Mary Butler, Kilkenny Arts Officer
Mary Butler is the Arts Officer with Kilkenny County Council.
An artist and maker Mary has worked in the creative sector for many years, devising, curating and managing a diverse range of programmes across art forms, including visual arts, theatre, music, literature and multi-disciplinary events.
Mary has run community projects for over 20 years. Among the Arts Office projects she manages are the Emerging Curator in Residence Programme, Knitted Together community arts project, Rhyme Rag online poetry journal for young people, the Poetry Broadsheet and poetry Phoneline and Bookville Children’s Book and Literature Festival.
A well-known figure in Kilkenny and a great character she told me about her former punk life, living in London and touring with lots of bands. Before her Arts Officer life Mary used to run the Art trail for Scarborough Fayre in the early 2000s. She toured with the Sugar Cubes and Psychedelic Furs in the mid-90s and met Lee Scratch Perry many moons ago!
She is Mam to teenage boy named Dylan, a music lover, keen novice gardener and wellbeing enthusiast who loves walking and yoga and struggles to sit still! She is also an advent charity shopper and adores remaking pre-loved clothes.
Here is a glimpse into Mary’s world…
Before you came to Kilkenny and worked with Kilkenny County Council, you had a huge music life, touring around the university circuit in the UK.
Yes, before I came back here I worked in the music business in London. I toured with a lot of bands. I specifically worked with Levitation and Terry Bickers, formerly from the House of Love. We toured with The Sugarcubes - the band Björk was with before she went solo.
My job was to look after the merchandise and run their fan club. From time to time, I had to keep the dressing room calm too! The best part of the job was getting into to lots of gigs for free and meeting people in the music industry. Being on the road for weeks meant I got to see a lot of England too.
Fast forward to today and your career in Kilkenny Arts Office. You are currently working on a new community project Knitted Together 2. What is the aim of this project?
Knitted Together 2 aims to foster community spirit and connection across the county, to mitigate against the effects of social isolation throughout the pandemic, whilst creating some beautiful handmade blankets.
These will be donated to local charities in Kilkenny. The project runs to mid-August.
You’ve worked in community projects for over 20 years. What’s the appeal?
When lockdown hit last year, the local authorities responded really well with online projects across all departments. One of the projects the Arts Office ran out was Knitted Together 2.
I have a huge interest in mental and physical well-being as well as neuroscience as a hobby. Hence my latest crush is Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist and award-winning Stanford lecturer of neuroscience. In one of her books she talks about being bigger than self-goals. I think projects like Knitted Together are bigger than self-goals.
It’s really about connecting people, even if we can’t connect physically, we can still connect conceptually
We had really funny conversations with women last year who were sick of knitting jumpers for their grandchildren who don’t really want to wear them. With this project, the knitters are giving back. They were giving to themselves by allowing the time to do this, while also giving back to society by doing something for a charity and supporting people much more needy than themselves.
They also connect with each other. They have the knowledge that another 180 people are out there doing this for the same purpose.
Have you started knitting your blanket yet?
Not yet, I’m not really a knitter! At school the nuns weren’t impressed with my knitting. My knitting would get so tense and uptight that I couldn’t even put the needle in to loop a stitch! I have recently retaught myself to knit and crochet with YouTube.
I love to hit my goal of 10,000 walking steps a day to look after my physical health, but with my busy lifestyle I find it difficult to dedicate ‘down-time’, just for me, away from any other distractions.
I will definitely be taking 10 minutes each day to knit a couple of lines and enjoy the mindfulness aspect of knitting. People from all walks of life can join in on this challenge, pick up their knitting needles or crochet hooks and join the fun and find some headspace of their own and creates new communities.
There’s also the option of a memory square, which I think I will do. I want to dedicate my square to a special woman who is no longer with us. I even have her needles and ball of wool to make it.
Artists and musicians suffered with no performances or exhibitions to showcase their work during the lockdowns. What did the Arts Office do to help them?
We turned it around really quickly and started with writing workshops and a lot of professional development online.
Looking back at the past year, my take on it is that it has benefitted some people, in so far that I am sure that some people came to our online activities who wouldn’t have walked into a room on the own. It gave people an opportunity to quietly join in and test the waters.
Our professional development for artists was helpful too. I saw a huge opportunity to encourage artists to stop worrying about exhibiting and go back to the essence of their practice. We also needed to mind them, so we did a 12-week programme last year called Wednesday Weeklies. We helped artists on the course by showing them how to use social media and set up websites, how to research and to get back to the essence of their work.
I also did a four week series with them around wellbeing. We did work around people’s personal values, their finances, movement, diet, even their sleep.
What’s your role for the upcoming Kilkenny Arts Festival?
Our role in the Arts Office for the Kilkenny Art’s Festival is something that is misunderstood. We really are not events based, we give a lot of supports and funding for other organisations through grants etc. We are the foundation under the artists. We help to put that musician or an artist exhibiting on the first step of the ladder.
A huge part of our role is being their first monitor and getting them to a stage in their career where they start performing and exhibiting. A lot of our programmes are about professional development, our emerging curator in residence and literature workshops. We have always been there in the background.
We do have the Poetry Broadsheet for the Festival, which is a publishing opportunity for writers every year. It’s a loved project and has been there since day one of my tenure.
Now that the country is reopening, what exhibitions can we visit in Kilkenny at the moment?
The future artist in residence in Meubles, John’s Street is well worth visiting.
The Knitted Together 2 project is funded by Creative Ireland as part of its Age Friendly Initiatives, the Design and Crafts Council of Ireland (DCCI) as part of the Governments ‘Keep Well’ campaign and is supported by Age Friendly and Healthy Ireland Kilkenny programmes. See www.kilkennyartsoffice.ie
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