A girl named Melanie from Princeton sent me an email towards the end of April, asking about the Burren program and my feelings about it. I’ve recived several messages asking similar questions that I’ve not had the time to get back to, which I apologize for profusely. The email from Melanie came at a time when I was working through processing all of my emotions and experiences from the past year- and I think my response to her best communicates important information about the program and most accurately/completely describes my feelings about the whole thing.
This will probably also be my last post in this blog- I feel that most people who are following me or have found me through the Burren College website are looking for exactly this information, and I’d like to make sure it stays front-and-center. If you’re interested in what I’m doing for thesis, look at ellasthesis.tumblr.com. If digital media in the classroom tickles your fancy (I have to keep this one for a class), try ellatakesed4060.tumblr.com. If you don’t mind listening to me whine, looking at a mish mash of different visual stimuli, or are for some reason intensely interested in my personal life, you can find me at equimby.tumblr.com. Thanks for coming along for the ride, y’all. It’s been real.
So, here it is, save some introductory and closing remarks that were specific to her message, in it’s entirety:
“If you are looking for a place to learn about yourself, the Burren is it.
It doesn’t much matter if you are or not, actually. There’s something very peculiar about the landscape here that makes it impossible to hide from anything. From the wind, from the rain (both of which are hallmarks of Irish weather), from your problems, from your fears.
I feel like my experience is going to be a little bit different than anyone else’s- as a Junior in high school, I was lucky enough to spend a year at a boarding school in Dublin. Since returning to my high school in Virginia, I’d been looking for ways to come back to this country. The people and feeling of Ireland are difficult to define- but there’s something in the land here that keeps pulling me back.
First: Ireland. Part of Europe, but not really. An island of conflict and internal struggles. For all the problems that the Irish have faced in the last twenty, thirty, forty years, there is no kind of hospitality quite like the Irish. If you don’t much like tea right now, I can assure you that you’ll get to. The kindness shown to me around every corner by most people here has been so far unmatched in my limited world travels. Underneath their friendly exteriors, the history of their culture influences their every motivation, regardless of whether or not they’re fully aware of it. If you’re not already familiar with a general knowledge of Celtic and Pre-history Ireland, the British Colonization, the Famine and the Troubles, I seriouslyyyyy recommend that you purchase some kind of survey of Irish history and read it cover to cover. I was constantly suprised/apalled by a real lack of cultural understanding by certain students this past year. A basic knowledge of the history of the island will allow you to better understand the sometimes silly and often subtle attitudes exhibited by the people here.
Second: The Burren & Ballyvaughan. This region of Ireland (The Burren and County Clare) is best known for it’s strikingly unique landscape. The limestone mountains and “pavement” (expansive flat fields of rock with little grass) surrounding the village of Ballyvaughan are unlike the entirety of the rest of the country. Because of this unique feature, the tourism here flourishes largely in the summer months. The population of the village more than quadruples between April and September (I’ve heard estimates of up to 600 residents), while the off-season (…the rest of the year) boasts maybe 90. The village is isolated. Unless you plan on purchasing a car for the duration of your stay (which honestly, if you can afford it, probably wouldn’t be a bad idea), your main modes of transport are: Tom (the village taxi), other students who might have cars, and the bus. The bus runs through the village to and from Galway city (1 hour) twice a day- once on Sundays. It is not terribly convenient to anywhere. If you are expecting to travel internationally very often while you are abroad, do not come here. This is not an abroad program where you schedule your classes so you can jet off to Amsterdam or Paris every weekend (that said, the school organizes several in and out of country long weekends that should satisfy a small need for travel. Dublin, Cork and one int’l trip per semester- London in the Fall and Berlin in the Spring). There is no bank OR atm in the village. There is no grocery store (there is a small shop called Spar which is very like a 7-11 or Wawa except with more food, and the college rents buses for grocery trips as needed). There are four pubs, sometimes five. There are two cafes that are not open in the winter. There is a gas station that doubles as a