Artists Interviews

February 2015:

Rachel Tynan in conversation with Katy Fitzpatrick

Rachel Tynan, artist in residence on Helium Arts’s Cloudlands Project, in conversation with Katy Fitzpatrick

About Cloudlands
I have worked for Helium Arts on the Cloudlands Project since it started in November 2012; first as Project Manager, and for the last two years I have been mentoring the artists on the project, including the Cloudlands Dublin artist Rachel Tynan. Cloudlands is an arts and technology project which provides for the psycho/social needs, positive mental health, and cultural rights of chronically ill teenagers and pre-teens. It takes place in Temple Street in Dublin, Cork University Hospital, and University Hospital Galway. Cloudlands provides teenagers with the opportunity to engage in inspiring arts activities during the time they spend in hospital. Teenagers work one to one with a professional artist to develop new artworks that excite them – so far, teenagers have made music videos, choreographed dance pieces, written books and created animations. What makes Cloudlands so special? Helium selects professional artists who are excited about working in hospitals with teenagers and have a strong collaborative practice. This means that both artist and teenager develop artworks together, as equals. The project itself came about from an identified gap in activities for teenagers in hospitals, and it seeks to shift the focus of their hospital stay from something necessary over which they have little control, to something inspiring that they look forward to telling their friends and family about.

I have also had the joy of curating the three artists in the exhibition ’beyond the box’ at Pallas Projects/Studios in November 2013, and, in 2014 I curated a series of online exhibitions that reflected the collaborative work in the hospitals and the work created by the artists in response to their experiences. Links can be found below for all of these.

I met up with Rachel in her studio as part of my role as mentor, and this is the conversation that we had about the project and her role as artist in residence.

What interested you about the Cloudlands project when you decided to apply for it?
I had just finished an exhibition in the LAB, which was about visualizing long-term illness and also my background is in education. I had been working with teenagers in the Life Centre, an early school leavers programme. So, I think what excited me was having the chance to bridge those two things and to combine different areas of interest for me and that’s what Cloudlands does.

Rachel Tynan in her studio

Rachel working in her studio. Photo courtesy of Charles Henry Frizon.

In terms of your expectations beforehand and starting for the first time in a hospital context, because I know that it was new for you working in that area, was it what you expected?
It’s very scary going into hospital because you are constantly thinking that you are going to do something that you are not supposed to do. Do people want you there or are you going to be in the way? I think as soon as you get over that, then it’s an amazing place to be and an amazing place to work. I’m not sure exactly what expectations I had beforehand. I didn’t realise how flexible and engaged a lot of the teenagers would be and how they would really look forward to week on week having me there. And I wasn’t sure how that was going to work in terms of how well they were feeling, but actually even on some of their worst days they get excited about doing the project.

Maybe you can talk about what your average day looks like working on the project in the hospital?
In the hospital it’s pretty chaotic on a day to day basis. So, usually I will arrive and I meet with the play specialists. I work with the play team and they will give me a list of the teenagers that are in. So, if any of the teenagers that I have worked with before are in, I will try to get to them first. I usually spend the mornings on the dialysis ward in St Michael C, because I work with the same teenagers there every morning as they are on dialysis three times a week. I usually spend a Wednesday morning with them. Then in the afternoon it can change depending on who I am with. I usually go straight to the teenagers and I’ll bring my i-pad and I have a suitcase with all my materials in it. It’s like a travelling art room with all the best stuff from my studio stuffed into a suitcase. And then it’s very much about what the teenagers want to do and responding to that on a day to day basis.

What kinds of processes are you engaging in with them? I know the project itself is around narrative and creating stories together, but how do they then manifest?
So the forms that they take really depend on what the teenagers are interested in and often what I am working on, in terms of my own practice, at the same time. It can be anything from one day building ice castles out of ice cubes and another day we had a dancer come in and we worked with her to co-choreograph a piece with one of the teenagers. It really can almost be anything in terms of what interests the teenagers at the time.

Ice sculptures, Cloudlands with artist Rachel Tynan

Slowly the ice castle melted to reveal The Star Lady. Image courtesy of Rachel Tynan.

