Alumni Stories - Mary Burke

'Keep in touch with your classmates. You and your peers are the artists, curators, gallery directors, designers, critics and educators of tomorrow. You can be a great support for each other.'

Name:                   Mary Burke

Current Career:   Visual Artist

Graduation Year: 1982

Discipline:            Painting 

Location:              Dublin 

What career path did you want to follow as a child?

For as long as I can remember I wanted to be an artist, certainly since before I started school at the age of four.  Although I don’t remember the exact moment, my mother has told me that the first time I stated my interest was when I saw a large, hand-painted billboard that my uncle - a signwriter - had just completed, depicting a man in a red riding jacket for an ad. for Hennessy Brandy. I was always happiest when drawing, making things out of plasticine and, later, clay. Art was a form of play to me.


Why did you decide to study at National College of Art & Design?

From an early age I was aware of the existence of NCAD. My mother and her older brother and sister all attended evening classes at the National College of Art in the 1940s, as did my mother’s aunt, a couple of decades earlier. It seemed the obvious place for me to apply. I applied and was accepted on to the Pre-Diploma Course (a general foundation course) and started straight after I left school, having completed my Leaving Cert at 17 in 1977. When I started, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to specialise in, so that first year was very helpful. Once there, I soon realised that I wanted to study painting.  I was offered a place in Fine Art and spent the next four years in the painting department. I really enjoyed my time in NCAD and had five very productive years there.


How did you develop your career towards your current practice?

On leaving college in 1982, I, together with some other students in my year, formed a limited company and went in search of a building to rent in Dublin. It took a year to find a building, negotiate a lease and move in. NAS studio in Mary’s Abbey, off Capel Street, lasted for more than 35 years. We applied for and received funding from the Arts Council annually, which enabled us to keep the rents affordable. We had 13 individual artists’ studios, a shared computer lab, photography room and woodwork area. It was very stimulating, working with like-minded individuals in the centre of the city. I now work from a home studio.

I started submitting work for open group shows while I was still in college and had work accepted for the Oireachtas and Independent Artists annual exhibitions while I was still a student. The year I graduated, they both accepted work from me again, as did the RHA and the Claremorris Open. I also received the Taylor Art Award from the RDS, followed by a bursary from the Elizabeth Greenshields foundation in Montreal. This was a great confidence boost as well as helping me financially. A year after I graduated, I was offered teaching hours in the CEAD Department of NCAD and I’m still here! All of this time I was focusing on making work and exhibiting. I was also awarded residencies that funded work periods in Vermont and Banff in the 1990s. My current exhibition, At Home on the Farm is currently on show at the Limerick City Gallery of Art. When I was asked to submit an exhibition proposal to the gallery three years ago, I expressed my interest in visiting farms and talking to farmers in Limerick. I think that most Irish people have some connection to the land, even if it is several generations removed. I spent much of 2019 travelling around rural Limerick meeting farmers and I then spent all of lockdown in 2020 making paintings based on those encounters.


What is the one experience during your time at NCAD that has informed you most in your work to date?

I think that I was quite complacent at secondary school. It was easy to excel at art with little effort. My first weeks in NCAD were a humbling experience where I found myself in a class with other students who had all been the best at art in their respective secondary schools. It made me realise that I needed to work very hard to keep up, and that work ethic has remained with me ever since.

Everything is achieved and anything is possible through hard work.


If you were chatting with current NCAD students today what is the one piece of advice you would offer?

Keep in touch with your classmates. You and your peers are the artists, curators, gallery directors, designers, critics and educators of tomorrow. You can be a great support for each other. The contacts you make at college in many cases will last for decades.


Given the global turmoil and change accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, what in your opinion are the opportunities for those in creative industries?

Artists have always faced challenges and are good at adapting and responding to changing environments. City life has all but disappeared and many businesses probably won’t return post-pandemic. This could provide an amazing opportunity for artists to secure a presence in the centre of towns and cities where previously it has been too expensive to rent or buy studio space. It will be creative enterprises who can reimagine urban centres and encourage people back.


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