post office. The rest of the place is lots of B&Bs and FARMS. I grew up near and have attended college in Washington, DC and I was absolutely terrified that I’d feel so alone, so isolated- this has not been the case at all. I am a HUGE advocate of coming into every situation with the best attitude possible, and this experience, while difficult, is ENITRELY what YOU make of it. I’ve taken up bike riding and hiking. I’ve made friends in the village. I participate in community activities (of which there are actually a lot, since no one really has much to do). I taught myself how to knit (albeit very badly…). I’ve read half the books on my list of 100 books to read before I die. I have put my everything into the work that I’ve been making this semester and I have never felt better about my artistic practice and myself as an artist. On that note,
Third: The Burren College of Art. At any given time, there are no more than 40 students at BCA. They do NOT grant Undergraduate degrees, and strictly operate as a program for students who want to come abroad for one or two semesters. That said, they DO grant Post-graduate diplomas, Masters in Fine Arts and PhDs in Studio Art (of which the very first graduate, Dr. Eileen Hutton, completed her program this past month!). Most UG students stay only one semester (myself and one other stayed the year). The campus is small and the resources are limited. This isn’t typically a problem for painters or general fine artists, but can be jarring for sculptors and photographers. The lack of fancy resources was one of my favorite things about this school. It forces you to better your craft in working with what you have. There are four full-time faculty members- Martina Cleary, who teaches photography and art history, Aine Phillips, who teachers sculpture, mixed media, art in context (“research methods”) and performace, a visiting faculty member who teaches painting & drawing, and Gordon D’Arcy, who teaches Irish Studies (geography, geology, mythology, history, cultural and current studies all rolled into one PLUS field trips every Friday. this class is the greatest thing ever anywhere of all time, and every UG is required to take it). Every professor is there to push you as far as you’re willing to go outside your comfort zone. It takes a little while to get used to their teaching methods, especially Martina (she’s… quirky?), but I’ve never had better feedback than with these teachers. I’ve learned more about the way that I work and the strength of my voice in the last nine months than in my first two years at a specialized art college. Sometimes the college treats you like high schoolers, sometimes the faculty give you crappy advice, sometimes you get a bad critique. There are cons to every kind of program like this, but like I said- the Burren is not a place where you can hide from anything, and the very best way to deal is to work through your art. The professors WILL work WITH you to help you find your direction, and once you do they’ll stoke every fire they can to get you making meaningful work. The studio classes do not often meet in groups unless it is a “beginner” level class (or process-based, like Intermediate Photography). Most “class times”, the teachers will come along to your individual studio space (everyone gets one!) to look at what you’ve got and chat about where you’re going to take it. The actual work is very independent and you MUST have drive to flourish in this program.
Other things: go for the year if you can. Three months is not at all enough time to explore all the possibilities that this place has to offer. If you can only swing one semester, go in the Fall. The group is usually smaller and mostly first-semester Seniors, who are (generally) more focused on their work and practice and less occupied by petty bullshit. It rains, a lot. There aren’t many clear, sunny days. If you have a history of seasonal affective disorder, this could be a problem. Otherwise, take advantage of every sunny day (or every dry day, really, even if it’s not very sunny).
Invest in a sturdy pair of waterproof walking or hiking shoes/boots and a raincoat. Not just like, a cute trenchcoat, but a Columbia or North Face RAIN COAT. Umbrellas are pointless because the wind just makes the rain come in sideways anyway.
The program at the Burren is intense, and not at all for someone who is just dabbling in art. You don’t get a Spring or Fall break. The most time off is one or two long weekends, or the London/Berlin trips. Every semester there is a mid-term critique, which involves the entire school (faculty & grad students included) talking to you about your work for a solid 20-30 minutes. Socially, it’s difficult because everyone knows everyone else’s buisness. Artistically, it’s difficult because you may end up confronting things that you’ve been avoiding for years, or you may not be able to work in the manner which you’ve been used to. Personally, I am a better student, artist and human being for having completed this program.”