The Visual Poet on Achill Island
Francis Van Maele is an artist on Achill Island who makes visual poetry books with his partner, Antic Ham. Their gallery is at the edge of the island overlooking sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean. His art is unusual and unexpected. He uses a combination of collected printed images – photographs, caricatures, drawings and printed materials – that are then compiled together in the form of a small book, and each collection makes some sort of themed statement. He calls them visual poetry books.
When I visited Mr Van Mael’s studio last year, I had some time to chat with him. He was born in Belgium and lived in Germany for awhile. He came to Ireland in 2002 shortly after he founded Redfoxpress – the company that produces these amazing little books. I asked him if living on Achill Island mattered as far as producing art was concerned, i.e. could he produce that art just as easily anywhere else, or was there something about Achill Island that encouraged his creativity? I expected the response that I usually get from artists when I ask that question. Something like …. “Yes – Achill is a magical place that stimulates my creativity.” But instead, he said that doing one’s best work in a particular place was more about belonging than about being inspired or encouraged. Being true to your art happens best in a place where you feel that sense of belonging.
Belonging in a Place of Contrasts
The Achill Island landscape is full of drama with castles, cliffs, long abandoned stone cottages, cutting wind, misty mountains, wild sheep, pristine shorelines and small white cottages that dot the hills. In one minute the sun is blazing with wide blue skies illuminating the quartz stones that are everywhere, and the next minute the same stones turn a dull gray as the sky darkens and fog sticks to the mountains. The wind is not to be believed. All the women have handy scarves to put over their heads when going outdoors to keep their hair from blinding them. Even the Achill sheep look like they could use a blow dryer and flat iron.
The wildness and the stillness of Achill Island mirrors the contrasts in the visitor experience. The stunning landscape is so surprising – so exhilarating. But as one gets acclimated to the stark and wild surroundings, a sense of peace and calm washes over the spirit. Contemplation becomes effortless. The eternal realm becomes fused to the physical realm.
It’s no wonder that people feel artistic in a place like this.
Though Francis Van Maele’s studio is full of art, photographs and memorabilia, I was most fascinated with the visual poetry books (of which there are hundreds). These small books are hand crafted right in the studio. The one I purchased has two board covers with a strong tape binding and about 40 pages (20 sheets) of printed material bound by 2 stitches. It’s about 4 1/2 by 8 inches, and is exquisitely made. My visual poetry book featured images of the old Amethyst Inn in Keel on Achill Island. In its day, it was a thriving summer resort just off the shoreline of one of the best surfing beaches in Ireland. Now it has fallen into disrepair and will soon be demolished (if it hasn’t already been).
Van Mael took 51 copied images of photographs he’d shot of the derelict hotel, and then combined them with old printed material associated with the Amethyst – sales brochures, an old receipt, a rate card. Everything was carefully arranged to tell a unique story of the hotel – visual poetry. It’s a sad little book really, because it tells about the death of something that was once very grand – and loved, and now is no longer desired so it’s fallen into ruin. Art is not always about happy things.
But I always smile when I pick up my Amethyst Hotel visual poetry book. In fact, I keep it on a little shelf above my desk. As I flip through it, I remember Achill Island and seeing the old Amethyst Hotel on my left as I drove to the cottage that Dan and I rented – high on the top of a mountain at the end of the island. The book takes me back there.
Achill Island sits on an Amethyst Bed
My friend Ruth, from County Clare told me that Achill Island was perched on one giant amethyst. I think the amethyst is my favorite of all the crystals – not so much for its elemental nature, but because I just love purple. Amethysts are believed to have energy properties that promote a calmness, a stillness, a balance between our emotional, spiritual and physical selves. The ancients used amethysts in healing practices and rituals to help people who struggle with addiction and depression. Not surprisingly, over the years Achill has become a destination for people needing a respite – for rest – for a rebalancing, and it’s no wonder that art and creativity flourish here.
The geologist, Robert Lloyd Praeger wrote this about Achill Island:
“Achill, wind-swept and bare, heavily peat-covered, with great gaunt brown mountains rising here and there, and a wild coast hammered by the Atlantic on all sides but the east, has a strange charm which everyone feels, but no one can fully explain.”
If you’re on Achill Island, be sure to stop in and meet Mr. Van Maele in Dugort. He’s a delight to talk to, and his studio – Redfoxpress – is worth the stop. His living poetry books make a great memento and are easy to tuck into a suitcase.
Discover more about Francis Van Maele at the Redfoxpress website.