Born into a family of artists

I was born into a family of artists. My maternal grandmother was one of five sisters, all of them very creative in their own way. Granny’s youngest sister, Ursula Hilser, studied art at The Slade School of Art in London (1928-1931). 

Aunt Ursula 1931

Aunt Ursula 1931

Granny Byrne (left), great Granny Hilser (centre) Muriel Goggin Byrne (right)

Granny Byrne (left), great Granny Hilser (centre) Muriel Goggin Byrne (right)

My mother’s sister, Muriel Goggin Byrne studied art at The National College of Art & Design, Kildare Street, Dublin. She taught art at a convent on the south side of Dublin. She is also a member of the Watercolour Society of Ireland. 

My mother Ursula Nunan (né Byrne) is an amateur painter and long time member of Black Sheep Arts Dalkey in Co. Dublin. Mum and Muriel’s cousin, Val Byrne has his work in no less than three Irish presidents collections. He was an architect before he retired and became a full time professional artist. His works are held in public and private collections in Ireland and worldwide. His son, Gerard Byrne, is also a professional artist. Muriel’s daughter, Erika McColl, is a professional artist based in Dublin and my granny’s eldest sister Rita’s grand daughter, Susan O’Byrne, is a successful ceramicist based in Glasgow. Her work has been exhibited at The Scottish Royal Academy and is held in public and private collections worldwide. 

I grew up wanting to art at the heart of whatever I did for a living. Aunt Ursula probably had the biggest influence the generations that followed her. Granny came to live with us in Zambia when I was between the ages of seven and ten. She did not consider herself to be an artist. Nonetheless, she was always a very good seamstress, and knitter and a good cook. Whilst she was making clothes for my dolls, she would give me scraps of fabric and encouraged me to make clothes to my own exotic fashion creations for my Barbie and Cindy dolls.

Grandpa and Granny Byrne circa 1950s)

Grandpa and Granny Byrne circa 1950s)

Granny Byrne (circa 1928)

Granny Byrne (circa 1928)

Mum started painting in her mid forties. Before that in Zambia, she was always trying her hand at creative things like basket weaving. I still remember the dresses she made for me with smocking when I was little. She was an active participant in the annual church fete.

I have distinct memories of her and her creative friends sitting around the dining room table sewing elephant and lion cushions and teaching me to make beautiful flowers from dyed stockings and copper wire. When I was older, she trained me in the art of gift wrapping and making up perfume gift sets for Christmas that sold in the pharmacy my dad managed. One of my holiday jobs was dressing the windows.

Me & a childhood friend in Zambia

Me & a childhood friend in Zambia

Me at NCAD in Dublin

Me at NCAD in Dublin

In Zambia my childhood was spent mostly outdoors, climbing trees, playing in the sand pit creating other worlds out of sand and swimming, but I loved drawing and everything to do with art at school. At the age of twelve I was sent off to boarding school in Southern Rhodesia.

I had a wonderful art teacher there, Mrs. Ross. She ran an open door policy in the art room where, in a free period, instead of going to the library, one could come in and be creative. I don’t ever remember set lessons in her classes, just gentle direction to try lots of different art media, from drawing to ceramics, batik to painting and sculpture. She had a special talent in fostering the talent of those of us who loved art, many of whom have gone on to become professional artists in our own right. 

I was eventually offered a place at the National College of Art & Design in Dublin but I started at The College of Marketing and Design where I ended up on a Graphic Design course. By the time I switched to NCAD I decided to continue into the third year of a four year Visual Communications course rather than begin again on the Foundation course.  It took me another seventeen years before I discovered printmaking...but that’s a story for another day!

Emma GeorgeComment