country, made up of frigid estuaries, stony cliffs, and boggy fields, eventually attracted Brown — an area known for its rich oral traditions that are passed from generation to generation. Northern Ireland is also the region depicted in “Buile Suibhne,” where the poem’s main character, Sweeney, roamed and ruminated.
“It scared the hell out of me the first time I saw (the landscape). It was raining all the time and there was all this sleet, and I asked myself what I was doing there. But, little by little, it grew on me,” Brown says by phone interview last week. As when Heaney interpreted the poem, Brown, too, carried the spirit of Sweeney with her as she photographed, she says — letting both Sweeney and Heaney’s poetic descriptions of the land materialize through her shots. Eventually, Heaney himself noticed her work and asked if she would be interested in collaborating together. "I could hardly catch my breath when he asked me that," she says. "I immediately said yes."
The photographs in the exhibit, all original prints, are a testament, then, to the power of how one’s art can inspire another, and how a fantastical landscape can shape generations worth of folklore. In her photos, a mountain mirrors itself in a neighboring lake. Twisting tree branches dominated by thorny vegetation filter a hazy morning sun. Sheep meander through a field so white one can hardly tell where the land ends and the sky begins. A play on life and death permeates Brown’s photography as she works throughout all seasons. Even in summer, a stream filled with watercress (Sweeney’s primary mode of sustenance) feels delightfully gloomy. The collection featured throughout "Sweeney's Flight" and on the walls of La Grua took Brown six years to complete before it was published.
In the photograph Muldoon recognized as his own hometown, a row of tall, slender trees sit in the distance of yet another field. Brown took the photo in the early '80s, inspired by Muldoon’s poetry (which she also read voraciously at the time) and was visibly flattered to be noticed at Muldoon's presentation when he took a break from his reading to point out the image.
The trees, Muldoon said, were located on John Mackle’s goose farm. Those trees are also the source of a local wives’ tale, he said. Every year, exactly 365 trees are counted in the cluster. But every leap year, there are mysteriously 366. How that happens, he couldn’t tell — though the serendipity of the photograph and the story combined suggested that such coincidences must testify to the true magic of Ireland.
If you go
What: Sweeney's Flight: The photographs by Rachel (Giese) Brown
Where: La Grua Center, 32 Water St., Stonington
When: Runs throughout the end of March; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri.
Contact: (860) 535-2300, www.lagruacenter.org