Harriet Myfanwy Nia Tahany Interviewed by Alexa Mac Dermot for White Lady Art

Originally published 12th of September 2011 on www.whiteladyart.com – The website is no longer online but an archived version is available to view by clicking the link attached here:

Harriet Myfanwy Nia Tahany (Ireland)

Written by Alexa MacDermot

Monday, 12 September 2011

Harriet paints a sugar-coated world of stories, myths and legends, using oils, acrylics and occasionally sculpture. Her characters and figures capture them in a moment of dramatic tension, either lost in a wood, caught in a magical rainstorm, and other times of trouble and strife. Although her work may be saturated with an intensity of colour and child-like characters, they are symbols of great emotion that suggests a maturity over and above the first glance into her world.

Your artwork has the distinctive ‘big eye’ motif popular with the pop surrealist artists who are influenced by artist Margaret Keane. What attracted you to including this theme in your work?

“Evil Cupcakes”, Harriet Myfanwy Nia Tahany, acrylic on wood.

In my art I see the eyes as being ‘wide eyed’, the characters and open to the events or narrative surrounding them. I use the eyes to give my characters emotional expression; be it excited, giddy, sad, nervous, or seductive, engorging the eyes seems to make these expressions more powerful. Also I have quite large eyes. I wouldn’t discount the ‘big eye’s’ in my art as being of personal relevance or expression. Margaret Keane’s big eyed paintings are full of longing and loss; I feel that pop surrealists keep coming back to them because they are contemplating a loss of something in our media-saturated world.

What mediums do you prefer to work in, and are there any others you would like to branch into?

I love charcoal and feel my most accomplished works are in charcoal, I enjoy the forgivable nature of the medium. You can keep manipulating the marks, and polishing the surface until you decide to ‘fix’ the work.

I enjoy making mixed media sculpture. I have a kiln in my studio and fire ceramic parts for them, which I then paint and embellish. I make dolls this way, sculpting the face and hands, and then use sewn and stuffed bodies reinforced with wire, I enjoy making their clothes and painting their faces to bring them to life.

I would like to do larger sculptures: I started making a mushroom-shaped house out of cement in a woodland part of my garden, which was large enough to just sit up inside it. I built the wire armature and laid the foundation it was heavy work. The walls are half-way there, but the weather here in Ireland is often wet and cold so I have abandoned the project until next spring. I look forward to when the cement work is done. I hope to polish the cement with an angle grinder sanding tool and then paint it. I’m looking forward to this part; meanwhile it’s all a learning curve as I have no previous experience in cement sculpture. I had been very inspired by the artist Niki de Saint Phalle who built very impressive shaped cement buildings; I’ve yet to figure out what her method was, some special way of spraying the cement on perhaps.

“House of Sweets” opening, Frame of Mine gallery, Belfast.


You paint mostly women in your work. Is there a particular reason for this?

I feel more inspired to paint women, perhaps it is because I am a woman, and I feel like I can relate more with the characters expression and who she’s becoming as the work takes shape.

Your subjects have an ethereal or gothic feel to them, through sensual curves and natural settings, as well as tattooed women and darker subjects like vampires.

Do you feel this duality is a part of who you are as well?

I’m inspired by different things at different times depending on where my head’s at. I think I’m constantly changing, growing and transforming. I am a work in progress; the art seems to be documenting this progression.

“House of Sweets”, Harriet Myfanwy Nia Tahany, acrylic on wood.

How long have you been painting, and exhibiting, your work for?

I have been creative since I was very small. I was 13 when I started to get seriously into it and knew art was my calling. I have put work into open group exhibitions since my early years of college. I had my first gallery solo exhibition in 2008 in Co. Sligo, in ‘Teach Ban Nua’ gallery. I finished college in 2009, and since exhibited 3 new bodies of work in Belfast and Sligo.

Who are the artists, dead or alive, that you admire, even though you might not necessarily feel an influence from in your own work?

I admire Frida Kahlo. I like her surreal compositions, paintings like ‘My Dress Hangs There’ and ‘What The Water Gave Me’, I see these paintings as mindscapes, juxtaposing things and people in her life, expressing her psyche. They are like alternative self portraits of an unconscious inner world. I also like her masquerade the way she always dressed up, often flamboyantly, in her native traditional Mexican costume, like her life was a performance. Fashion as self-expression is all part of her theme of self portraiture. It’s a bit of a romantic notion of ‘the artist’ whose life and works are deeply intertwined.

Contemporary artists that have inspired me include Camille Rose Garcia for her post-apocalyptic narratives that seem so contemporary and relevant and Paula Rego for her creative approach to fairy tales and nursery rhymes. Studying these artists gave me inspiration to develop my own approach to narrative-based work and the confidence to view it as a fine art.

“House of Sweets”, Harriet Myfanwy Nia Tahany, acrylic on wood.

As well as painting you make jewellery and I’ve seen some hand-made clothes on your facebook as well! What inspires you to get creative outside painting?

