Sarah Lewtas: artist rooted in the landscape and psyche of Donegal

According to legend, the monumental and extraordinary Ray Cross, carved from a single piece of schist with quartz veins and nodules, was originally destined by St Colmcille for Tory Island. Stopping at Ray, near the Donegal coast just north of Falcarraigh, Colmcille found he had inconveniently forgotten his bible. St Finnian of Ray (Fionán Rátha) offered to get it back for him if he would give him in return what he asked for. A raven retrieved the bible, and St Finnian demanded that the cross remain at Ray ….

Celebrating St Colmcille’s 1500th anniversary, in the Turas art exhibition at the Regional Cultural Centre in Letterkenny, Donegal artist Sarah Lewtas has replicated the Ray Cross and the figure of St Colmcille, both in cardboard. The cross is papered with pages from family bibles Lewtas found after her mother died; St Colmcille’s head is modelled from one of her farmer-neighbours in Dunlewey; the raven is made from leather bible covers. St Colmcille is just as I imagine him, a colossal presence striding through Donegal, hurling his staff toward Tory, the majestic raven soaring in his wake. For Lewtas, Colmcille is a “living fable, part of the psyche of Donegal”. That psyche is one, I feel, that Lewtas has penetrated in her forty years of living in the shadow of Mount Errigal with her artist husband Ian Gordon.

Lewtas is “on a cardboard trajectory”, a “cardboard apprenticeship”, fascinated by this “wonderful material.” Serendipity plays a major role in her work: the head gardener at Glenveagh Castle, Sean O Gaoithin, introduced her to historian Brian Lacey, who had written a recent article on the origins and date -- probably late 9th century -- of the Ray Cross. Lacey knew about the earlier research on the cross by Ian Gordon’s uncle, A. H. Graham, a “gentleman historian”. Meanwhile, she had acquired and was experimenting with a trove of cardboard found in a framer-friend’s store in Letterkenny.

She describes herself as “always an outsider or observer wherever I’ve been”. As a sometime resident of Donegal myself, I identify strongly with this – Donegal is deeply ambivalent about outsiders and those of us who choose to be here are likely to be people who embrace our marginality. Born in London, her family was from Lancashire and moved several times, so she was ostracised, learned to love her own company, and finds she can still be “trapped by reticence”.

Lewtas’ work defies neat summarising. It is intensely autobiographical and self-reflective, viscerally resonant of the extraordinary Donegal landscape that envelops her. If any common theme emerges from her work, it is that resonance. It is far from familiar, romantic Irish clichés, but you know the work could only have been made here, in Donegal’s deepest centre. She acknowledges her deep personal faith, inherited from her devout CofE father. Lewtas is not a practising Christian, but I sense her connection to the Celtic tradition represented so strongly by St Colmcille, who straddled the pagan and Christian belief systems and was profoundly and incarnationally rooted in nature, mountain and river, and his own frail humanity.

Lewtas’s art is continually evolving and takes many forms. She now works in a two-storey high, light and airy studio attached to her and Gordon’s restored farmhouse home. She collects what is dead, decayed or discarded. Items are arranged in patterns in momentary chalked frames in Detritus Dialogue, shown in her 2015 Glebe Gallery exhibition Hunter. Sometimes, things are made into totemic sticks, a collection of which sits in the corner of her studio and some of which were displayed in a rack in the Hunter exhibition. “Some of the sticks have a personal story; some have their own story.”

From the studio ceiling is suspended a favourite work, Them, three large receptacles of now faded black, white and red cloth; one filled with old bones, one with dead crows, the third made entirely of red velvet. The idea of three is “everywhere in the world”, she says, in the Trinity of course, but also in Celtic literature and mythology, in the Three Queens of Ireland and The Triads of Ireland. The three sacks seem to hover in the studio, a comforting, stabilising, almost maternal presence, their materials and hidden contents speaking of earth and sky, death and decay. She has a “thing” about cages and containers, which could be about confining or preserving, “both sinister and benevolent”.

Lewtas speaks of her feminism and the disadvantages of being a female artist. She admits she thinks she has not had the full recognition she deserves. An artist friend of mine says Lewtas is one of the finest artists working in Ireland today. Her work sometimes but not always has an explicit or implicit feminist theme – but its power lies in her unapologetic assertion of the right to make it. Her work is intricate, detailed, thoughtful and thought-through, whether it is the handwritten books made from dead crows, or her ethereal, exquisite, more traditional drawings. She is currently working with O Gaoithin on a set of botanical illustrations for Glenveagh Castle.

She started finding things and making sticks, a totemic presence. The work is about presence: she recalls a photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe, of a naked man on a stool, which had an “exquisite presence”, a texture of skin and body. Things can have, she says, a “presence of themselves which is more than themselves”. In a short film made about her 2020 show at the Regional Cultural Centre, Dearest, Someone was asking for you, Lewtas explains that the title expresses her desire to directly address the viewer. Her art is transformed, she says, from its original intentions and influences through engagement with and interpretation of the viewer.

The Turas exhibition in the Regional Cultural Centre Letterkenny is on until 17th September.

Photographs by Vicky Cosstick

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