And maybe in thinking about your role as an artist in residence, with your own practice, the project is very much about bringing that into the space and not just about delivering a workshop. How do you describe your role within the context of arts and health, working with teenagers in hospitals?
I think it’s about working one on one, and very much in a collaborative manner with them. I don’t see myself as facilitating workshops with them. It’s both of us working on the same level. The exciting things are when neither of you know where you’re going, and being flexible enough to not really plan and be able to take things moment to moment. You go in and suddenly someone wants to do something that I have never done before and that’s a great thing that you are both new to something. I think that sort of collaboration, as long as you are true to that, means that your work is always fresh and exciting, and that also means that I often spend a lot of my time in the studio trying to think about and respond to that, because they constantly bring up new themes and new media every week.

Maybe you could talk a little bit more about your studio time, because I know that the structure of the project means you have a day to respond, reflect and evaluate what happened that week. How do you see that in relation to your practice and the project overall?
Those days are absolutely essential. Some of them are taken up with admin and blogs and conversations with Avril Carr, the project manager. But a lot of that time is also about taking the time out to press pause and think about what you have done and where you are going, and to have a time for me to respond to the work. So, last week we had been talking about this star lady in the woods, and I ended up in the woods with a light filming. That’s the time that we are given in Cloudlands and that is the essence of that studio day. If you didn’t have that it wouldn’t be the same, because you would never be able to take time out to work out where you are going. Otherwise you get stuck in a rut in terms of running every day, because everything is so frantic in the hospital you need to pause and think about things.

Rachel Tynan working in her studio

Rachel working in her studio. Photo courtesy of Charles Henry Frizon.

Do you see the work as part of your practice or something that sits alongside?
I can’t really separate them in a way, because they are interlaced. There are parts of my practice that are very important to me that I see coming out in the work, but then there are themes and things that happen within the hospital that definitely have started appearing within my practice. They are interwoven in that way.

Maybe you might discuss one of the most exciting collaborations with a teenager to date?
Yeah, I think at the end of last year, which was the end of year 2 of Cloudlands, I had been working with one teenager for about a year. We had been working on this story of this Ocean Fairy, who is a fairy or a creature, she lives in the sea and she can come and help people when they need it. That had been a nice story and the teenager said one day ‘Oh, there’s no such thing as a real Ocean Fairy’. I went home and thought about it, and she’s right, but it’s sad at the same time that that creature will never really exist. That teenager used to do a lot of dancing and isn’t able to dance at the moment, so I went to a dancer, Rachel Ensor, who I had collaborated with before on a different project, and we worked with the teenager and wrote a piece and co-choreographed a piece. Rachel came in and danced through corridors of the hospital. And that’s amazing because you have trolleys moving around, surgeons running up and down stairs and nurses, and everyone passing you and you are in the middle of the corridor with a dancer and people stop and wonder what is going on. That’s when the project becomes visible outside of the ward you are working on, and that’s when it gets really exciting.

Dancer Rachel Ensor

Dancer Rachel Ensor brings the Ocean Fairy to life. Image courtesy of Jenny McCullough.

What kinds of reactions did people have?
Some people were just laughing, wondering what was going on. Others were surprised. At one stage the dancer was lying on the ground and a staff member opened their office door and almost stepped on her, and she shrieked and ran back into the office. The hospital is a very specific place to work, so anything you can do to try and shake things up a bit is a really good thing, to just change the environment of a hospital, even in a small way, I think that’s a good thing to be doing.

I suppose it shakes up what people expect of an artist.
Yeah, if I say I am an artist in residence, people think you’re in there sitting, teaching children how to draw or you’re painting all day. I don’t know when we were drawing last, that’s not what we do on a day to day basis. The more people that can be involved in the project, the more people realise that. For every teenager that I am working with there are often parents and siblings, children in the beds beside them, nurses and doctors and porters, play specialists and catering staff. There is a huge amount of other contacts and other people who get to experience the project in some way.

I know you are heading into the final year of this phase of the project. What are your aims for the year?
One of the things that is important for me is to try and bring all of the teenagers together, and have all of their work in one form. They can be quite isolated, they work one on one with me, but I would like them to view themselves as a cohesive group. At the same time I also want to give them the space to express themselves and work out what they want to be doing. So, we are working on these story dolls, which are very large wooden dolls that will have recordings of some of the teenagers’ stories inside them. That’s exciting, because hopefully we will be able to exhibit and tour them, and then the teenagers stories are going beyond the hospital and that’s very important to them. It validates their work and means that more people - more than just the people in the hospital - begin to understand what the project is about.

