September is an important month for Clarinbridge, Co. Galway. It's when the native oysters (Ostrea edulis) come to the end of their summer reprieve and are once again pounced upon by gourmets the length and breadth of Ireland and beyond. For a long while I had wanted to document the preparations for the Clarinbridge Oyster Festival in the village next to mine, and last week I got my chance.
My first stop was the shoreline at Killeenaran, where the native oysters are harvested. They live on the seabed, wild and free, and are managed and harvested by the Kelly family in Kilcolgan, who have been in the business for nearly sixty years; Michael Kelly started it back in the 1950s, to be joined in the business by his bride Bernadette after their marriage in 1963. Three generations of the family have worked these seabeds, and the oysters found here are regarded by those who know about these things as being the very best in the world. My husband, an oceanographer, tells me that this area is unaffected by naturally-occurring red tides that can wreak havoc with sensitive shellfish - no one is quite sure why. What is sure is that fresh water from the Dunkellin River mingles with the salty water of Galway Bay at Killeenaran, creating the conditions that make oysters very happy. Nowadays, Michael and Bernadette's sons Mícheál and Diarmuid run the business, together with their wives Mary and Theresa, and are helped out by their children at busy periods.
I cycled to Kileenaran Pier from my home some two miles away on Tuesday morning, a place I've painted many times. The sky melted into the sea and it was the first time I haven't drawn a line for the horizon, simply because you couldn't see it in the hazy sunshine. I drew the Kelly's white truck, then Mícheál and the two guys from Brazil who work with him, sorting and washing the oysters at low tide in waist-high rubber trousers.
I wondered if the action was as visible as it might be, so the next morning I returned to draw from a closer vantage point. Here's Mícheál washing the oysters at low tide:
I was very excited at the combination of blue and orange. It was tricky to paint everything as I wanted it, as one of the hazards of painting people at work is that they keep taking away the subjects. But Mícheál works hard and there was much shaking of crates of oysters so I had plenty of chances to get his pose right.
As the tide rose and the guys went back to the factory a mile up the road, the two Brazilian guys stopped for a quick word.
"My friend says he wants a print of that, but an enlarged one, if that's okay," said Elizeu, who has excellent English.
"That's super," I said, "but hang on till I've done the whole lot, as I want to draw you guys at work too, and your tractor too, because it's beautiful."
They seemed to think that was perfectly reasonable, and said they would wait.
The next morning I drew Mícheáĺ in the factory, packing oysters for restaurants here and abroad.
The machine on the left is actually for the mussels that form part of the business. They get tossed around for cleaning before being returned to the sea for a rest, as they get stressed from their tumble in the machine, poor lambs. Again, I was in colour heaven with this sketch. Mícheál's action was repetitive so I was able to draw him as comprehensively as I wished. It turns out you don't do anything much to oysters to prepare them for sale - they're picked and packed within an hour of leaving the shore.
Here I am, snapped by Mary, Mícheál's wife, with a silly rabbit-in-headlamps expression and a mouth full of chocolate digestive biscuit, courtesy of Mary:
I drew Mícheál fully first, following the golden rule that if something is likely to move, draw it first - and he did. But just feast your eyes on that Schmincke yellow that I used for his apron...it glows.
It was chilly in there, not helped by the occasional icy blast from the cold room next to me. After I finished, I cycled back down to the pier with stiff, frozen hands and sketched the two Brazilian guys hard at work, taking large forkfuls of oysters from the sea:
The sun wasn't quite as strong as it had been for the two previous days but it was still warm enough to thaw me out and make for a fabulous sketching experience.
Those things in the foreground are wire bags, where the Pacific oysters (Ostrea gigas) are husbanded. They're an altogether different fella from the natives: available all year round, and quite delicious too, but they're not as delicate as their rounder cousins who get to live without shackles beside them. The Pacific oysters can grow so big, in fact, that their wire mesh bags are turned to put a halt to their gallop, as they like to grow towards the light. I was put in mind of a kind of steel corset, clamped around these feisty oysters to curb their natural exuberance.
The two Brazilians were delighted with the sketch and decided that this was the one they wanted. I don't know if they'll follow through on the plan, but I'm always honoured when hard-working guys like these consider buying my work. By contrast, I felt rather lazy, sitting there in the sunshine, exerting myself no more than stretching for my water jar...
Next I sketched the factory where the oysters are packed -
again, they WOULD keep messing with my subjects: that yellow thingie in the middle was moved and returned in a different position, so the light's wrong underneath it. But I think it's still identifiable as a thingie. I am almost 100% sure that the Kellys did not paint and arrange those palettes for my benefit, but I may as well have, as I found them poetic in their colours and positions. The orange crates and I have had our appointment now, and it's over - I won't miss them, despite their orange loveliness.
