Tom Meskell on First Fortnight role: ‘I never ask people their station; I take them as I find them’

Artist behind Silva Lumina does not identify volunteers who help make mesmerising figures for an installation opening at National Botanic Gardens this week as part of mental-health culture festival

The images come pinging on to my phone half an hour before I am to talk to Tom Meskell. They come in one by one, like a slow-motion reel from an old movie. Human-like shapes constructed from wire. Eerie white figures gathered in a corner of a cavernous workshop. Shadows gradually changing colour and beginning to glow a lime green. Lime-green-lit arms raised high. Heads with no faces.

These mesmerising images are works in progress for an installation the Mayo-based artist is creating to open at the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland this week, called Silva Lumina – Lights of Growth. It will be the anchor event of the First Fortnight mental-health culture festival.

Meskell is based in Charlestown, where he specialises in site-specific installations, and often works with local communities to make this art. Not all of his projects are as tangible as the dozens of life-sized illuminated figures that will come to Dublin. One of his recent projects has involved working with children in the paediatric waiting room of Mayo General Hospital. “I invited the kids to make art with me while they were waiting to be seen,” he says. “It was a distraction for them.” And, one imagines, for the anxious parents and guardians accompanying their children.

Any public gardens become different spaces once they close for the day, especially in winter. The Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin close at 5pm; in winter it is usually a silent pool of darkness in the ensuing evening hours. Meskell visited the gardens to choose a site for his installation and to then figure out what would best work there.

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“It’s designed for winter, and to be illuminated,” he says. “I wanted something to engage with people.” Up to 50 figures will be installed near one of the palm houses. “There will be a path going around the area, so people will go on a little walk past them all.” The installation will be on show from January 5th to 14th, with a soundscape by Colm Ó Snodaigh and Brian Hogan playing each evening. On the opening night, Ó Snodaigh will play live.

It’s about people in rural Ireland being seen and heard. It is a big deal for people to know that their work is going to be seen in Dublin

—  Tom Meskell

What kind of experience is Meskell hoping people will have as they tour Silva Lumina? “Hopefully one that is extremely meditative and thoughtful and optimistic,” he says.

The ethos of the First Fortnight festival is, as its chief executive Maria Fleming explains, “to challenge the assumptions attached to mental health, and to have artists participating across all arts forms. It’s through attending an arts festival that we open up conversations about mental health and, in that way, break down some of the fear that’s attached to the topic.”

This festival ethos has two elements. The making of the figures for Silva Lumina was a collaboration between Meskell and members of the wider community, including some who would themselves have had mental-health challenges. Meskell makes it clear that he never identifies anyone who has volunteered to participate in the making of the figures, but he is aware they are among the attendees. He held more than half a dozen workshops in different locations to create the figures, some via open calls.

“First Fortnight have their own database of people who got involved over the years, and who they put in touch with me,” Meskell says. “I never ask people their station; I take people as I find them. I don’t know what they are going through. I am creating a nonjudgmental and supportive environment, and everyone is welcome, but I also do see that some people are carrying things.”

One of the workshops was in the men’s shed in Killoe, Co Longford, where nine people showed up. “They were telling me first that they don’t do art, they are no good at art, but when I showed them the bull wire we use to make the base of the figures, they knew what that was: a lot of them are farmers. So we made the torso, and then the head shape, and then connected them, so you can see it is a body. At that point, people start getting excited. The hair is made out of wire, which we made into kind of leaf structures. Everyone made different hair, so I told them that that was their identifying mark, and they had made a piece each.

“It was all done in four hours. Then they each have this huge ownership of the project. In February the installation is going to come to Longford for the Longford Lights exhibition,” running from February 23rd to 25th, he says, “and everyone has told me they want to go and see it. They will be able to pick out the piece they made and show it to everyone.”

Meskell held seven daylong workshops in all. A couple of them were in Dublin, at the Digital Hub, via open calls. “People from the inner city from all walks of life showed up. There was one person who was an artist, and interested in lanterns.” Women from the Saol Project, an addiction service for women, showed up to another workshop. “All those people will be coming to see the finished result at the Botanic Gardens.”

Other workshops took place in Charlestown and in part of Co Longford. “It’s about people in rural Ireland being seen and heard. It is a big deal for people to know that their work is going to be seen in Dublin.” One workshop included a number of Ukrainian refugees and a translator, who was able to relay everything Meskell was saying to the participants.

The core idea of the illuminated green figures who would give the illusion of being part of a winter garden was Meskell’s. To create the pieces, he showed his workshop participants how to work with wire to make a frame. “Then it gets covered in paper and glue.” It’s a relatively swift process to get to something that looks visually understandable: “It takes an hour to cover a figure in tissue paper. Someone can come to the workshop for an hour or so, and to them it’s a huge reward for a small amount of time.”

These figures were not made by one person; there are many makers involved in the creation of Silva Lumina, but they are all connected stylistically

—  Tom Meskell

The figures will be lit in four shades of green. The coverings are weatherproof, and the lights are battery-powered LEDs, which will be turned on by remote control. The installation is designed both for touring and for easy dismantling and assembling. “The work had to be mobile and easy to rig,” he says. “It can come out of a truck, go on display and then go back into a truck, because it needs to come in again at night.”

Every evening from January 5th to 14th, when the Botanic Gardens close, a rotating number of volunteers will set up the installation. When the show is over, everything will be stored away again for the night. They’ll be timing their setup and takedown process in the new year, to get it all done in the most efficient way.

“I hope that when people see them that they will notice their eclectic nature. These figures were not made by one person; there are many makers involved in the creation of Silva Lumina, but they are all connected stylistically.”

Silva Lumina – Lights of Growth is at the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland, Dublin, as part of First Fortnight, from Friday, January 5th, until Sunday, January 14th; admission is free but ticketed, via ticketsolve.com

First Fortnight

First Fortnight describes itself as a charity that challenges mental-health stigma through arts and cultural action. Its annual arts and culture festival runs throughout January at locations around the country. Chief executive Maria Fleming says: “There are 72 events in the festival this year, across a number of different regions. This year we are particularly focusing on Donegal, Limerick and Kildare.”

The festival, established in 2010, is funded by the Arts Council and Dublin City Council, which contribute €80,000 and €10,000 respectively. Silva Lumina is this year’s flagship show. “On top of our festival grant, we applied for a commissioning grant, and that enabled us to commission Tom to deliver that work, by collaborating with community groups.”

Among the many other events during the festival will be cabaret, concerts, dance, films, open mic, podcast, singing, poetry, storytelling, street arts, tapestry and yoga.