Joe Caslin is a Roscommon-based artist and art teacher. He is also the artist and educator in residence for the duration of the FW Burton exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland in which he will create an artistic response inspired by the current show. His monumental work, The Claddagh Embrace, was a direct reference to Burton’s Meeting on the Turret Stairs, a work previously voted as Ireland’s favourite painting.
Perhaps most widely known for his series of murals in support of marriage equality across Ireland, Joe’s work engages robustly with pressing sociopolitical issues of the day. Sincerely attuned to those injustices – addiction, direct provision, male suicide, mental health – which pockmark society, he confronts them through his practice on a grand, unavoidable scale.
Joe’s murals are huge things, made to sprawl across entire facades. Imbued with a quality that commands attention, provokes, and questions us on difficult and potent issues, they live with us and against many of us for some time before washing away. Crucially, thankfully, they leave their ideas to the fore of our consciousness. At once they hold a mirror up to the kind of society that we are while asking us what kind of society we want to be.
Explaining this theme which underpins his work, Joe says: “You can throw a lot of shit at someone until they erupt. Some things just get under my skin and I can see that they wrong; there’s a power imbalance, someone is trying to dominate someone else or there’s a dominance where there shouldn’t be – there should be an equality. Where that equality does not exist, there needs to be disruption. The people who reject that disruption are the one’s who buy into that imbalance”.
He elaborates further, demonstrating the overlap between form and meaning: "In scale, [my work is] loud; sheer white and quite violent in a way. And then, in the subject matter, there’s a whole lot of empathy and love. Even though the subject matter might be quite tough, the lines are always preciously drawn. That’s not to beautify the subject matter but the medium it comes through in. So there is that kind of beauty that’s laden with conversation and connection and I hope that comes across".
As evidenced in his approach and treatment, and with an innate understanding of living on the outside, empathy is central to his practice: “Coming from an area that would be regarded as deprived, I was made very aware that I was living on the wrong side of the tracks from my earliest memory. I’m drawn towards people who occupy that space and that frames a lot of my work”.
Although a self-defined outsider artist, “to identify as ‘other’ is something that I’m happy to identify as”, Joe currently has a role in one of Ireland’s most traditionally elite institutions. Can he reconcile these two dimensions of his present practice? “I feel like a wart that’s grown on a model. It’s strange. I feel like I shouldn’t be here”. To ease this imposter syndrome sentiment, I suggest that perhaps we are all kind-of phoneys, making it up as we go along – some are just more convincing than others. He agrees: “Everyone has an eye over their shoulder of ‘when am I going to get found out’”.
That said, he also simply deserves to be there. Look at his work. Its execution is undeniably demanding: emotionally and psychologically during research and physically during installation. And some of him knows it: “I’ve worked hard. I’ve done having a day job, coming home and working until the sun comes up and going out the door to teach again”.
Reflecting the reality of being an artist in Ireland today, Joe supplements and supports his creative practice as a secondary school art teacher in Tullamore. However, it becomes quickly apparent that this is a post he would occupy regardless of any successes in the visual arts. It is clear that he takes a particularly vocational approach to teaching, driven forward by a desire to see his pupils thrive – especially, unsurprisingly given what we have talked about, those who exist on the edges.
“By experiencing life on the margins through childhood and early adulthood, those are the people I’m drawn to now, the magnetism is there and that is who I will move towards. The kids who might be perceived as maybe a bit more difficult […] A lot of kids come with baggage. You just don’t know. The fact that they’ve come in to school could be a miracle so you take what’s there. They’re the crew I most get on with”.
For Joe, it is a two-way street: “They help me. There are days that are painful and sore. School is a turbulent place even for a teacher, there are days where you make mistakes and you're fit to walk out the door. But it’s those kids, the ones who make eye contact with you, who reassure you, that keep you coming back”.