The weekend approached, and with it the culmination of all the hard work. On Friday night I let my hair down, got dressed up and set off with my husband to the marquee where the opening night of the Clarinbridge Oyster Festival was to be held, leaving my sketching stuff - and the kids - at home. We arrived a bit early and the room was still empty, giving us time to greet Mícheál and Mary at the stall where they were serving oysters to the festival goers. They immediately treated us to a plate and I finally got to sample the marvellous creatures that had been so near, and yet so tantalisingly out of reach all week. Eating the oysters, I was transported to an ocean realm, my senses flooded with visions of diving into the sea, the whole all inextricably bound up with flavour, texture... Does this go some way to describing the heavenly nature of a native oyster? The joy? I know people are divided about them. My only conflict is - when can I have more?
I didn't draw these on the night. Even if I had had my sketch kit with me, there's no way I would have been able to defer my reward long enough to draw these guys. No, I painted these at home the next day: it took me half an hour to open five of them, struggling with all kinds of knives - my respect for those super-fast oyster shuckers has only increased. Yesterday I bought me an oyster knife...
The next day I was back for the main event, but this time I had my kit with me again, and I was there as official sketch artist for the event. It was another hot, sunny day, and elegant ladies and their handsome escorts began to file into the marquee as the shadows began to lengthen and the afternoon turned to evening.
It was a real pleasure to paint Galway's glitterati. I was just a teensy bit sorry I wasn't one of them, but I'm sure that if I had, I would have been wishing I was sketching. After a while I went back inside and drew Kelly's stand, where three cousins from three families - all Michael Kelly's grandchildren - were helping out and manning the stall.
That's Michael Kelly Junior opening an oyster at the back. He's just returned from competing in the Canadian Oyster Shucking Championships in Toronto (his father Mícheál was European Champion in 2004). That lady in the pink dress was his first customer, but she disappeared before I could colour in her dress.
"Sure follow her around," said a few onlookers.
"I don't think that's gonna go down too well," I said, but later on, to my joy, she happened to wander in front of me as I sat in the garden - and moved away the second after I'd put the last brushstroke down, oblivious to my beavering away behind her.
After a while some friends invited me to join them at their table for a drink, so I thought I'd take a little break from sketching. I failed.
However, I still managed a delicious plate of oysters and a pint of Guinness, kindly offered by my friends (that's my pint on the table, and very welcome it was too).
The night wore on and the second band to play, the Amazing Apples, had the floor hopping. Their covers were great, but their own work was even better.
You'll see all ages on the dance floor at an Irish celebration, and often the aul' ones put the youngsters to shame. See the man at the back punching the air? He's someone I know, and I had to draw him punching the air because that's the kind of guy he is: a huge character and very loud. (I once sat in front of him in the library as he held forth to a friend for a good half-hour. I got crosser and crosser at his lack of volume control - and they say women gossip?) Sketching the marquee earlier, I had heard a booming voice drifted over from the garden, and before I looked up, I knew it could only be him. But he is genuinely great craic - larger than life.
It was fun to draw people dancing - there had been a lot of wine, champagne and Guinness taken by then, inhibitions were a vague memory, and lots of dancers wanted me to draw their special moves, which I only wish I'd been able to do. (I'm available for special-dance-move drawings.)
Eventually the band played their last tune, and the dance floor was cleared to make room for the oyster eating competition. This I HAD to sketch.
Not the most polished sketch I've ever done but certainly one of my favourites. I was laughing so hard I could barely draw. The lady on the far left was from Gort (I think) and ate her oysters so fast that she appeared to breathe them in - eight oysters in 7.6 seconds.
"What's your secret?" asked the host, the man who had been responsible for making me laugh so much.
"You don't know how much I love oysters," she said.
I've tried to suggest the thick crowd around the dance floor, phones poised and ready to time the contestants and film their efforts. I did consider volunteering myself as a contestant but then I remembered I was supposed to be working.
I was starting to tire by now, but there was one last sketch I needed to make. Every year a local beauty is crowned queen of the festival, and I had seen this picture of elegance floating around earlier, a vision in gold and pearls. The host had introduced her to the crowd - along with her grandmother, who was the first Oyster Queen a full sixty years ago. I expected to see a little old lady - she had to be at least in her late seventies by now - but the lady I saw, in a pearl grey sheer shawl and soft fuschia suit was beautiful and elegant, still very much a queen. There were only thirty-five people in the tent that night all those years ago, and now there were seven hundred.
I approached the young queen, Aoibheann, with a request for a quick sketch. She was obviously very tired but she obliged, asking a young male friend to sit with her for company. The lad went off to get her a coffee, and Aoibheann fell into conversation with the lady behind her. When he came back, I drew Aoibheann again, looking a little more relaxed: I could have drawn something a little more detailed, but I didn't want to keep her too long as she'd had a long weekend already, and it was still far from over.
"I think I know you," said Aoibheann.
"I think I know you too," I said.
We worked it out: she was a good friend of my next-door neighbour, who had babysat my kids years ago. It's a small and tight-knit community here, where everyone is only one or two friends in common from knowing everyone else.
If you're planning a trip to Galway, make it coincide with the Clarinbridge Oyster Festival in September. It'll be something to remember.
Next week: the Galway International Oyster Festival...oysters anyone?