Stehanie sees the beauty of art all around here

Stephanie Cuddy, twelfth and youngest child of Thomas and Nancy Cuddy, grew up in Castlecoote on land where her forefathers farmed in the seventeenth century. After attending Fuerty National School she moved on to the Convent of Mercy, Roscommon where there was a high number of students. Stephanie recalls how exciting it was for her. ‘I was delighted to go from a very small class to a larger one. I had six girls and five boys in my class and would have loved if I was in a class of a hundred.’ Where and how did her love of art originate? Was it something that was nurtured in the home or through years of working at it in school?  Stephanie has no doubts but that it all began with her maternal grandfather. ‘My grandfather was Sergeant Major in the Custume Barracks in Athlone. He was from Cork and I remember as a small child going to my grandparents’ house. They were both deceased but my aunt lived there. It really captured my imagination when she took my hand and led me into the sitting room, showing me a sketch-book that was my grandfather’s, in which he had drawn caricatures of Clark Gable and other film stars. He had also done some drawings of my grandmother and some of his brothers were also into painting.’ More recently Stephanie can recall her own mother sitting at the kitchen table making baskets. ‘When I was very small we would go every summer with my mother out into the River Suck and she would cut down the rushes and we would gather them, tie them up and put them into the hayshed to dry out. She would always be working on them in the evenings, making wine baskets or baskets for around pot plants. I remember going with her when she took her work to the Sliabh Bán Centre. I suppose being the youngest I went everywhere with her. She always made our clothes too and also she was a wonderful gardener, having ‘green fingers’. When I ask her how my garden looks, she smiles and says ‘it’s a grand sort of a garden’. There is another family member who probably inspired Stephanie as well as her teachers. ‘I was in fifth class when Kathleen, my sister, went to art college and specialised in fashion. This would have influenced me very much. When I went into secondary school I had Maurice Harron as my art teacher, who was so encouraging and I can remember the classes so clearly because he was so interesting to listen to. I knew even then that art would always be high on my list of subjects. In that first year I even went to my teacher and asked him what I’d have to do to be an art teacher.’ When Stephanie came to her final year in secondary school, her art teacher at the time was Mary Seymour. ‘Mary would have had a very different approach and she was excellent, just having left art college. She had a very fresh approach which was wonderful for students preparing for college. She helped me with my portfolio and did a lot of it in her own time. I was very fortunate to have such excellent teachers. Maurice was very encouraging and inspiring and Mary would have been more critical, which was also very useful.’ Having inherited the creativity from her maternal family and having now presented her portfolio she was accepted at the National College of Art in Dublin. She went on to talk about her time there. ‘The first year degree was a foundation course, where you were subjected to lots of different mediums. There were blocks where you could do drawing and painting, dealing with fashion or a course of glass painting. When I first went to college I thought I would specialise in painting, but then after my first year I decided I’d like to do sculpture but knew it would be fine art rather than design, like graphic design or fashion or textiles.  My second year gave me the opportunity of doing all of the fine arts, painting, print making and sculpture and photography. I decided to do print making, specialising in etching’. It was during her third year she started ‘going out’ with her future husband, Jeremy, whom she says asked her out when she was just twelve years old. Smiling, she takes up the story. ‘Jeremy’s parents moved from Belfast to Roscommon when he was two years old. This was because they felt it was safer and a much better environment for their children. I had known him all through my childhood but I really met up with him one night when I went out with a friend from college. We began chatting and I thought he was very nice. ‘At the time I had plans to go to the States for the summer on a student visa and as it was pre-email stage, we wrote letters to one another all the time. We got married a couple years after I left college, when I was twenty four.’ In her third year she had a tutorial and her tutors praised her work but unlike most of us Stephanie questioned them rather than accepting their overall comments. It was then that she personally decided to dramatically change her direction. When her fourth and final year dawned, at that stage she had found all she had been looking for around her in the landscape. Now there was no doubt what her theme for her degree show would be. ‘I changed my work completely and started chopping up the plates, creating more abstract images so I wasn’t just looking at the whole panorama of the landscape but I began to focus on part of it like the texture of mud or the texture of a bark. ‘I had this idea of beauty in decay and remember going for a walk to search for a source of material to work with.’ During that walk she picked up a leaf – but to her it was not just any leaf. ‘It was a lovely leaf with a beautiful piece of magenta in it, which was the thing that would kill it but it was also that what made it stand out more than any other. It made me interested in my idea of beauty in decay. Another example would be a peach with a mould on it, the beauty of the colours in the mould.’ Stephanie now had her theme for her degree show plus all the ideas she had gathered from around her where she lived in the Liberties, Dublin. She talked about the show. ‘It was in the RHA in Dublin, very exciting and successful as I sold about eighteen or twenty etchings’. Among her patrons were Joe Dowling, Director of the Abbey Theatre, the Director of Arnotts and Marie Cleary of the programme ‘Health Check’. Marie Cleary was interviewed very soon afterwards by a well-known magazine on TV and Stephanie’s painting was visible on the wall in her home. Quite complimentary and a great confidence-builder for a young art student who had just finished college. ‘That was the great thing about being in Dublin, you were open to a much larger market and it was a great boost. I was also lucky to have the first ever exhibition in the Bank of Ireland, Roscommon and my home town has always been very supportive.’ Going straight into a teaching post in school after a four year intense college course was not what she really wanted, so she opted to teach in a day centre for service users with learning difficulties in Dublin. ‘I really like the idea of working with different groups of people and am very interested in the idea of art being therapeutic’.   Stephanie went from one area to another for the first five years of her teaching career.  Working with different groups appealed to her and also it was a wonderful opportunity to gain a vast amount of experience. ‘I was doing a whole range of different classes, artist in residence in Rehab, Castlerea, children’s classes in the CBS, adult classes, classes in a traveller training centre’. As a member of the Kilkeevin Art Group, Castlerea, I myself was very fortunate to have Stephanie as a tutor and remember well how she opened up a whole new world for me. She feels that she didn’t always map out her future, it just happened. ‘The Principal in Summerhill, Athlone just telephoned me one day and asked if I would like to work there on a part-time basis and because it all came together with my other work I decided to start. I have been teaching there for six years now. ‘I love the variety of my job. There is a whole range of subjects in secondary school, but if you teach someone a subject that can be a ‘gift for life’ and that they enjoy, then that is something I would like to cultivate in a student.’ It begs the question – can anyone learn to paint or is it something innate in just some of us?  Stephanie had this to say: ‘I believe if you are interested in the subject anyone can learn it. The beauty of art is that you get a visual awareness and an appreciation of what is around you and that for me is the best gift that you can give to someone. That is what art is all about.’ As an artist and teacher, Stephanie enjoys all areas and a variety of work but, perhaps, preparing fifth and sixth year portfolios reminds her of that time when she herself was guided and nurtured to the pivotal of her success. Perhaps in each student who comes to her door she sees something of her former self. ‘About five years ago I started portfolio preparation with students coming to my house and that is probably my favourite thing. You have students who really love art, and who have talent and with whom you speak the same language. It is such a fantastic reward when my students get into college. So far I have had 100 percent success rate. I also hold children’s classes here in the house, primary school children aged from 5 to 12 years of age’. As we talked, Stephanie spoke of her latest project, Roscommon Art School, in Antogher Road, Roscommon, a space for all the community incorporating all forms of art.  She invited other teachers in, including a photographer and whoever else would be needed for the programme – a wonderful opportunity for the people of Roscommon town and environs and it will no doubt become ‘their place’ as at present there is no such facility available.  ‘I would like to ensure that it gives everyone the opportunity of doing their own personal and selective form of art, be it drawing, painting, print making, glass painting, etc. The programme is wide and varied and there is something for everyone’. Perhaps for Stephanie, her interest in art was awakened at a very tender age in that small sitting room in her grandfather’s house, but it was all the other forces that came into play opening her eyes to the beauty around her. It is this beauty and visible awareness that Stephanie wants to pass on and to share with others.