The select group of nine artists first met through a council initiative run by the Lisburn City Council after Lisburn was accorded city status in March 2002. “The burghers of the city wanted to create a vibrant arts scene,” said McCarthy. “They believed that it should be an intrinsic part of the town and that it would attract people to Lisburn.”
The council ran a program called Business Start that taught the artists the basics of starting a business, including how to keep accounts and what to look out for when self-employed. They found it very helpful.
“Being artists,” said McCarthy, “we had no idea how to start a business, so we learned a lot.”
Having finished the course, the group decided to stay together.
“None of us knew each other before hand,” Mitchell said. “It was lucky that we got on so well. We felt like we had a communal voice, rather than doing it alone.”
The group ranges in age from early 20s to late 60s.
The members of Island Design started to shop around for more collective gigs. They received funding for a cross-border venture with Leitrim Design House and loved the experience.
“They have a beautiful stone house used for a gallery,” Mitchell said. “We would love something like that eventually.”
Each member of the group specializes in different art techniques and styles. McCarthy’s art is inspired by Irish images of Christianity and of pagan Ireland. He works generally on paper, using colors culled from the Book of Kells, the ancient Irish manuscript. “I love the colors gold and brown and generally do work on a large scale,” he said.
Mitchell, likewise, is inspired by Ireland. “I try to use the colors we get from the soft, dull light in Ireland and am influenced hugely by the scenery,” she said. Her sample work is beautiful, with a small picture frame setting the wisps of yellow, gold and green fabric off perfectly. It was inspired by a walk on the beach in Sligo, with birds, shells and sand. The work of both artists is high quality and they clearly take great pride in what they do.
“When you slide your work across the table and it gets a very positive reaction, that’s very encouraging,” she said.
Each artist in the group has their own individual workshop but embrace the opportunity to work in a collective. “We love the chance to come out of our studios and talk about ideas together,” she said.
Two of the women in the group create colorful and detailed greeting cards under the name, “Stepping Stones.” They work in tandem with adults who have learning difficulties, who then put the cards together.
The prices of artwork in the group vary dramatically. A greeting card may cost $3, whereas a full-size wall hanging might go for $2,000.
While Island Design is doing well in Ireland, the groups advisors and facilitators from the council felt that their work was certainly good enough for a different market. The artists themselves felt that a trip to the U.S. was a natural progression. “You can be passionate about your art,” said McCarthy, “but you also need to be pragmatic. The art has to go somewhere, unless you have a healthy endowment from a relative.”
McCarthy said he feels that North America is an obvious market for the high-end artwork the group is producing. “We were warned before we came that the common perception of Irish art is that it is [rubbish], simply because the shamrock and shillelagh brigade got here first,” he said. McCarthy and Mitchell see it as part of their job to fight that perception.
They were chosen to represent the group due to their familiarity and ease with public speaking. Mitchell has lectured in University and given workshops while McCarthy worked on BBC Northern Ireland Radio for seven years.
These days, the artists can sustain themselves on their artwork sales alone and seem very enthusiastic about the future. Throughout the trip, they had meetings every day and made some tentative contacts including possible collaborations with Glucksman Ireland House and the Irish Arts Center, where there may be options of displaying their work.
McCarthy is positive about the good feedback from the American Museum of Arts and Design. He explained the advantages of displaying in a museum. “People see your work and can contact you for further commissions,” he said. “Also, the museum shops stock good quality work and customers coming in know that. They are more discerning.”
McCarthy feels that their timing was good. “Being St. Patrick’s week was good for us, it broke a lot of ice in meetings,” he said.
Design Ireland has funding for the next two years, and as part of the Invest in Northern Ireland Trade Mission will continue to receive help and support, maybe including a seminar on selling to the U.S. market. The artists have also been signed up for four different exhibitions later this year.
To view some of their work, go to www.island-design.org.