Art that investigates human mourning and grief drives our most basic creative instincts. Buried in our DNA, the tears shed over death can even be seen evolutionarily in mammals and birds. Humans build tumuli, erect memorial statues, plant trees, make death masks, wear black and even throw themselves on funeral pyres. Sheila Gallagher’s art invents new materials and icons to help us grieve over death due to starvation, disease, warfare gassing and guns. Not surprisingly, her choice of media tends toward black, gray and white. There is little in her work to reassure us or bring happy memories to mind. Past atrocities recorded in her art may spur us to work to avoid historically destructive activities, but her art is not resistance, not therapy and not overtly political.
The recently discovered deaths by starvation and neglect of up to 796 children at the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Galway, Ireland, are explicitly symbolized by Gallagher in “Tuam Babies.” Dried and cut-out images of Forget-Me-Not flowers, 796 in all, are sprinkled over a white canvas like so many little precious and beautiful halos, pleading with us to “forget-them-not.” And who could forget the callous disregard for children in that home, so inappropriately named “good help.” In our own time, we grieve over the children separated from their parents on our southern United States border.
And war goes on in the Middle East, so should we not feel the grief in Gallagher’s animation-video “Visual Overture to ‘Twinsome Minds,’” which recalls the horrors of the deaths of 30,000 Irish soldiers in World War I? The six-minute video uses many icons to convey the grief aroused by the deaths of so many Irish fighting under the British flag. Gallagher’s spontaneous drawings were made during an hour-long presentation by continental philosopher Richard Kearney at Boston College, where they both teach. Later, the drawings were manipulated through video editing to create a collage of nebulous, almost liquid, shapes and swirls. Superimposed on this gray-white-black ground are linear, white line drawings of violent icons; guns, army trucks, horses and ravens, all symbols of the 1916 Irish Easter Rising, considered by historians to be a pivotal event in the war for Irish independence. Sean Connolly, killed in the rebellion, is immortalized by a statue with a raven on his shoulder. The symbol of the raven is used by Gallagher in many of her artworks. The raven has functioned as an icon for death since the time of the ancient Greeks. For Americans, the Raven was made famous by Edgar Allen Poe in his 1845 poem with the line, “Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore.’”