I make clothes and accessories mainly because I want to wear them; I get a notion in my head and daydream on it for a while until I have all the ingredients to make it real. I’m always collecting bits and pieces for my projects; I have a huge amount of junk that I keep. I tell myself it’s potentially useful even after it’s been hanging around for years sometimes. I occasionally do a big re-organisation of all the draws, boxes of fabric and junk. This reminds me of what I have and inspires me to use it.

I have been making the jewellery recently as a way of merchandising my art and reaching a larger audience, where many people don’t have money to invest in an artwork, they get to buy a little piece of handmade jewellery featuring a print of the piece instead.

I think in the past there has been some snobbery in the art world about this kind of practice and that a piece of work becomes less exclusive, or it’s going into the realm of design and not fine art. Artist Takashi Murakami in the tradition of Andy Warhol’s Factory inspired me to lose these preconceptions. He mass produces his work onto all manner of merchandise, from mobile phone covers, key chains and vinyl toys. He has pulled down the boundaries between commerce and fine art with this practice, and is one of the foremost contemporary artists living today.

In comparison with my practice, my merchandising is more like a cottage industry than a factory, which I think is quite fitting to my cultural context as an artist living in rural Ireland.

Your paintings often have a fairy-tale or children’s story behind it. What is it about stories you like, and do you make up your own stories? What stories did you grow up reading?

I grew up with fairytales and I enjoyed fantasy stories where animals could talk and magic is real.

Fairy stories stick in your head as they are so simple and enchanting, transporting you to another world full of wonder and danger. They challenge you to make sense of these other worlds and stimulate your imagination to steer a way through them, putting you in the place of their heroes and heroines. The stories act as a transformational tool providing your imagination with safety and assurance, taking risks without having to endure any real failures, and the excitement of how risky the adventure can be before your ‘happy ever after’. The concept of ‘self’ becomes transformed as the images and metaphors in these stories stay with you even after returning to the ‘real’ world.

I’m interested in the stories as lessons of wisdom about true animal nature as humans. I take a Jungian approach to the story, looking at the characters and symbols in the story that makes up its archetypal structure. I believe these stories are still relevant to us today, the wisdom of a common human condition underlying and running through all of our diversity and divergence.

In the tradition of such stories, they beg to be reinterpreted; I’m interested in the intent of their reinterpretations according to the context of their day.

I like to reinterpret them as a way of making social commentaries on our current world and collective cultural consciousness. I like fairytales as a subject because they are so familiar, welcoming the viewer in. It’s the adaptations that I make to the story that intends to make the viewer stop, reflect on the work and ponder the changes.

I sometimes paint characters that are not tied to any particular story. I guess this is my way of creating a story. I include themes of similar elements across a body of work; I like people to bring their own imaginations to the work and try to find some kind of story. Sometimes they see my story, other times they see something completely different. The interpretation becomes about what people bring to these works based on their own life experiences

Breathless – Oil on Canvas – 70 x 54cm.

What is your ideal working day for creating your art?

When I was last in the studio and had been in a good working flow, and everything is left the way I’d left it, so I can just pick up from where I left off. I love it when friends want to come and be creative and share the space as I enjoy the company.


Have you ever traveled to another place or country where you have visited a place, person, gallery, something else, and been inspired to get creative with it afterwards?

Yes, My husband grew up in New York and went to school with artist David Hochbaum. I traveled to the Bristol Museum’s 2010 summer exhibition opening for ‘Art From The New World’ to visit – as I perceived it- the first pop surrealism show in the UK with museum status, featuring many living artists whose work I admire. I knew David had a piece in the show. He was not at the opening but I met some of the other artists. Two weeks later events came about that I traveled to New York. I got to meet David at his Manhattan studio where I also meet artist David Stoupakis who I had previously met briefly for an autograph in Bristol. David Hockbaum’s studio where he lived was very inspiring to me. I felt like I was getting a glimpse behind the veil of an art world that seemed like a fantasy aspiration. I aspire to be as dedicated in my own studio and be that committed. I had been inspired. These ‘art stars’ were suddenly real people, and a successful art career didn’t seem so unattainable anymore.

Hey Diddle Diddle – Charcoal on Fabriano Paper – 140cm X 190cm

What would you like to see in contemporary art in Ireland and Northern Ireland that would give artists a bigger platform to show the public their work?

I would like to see local art centres supporting local artists. I feel many of these centres seek to bring outside culture, rather than showcase local culture and talents; I would like to see more of a equal balance. I would love to exhibit in my local art centre ‘The Dock’, here where I live in Co. Leitrim.

I feel pop surrealism, lowbrow, and urban art is gaining a momentum globally as an art movement of our day, and there are a lot of Irish-based artists who feel their work is in this genre. I would like to see our museums giving a platform to these artists as a voice to the art world from the Irish side of this movement.

Tell us about House of Sweets: A Hansel and Gretel Story, your most recent exhibition. Are you carrying on a theme with your recent shows with this one?