Cloudlands Russian Dolls

The story dolls hold the stories of the teenagers and travel beyond the walls of the hospital. Image courtesy Rachel Tynan.

I know that technology is a key part of the project; in what way do you use technology and has this influenced your practice?
I use an i-pad everyday in the hospital as it is a great way of breaking the ice with the teenagers. So I have photos of various aspects of my own practice and of other projects that have been created on Cloudlands to date. I also use cameras, sound recorders, sensors etc. Last year I recorded different sounds and fitted them into paper seashells so when the teenagers held them to their ears they could hear the sounds. This acted as the starting point for all our projects last year.

I never would have thought that technology would have leaked into my own practice but it definitely has. I worked with Mark Linnane in 2011 to create an installation for the Cloudlands beyond the box exhibition. We built sensors that were activated when someone lay on a plinth/bed and they triggered a series of projections overhead. I think my new interest in technology has opened up many doors within my practice and makes the impossible seem possible.

We also have a secure online space where the teenagers can share their work with the other teenagers and artists in Galway and Cork.

beyond the box exhibition

phoenix, installation shot from beyond the box exhibition at Pallas Projects/Studios, November 2013. Image courtesy Pallas Projects.

Could you tell me a little about the overall network and supports that Cloudlands has, and what they mean to you?
We’re so lucky in Helium to have such a huge network of support around us. So, Emma Fisher and Eszter Nemethi are the other artists who work in Galway and Cork. Then we have the Helium team of our Artistic Director, Project Manager, Technology Team, Communications and Fundraising Officers. I have had Mark Storor, and now Katy Fitzpatrick as my mentors who I talk to every week after my sessions in the hospital. We have Artist Development Days every couple of months where we all come together and discuss, challenge and plan for the next part of the project. And we have Creative Exchange Days that allow us to work with the staff in the hospital and build a greater awareness of the project within the hospital. It’s this network of support and collaboration that makes the project feel fresh and exciting as we are always reflecting and morphing the way in which we work to the needs of the teenagers and my needs as an artist.

One last question, what has been the most surprising aspect of the project? 
I think the most surprising aspect has probably been for me how flexible I can be. I like to plan things and I like to know what I am doing, and everything be ordered. But as soon as you are in the hospital you realise you can’t do that. You have to be really flexible and work moment to moment. For me that was really exciting. That has definitely pushed me outside of my comfort zone. It helps that the teenagers are always there doing that, constantly questioning me. That’s probably the best part of the project; the fact that it’s a true collaboration because you are both questioning each other at the same time.

Rachel Tynan Biography
Rachel Tynan is a visual artist and art education practitioner based in Dublin. Her practice examines the vulnerability of the human body and long-term illness made visible through textile, installation, performance and body art.  Recent exhibitions include beyond the box in Pallas Studios (2013); Cut Throat in The LAB Gallery (2012); Soar Saor in The Ark (2012). Her solo exhibition Cut Throat was exhibited as part of Dublin City of Science and pushed her work beyond the fixed manifestations of installation with an explorative dance performance. She curated a series of dialogues for Dublin City of Science and Innovation Dublin relating to arts and health practice.  She is Artist in Residence in The Children’s University Hospital, Temple Street, on the award winning Cloudlands project, commissioned by Helium Arts. Tynan was awarded Student of the Year as she graduated from the National College of Art and Design (BA Art and Design Education) in 2009 and completed her Masters in NCAD (2012).

About Helium Arts
Helium Arts aims to improve the quality of life for children 0-18 yrs living with illness or at risk of illness in Ireland through award-winning, age appropriate, participatory arts programmes which strengthen young voices and create supportive healthcare environments, upholding children’s rights. Helium works in hospitals, health centres, and community settings transforming young lives and their carers through art, ingenuity and play.



Helium Arts –
About Cloudlands -
Cloudlands Online Gallery -
Cloudlands exhibition, beyond the box, 2013 -
Rachel interview for BNP Paribas Smart Start Programme portraits -
Rachel Tynan –

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