The Theme for International Women’s Day 8th March 2023 this year #EmbraceEquity where a world is free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination.   A world that’s diverse, equitable and inclusive.   A world where difference is valued and celebrated.

Thank you to Louth Local Development for funding disABILITY Louth to hold an event in Highlanes Gallery Drogheda to mark International Women’s Day on Tuesday 7th March.   An ideal setting thanks to Aoife Ruane having ‘Breaking the Mould’ Exhibition on display, showcasing Art Pieces created by women with both visible and hidden disabilities and celebrating local women artists.  ‘Look, Meet and Make’ with Goda Sirutyte added to the event, who facilitated a workshop on the day for those in attendance.

An inspirational talk from Guest Speaker Susan Farrelly spoke about being an artist and living with an acquired spinal injury.    Keep reading for full article …….

Hello and welcome all to International Women’s Day 2023 in the Highlanes Gallery. International Women’s Day 2023 campaign theme this year is: #EmbraceEquity. For International Women’s Day and beyond, let’s all fully #EmbraceEquity. Equity isn’t just a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have.A focus on gender equity needs to be part of every society’s DNA.

And it’s critical to understand the difference between equity and equality. So, I did my homework.  The aim of the IWD 2023 #EmbraceEquity campaign theme is to get the world talking about Why equal opportunities aren’t enough. People start from different places, so true inclusion and belonging require equitable action.

My name is Susan Farrelly. I am an artist with a spinal disability living in Reaghstown Co. Louth. My creative business, Abbey Art Studios, opened in 2008. I acquired a spinal injury 8 years ago while working. I was diagnosed with CES Cauda Equina Syndrome and now live with it and all its complications.  I am married with two children.  I hold an MA in Fine Art, and I run an art studio in Co. Louth which specialices in delivering functional and user-friendly art workshops.  My motto is “Fun Inspiring creativity”.   I have run art classes for various community groups and people with spinal cord injuries (for Spinal Injuries Ireland) and see the vital importance of meeting others with similar injuries and “sharing the journey” in a creative space. In 2021 while I was studying for my MA I was diagnosed with Achalasia, a swallowing disorder that required additional surgery. If I stood in front of you today and shared nothing regarding my hidden disabilities perhaps it wouldn’t matter. But it does matter, because the reality is it takes more effort to navigate the world with equity.

Art has shaped my identity, who I am and my abilities. Art allows me to make sense of the world. It comforts and heals me when I am not feeling 100%. It allows me to communicate things I often don’t want to hear myself say. It allows me to connect with others. Today I’m excited to share one part of my art practice that is essential to me. I do it every day and if I don’t I feel incomplete. In the studio my art ideas are born in notebooks and journals. I have kept art journals since 1987. So, I was delighted to hear that artist Mairead O’Hare also found joy in starting a journal with Caoimhe during the Breaking the Mould art classes. Look downstairs and you can see Diana Copperwhite’s journals sitting alongside her paintings – her journals are a place where she plans and composes her larger works.    My journals are my friends, with them I draw, paint, design and plan projects and 3D sculptures. They contain everything and anything from shopping lists, feelings, drawings from my children, poems, photographs, measurements, bits from the paper, paintings and doodles. They contain things – hold them safe. In total I have 36 years of thinking with and through art in these books. I can look back at older books and revisit ideas-a personal archive. In the journals there are no rules – they can be private spaces or shared spaces. I have brought 3 examples of the beginning of an idea in my notebook and the end piece for you to look at. Art is for everyone; anyone can leave here today and buy a notebook down in Boyd’s and start a new page. They are very portable – no fancy equipment required. It is accessible – you don’t need to go to college to start just like you don’t need to be good at drawing to start a relationship with art.

Sometimes the studio can be a solitary place. I met another artist Bernhard Gaul through his brother-in-law who was my physiotherapist. We met and worked together and thought this is a great idea, why don’t artists get together like musicians and jam? Art As Exchange was born. Last year we designed and delivered art workshops delivered through Irish Sign Language in collaboration with the Deaf Community & Droichead Arts Centre. I was elected chairperson this year, so I look forward to helping all our future art projects continue the focus on accessible inclusive art programming in the community.  Over the years I have found support and strength in working with others and connecting with various collectives – and the peer support that lies within. I have always seen the power of groups, like minded others and collectives. Find your tribe – I met my good friend and fellow artist and disABILITY Louth activist Olivia Sheils when she heard me talk/give out about always having to attend things in Dublin that support living with a Spinal Injury-why can’t we have things here in the North East?

These collectives of shared understanding and knowledge – other mothers, other children who care for parents with dementia, other people who experience chronic pain, other artists who want to problem solve, other people who care about how best to advocate for best practice environments in our communities. As an Artist and active community member I value supportive and collaborative relationships, especially with our local Art Institutions Highlanes, Droichead Arts Centre, Creative Spark and An Tain and local agencies like Louth Local Development, Louth County Council, disABILITY Louth, Louth PPN. These relationships play a vital role in scaffolding the artist and allowing them an accessible, valid, and valued platform to share their art. These relationships are often the hidden critical glue in the finished artwork reaching a diverse audience. Hidden work enables a product to manifest – in 2021 a significant research project by the disABILITY Louth steering group highlighted the need for programmes like this to exist. “The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on People with Disabilities in County Louth.” It provided vital supporting documentation to the funding application to enable the Breaking the Mould project to happen. I truly hope that projects like Breaking the Mould become a yearly event so that it can build on its learned experience and evolve with the needs of people it aims to serve. Perhaps for true equality, diversity and accessibility to be obtained, projects could extend to all individuals with disability, not just groups that have paid employees that can project manage and orchestrate engagement. Something to consider for 2024……

When I was small, I remember a girl who would ride her horse along the Cavan Road in Knock bridge outside Dundalk. The horse was so big, and I thought how is she not scared of falling off? The fearless horse rider was Carmel Soraghan, one of the exhibiting artists here in Highlanes.  Being fearless is a way of Breaking the Mould, fear keeps you from doing things!

Seeing the Breaking the Mould exhibition is a breath of fresh air – a kaleidoscope of colour that brings me joy. A place of togetherness. Personal stories, meditations that ease the mind, perspectives on nature and hands at work. In the artwork, there is evidence of all the creative conversations had with the artists – Caoimhe, Goda, Maureen & Nicola – colour, rhythm, texture and a host of different representations distilled into each individual’s artwork. The powerful thing about looking at Art is, when you take the time to look, art might tell you almost everything you need to know about yourself. In 16 weeks, the artists here have all achieved something important, not only sharing their valued artistic perspective but torch bearers paving the way for continued art programming that showcases ALL, full equity and equality in action not just in theory.

“Not every mind and body will experience Art the same way. But every mind and body is entitled to the experience and opportunity to be creative.”