Artist Malcolm McClay turns home for latest exhibition

Artist Malcolm McClay with Inishkeel in the background.

ARTIST Malcolm McClay’s latest exhibition, currently on display at Letterkenny’s Regional Cultural Centre, is a very personal and spiritual portrait of his home county.
Centred around Inishkeel, the collection examines the Donegal man’s relationship as both man and boy with the tiny uninhabited island off Narin.
Based these days in New Orleans, Malcolm has dedicated his ‘Swimming to Inishkeel’ exhibition to his wife and to his parents, Whitby and Myrtle McClay.
In its essence the work is a love note to Donegal, one that exposes beautifully the artist’s deep connection with, and passion for, the land and the sea.
Speaking following the launch of Swimming to Inishkeel, which will be on display at the RCC until March 27, Malcolm said that despite having lived for many years in the United States, he carries Donegal with him every day.
“Donegal is where I am from, I have been gone from Donegal a long time but it is at the core of who I am,” Malcolm said. 
“I lived in Australia in 1989 and it was the only summer in my life I did not spend in Donegal. I now come and bring my family, my boys are young enough that they think we spend half the year there, they have grown up with their cousins, friends and neighbours in Donegal and when its time to go back to the US, they almost forget they live in New Orleans. 
“I spend more time in Donegal now than I did when I was in college in Belfast or working in Dublin. So Donegal is not some place I long for, it’s a place I spend time in, a place where I have not lost touch with the people I grew up with. I carry it with me every day, and anyone who knows me in the US knows I am from Donegal because it is an integral part of my identity and my being.”

Malcolm (right) chatting with friends during the launch at Letterkenny’s Regional Cultural Centre of his exhibition.

During his annual pilgrimage back to the land of his youth Malcolm swims daily from his parents’ house to Inishkeel. 
The coldness of the water, he says, makes him feel “connected and alive”. That 30 minute swim features in the exhibition, with a naked Malcolm painted in reds and greens plunging beneath the chilly Atlantic.
“ I swim in the Atlantic for the months of June and July so the water is not that cold,” the artist said.
“The colours I used to cover my body in the two pieces in the exhibition, Silueta and Emerge, were taken from images of the Caves of Lascaux in Southern France that date from approximately 17,300 years ago. They are I believe the first rituals of man, in what seems to be the earliest examples of visual art, installation and ritual or performance, as well as the precursor to what would be described as a spiritual practice. I used red ochre, yellow ochre and an olive green that I matched from the colours in the cave paintings.”
Another component, one that may not be as obvious to the untrained eye, is the use of shirts. Clotheslines of garments dotted with script hang overhead as the viewer imbibes the wider artistic experience.
“Clotheslines have always fascinated me; they are a huge part of life when I am in Ireland, then cease to exist when I’m in the US. They take the wind and make its movement visible. I see this as a metaphor for making the invisible world visible. Through the movement of the clothes we can tell how the weather is if we are inside looking out. They become an interface that allows us to access that invisible force.
Putting clothes on the line, or taking them down hurriedly before it rains is a daily ritual I remember from my childhood. It is a ritual I equate so much with Donegal and reminds me of home, so the clothes on the line become about memory but also become this cultural icon for me as they are completely absent when I am in New Orleans.  
“I began writing about this experience and then began writing on the clothes themselves, I then included the written clothes among the others on the line so they became like people in a crowd. The projection on the clothes is of my morning swim to Inishkeel,” Malcolm explained.

Malcolm flanked by his parents Myrtle and Whitby McClay. On the left is Kirsty North.

The next stop for Swimming to Inishkeel will be the LSU Museum of Art in Baton Rouge where it will open on November 1.
For his next project he is returning to Donegal with ‘A Letter to the Sea’. It will be performed on Narin beach at low tide and will begin with the artist writing a letter by the sea before the text is claimed by the ocean. 
Like Swimming to Inishkeel, it too will be a very personal journey for Malcolm.
Opening up about Donegal and what it means to him was not an easy decision. In the end though his love of the place made the choice for him.
“It took several years I suppose, when you begin new work like this you just make what is inside you and then later you notice that all the work has a relationship and could live together and so the exhibition is born. To be honest, the swim I make and have made for years to Inishkeel is so important to me that I avoided making work about it for a long time, as I was afraid it might kill the very thing that inspired the work in the first place. In the end however, it was unavoidable, I had to let it out and become something more than this private ritual and allow it to live in the public sphere.”
Swimming to Inishkeel is on display in the RCC today and is free to view. Check out for more.

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