House of Sweets: A Hansel and Gretel Story, is a transcription of the Grimm fairy story, an imaginary mindscape into part of the stories archetypal or symbolic structure. The world of Hansel and Gretel to me is metaphoric of a whole self, two sides of the same psyche, a balance of male and female, brother and sister. The witch represents an overbearing and negative feminine force within their world, when she is present the siblings are divided, Hansel succumbs to the witches dark illusions and Gretel must work under the witch to try and keep concord while they plot their escape to freedom.  My retelling endeavors to make comment on aspects of our own world where toiling to keep consumer culture attainable, in a culture that often equates prosperity with happiness where happiness is not always that simple.

I like the audience of my work to feel a presence of meaning and narrative but also enter their own imagination, and engage in the work’s story-telling potential with their own interpretations. I think if too much is explained our curiosity is satisfied and a sense of mystery in the art is lost.

Your name is wonderfully unusual! Tell us about where it comes from and what it means.

Harriet is after my grandma’s, the name apparently means ‘house ruler’. Myfanwy pronounced (mih VAN wee) is Welsh, meaning ‘my fine one’. Nia also Welsh in origin is a form of Niamh. Meaning ‘bright’ in Irish. Niamh was the daughter of a sea god in Irish legends and my surname Tahany also spelt Taheny is a Sligo name from a place called Riverstown.

The Bunny Breather – Oil on Canvas – 54 x 70cm

How did you begin your working relationship with Frame of Mine?

I was in university at the time, just finishing the first year of my MFA [Master of Fine Arts]. We had an end of year class show on Largon Barge, a cargo barge situated opposite the waterfront hall. The gallery ‘Frame of mine’ at the time was called the ‘Frameworks’. The curator Jon came to the opening and bought 3 pieces from me for the gallery. I liked the other artist’s work in the gallery. Jon recognised my art as being ‘Lowbrow’ and he was excited by the movement and said he wanted to use his gallery as a platform for this type of art in Ireland. I later put a few pieces in the gallery on a sale or return basis. Jon offered me the opportunity to have a show with the gallery which excited me. I was so busy with my final year on my MFA, I didn’t contact the gallery and felt perhaps I’d shown myself to be unorganized and missed an opportunity. After college I had an exhibition in Sligo town. This gave me confidence to host my next show, this time at the ‘Safehouse Gallery’ in Belfast. I wrote a little letter to Jon and Kat at the gallery telling them about my recent practice and explained that I was too busy finishing my MFA to contact them about my show, so I invited them to come and view my exhibition and consider me for a show with them. I thought they would come and see it and it would restore confidence in me, they didn’t come to the show. However, Kat at the gallery sent me a message explaining that the gallery was under new management and was now called ‘Frame of mine’. To my delight I was offered a show and came down to the gallery to leave in some new work. I think it’s wonderful what Andrea and Kat are doing with the gallery. They are showing new artists on a monthly basis, and the gallery is as exciting and cutting edge as ever.

You live in co. Leitrim now but I can’t help noticing you don’t sound like you were born in Ireland! What made you want to come to Ireland, and to also exhibit in Belfast?

I was born in Swansea in South Wales and my family moved to South East London when I was a baby. I lived in London until I was 16. My parents wanted to move to Ireland, and my mum romanticised about a cottage in the countryside. They bought a 200 year old 3 room cottage which they renovated, and it was an adventure. Co. Leitrim is very rural; the most unpopulated county in Ireland, and it was a bit of a culture shock. I’m here 11 years now and love it! I feel I’ve have found the space to figure things out in my life and focus on my art.

Belfast felt like a natural place to have exhibitions because of my time spent at university there, and the friends I have there have been very supportive and encouraging of my career.

Did you go to study your craft in college (art/design, etc.)? What was your experience of this if so? Do you think there are pro’s and con’s of studying art at third level?

I have done 7 years in college studying Fine art. I started with a post-leaving cert portfolio course in Sligo town, and used that to get a place on a 4 year BA course in Sligo I.T. I was not planning on doing the two year Masters degree in Belfast, but I was invited to do so after winning the RDS Taylor art award and I felt it was fate.

I really enjoyed my time at Sligo I.T. The Art department was small, only 90 students spread over 4 years and it was a happy place for me. The facilities were great, and the tutors were encouraging and left you alone enough to really experiment and develop.

My experience at university was very different; the course seemed to make me over think my work which dulled my creativity. I think universities hire academics for their research expertise and abilities to attract research funding, not for their teaching abilities.

I am glad I did the Masters however. I think it has pushed me to really think about my work’s context. I think there are both pro’s and con’s to 3rd level. It’s great to learn a lot of skills and have use of facilities to apply these skills. You are challenged to push your work in many different directions, and experimentation helps you refine your practice. Having qualifications can also help you be taken more seriously by funding bodies and galleries.

Being self taught must also have great pro’s. Working independently and not having your ideas so rigorously challenged, your motivation can become solely about personal pride, not grades. The artwork seems like it would have much more of a natural progression this way.

After college you’re on your own. To find your way in the art world and a more natural progression in the work can then take over. Sometimes success in today’s art world seems more and more about who you know, not what you know.