Self Portrait

By Ruth Garvey-Williams

Printmaker Jilly Mc Ateer recently graduated from NCAD with two prestigious awards for her work. She chatted with VOX editor Ruth Garvey-Williams, about her art and her faith.

Tell us about yourself
I’m from Dublin, born and bred.  I grew up in Glasnevin and now live in Cabra.  I’m married to Marshall Kingston, who I met when I was 16 and he was 18.

My mum is a Christian and my Dad was from a Catholic background but for most of his life was an agnostic.  Growing up, my brother and I went to mass one week and then to a Baptist church the next.  

My mum is the godliest woman I know.  I was quite young when I met God.  I really loved Jesus as a child.  I remember talking to my teachers and my friends and I felt it was so sad that people didn’t know God.  

In my teenage years, my enthusiasm waned. I was used to knowing all the answers in Sunday school and I was under the delusion that I knew everything I needed to know.  The “idol” of academic success really took hold.  For me, achievement in grades and academics became a distraction, encouraging a kind of dormant Christianity.  And yet, I still loved Jesus and wanted to be like Him.

I tend to explore things that are sad or out of control in my own life.

What changed?
Going to the international Christian youth conference “TeenStreet” helped me realise that I hadn’t “arrived” and that there was so much more.  I met people who humbled me by their lifestyle. 

One of the more intense moments of my life was during my first year in Trinity.  I was studying English and Sociology and I suffered from depression.  The pressures built up and eventually I decided to take a gap year.  

I went to India twice, first with Oasis and then with Freedom Firm. I also went to Texas to do an internship with Josh and Debs Walker (main speakers at TeenStreet) for three months.  That helped me shed my preconceptions about what God was like. 


So how did you get from studying English and Sociology to being an artist?
I come from a family of scientists.  My dad was a chemist.  My mum did microbiology and my brother is in the midst of studying for a PhD in physics.  But I always loved art and painting,  especially two-dimensional images. During my gap year, I submitted my portfolio to NCAD and when I got in, I decided to go for it.


What was it like being a Christian in art college?
I was two years older than most of the other students and I was glad of that. There is a lot pressure to fit in.  I felt happy being different.  You stand out as a Christian - in fact, you stand out like crazy.  There is no hiding it and I didn’t want to.  

I love talking to people with different points of view.  CS Lewis warned against  “banding together in our own cohorts of thinking.”  Instead, we need to meet those who have the “best arguments for the opposition”.  I love that idea. 

My experience of the art world in Ireland is of a closed-minded liberalism; a mindless pursuit of what seems the most liberal and innovative.  But there is a lack of thought in that.  People can be intolerant in their open- mindedness.  At the start, my friends probably took offence at my views or thought I was indoctrinated.  But when you love people, they realise you are not judging them.


Tell us about your work
I chose to specialise in print.  Some people want to “say” something with their art.  For me, is not a message but a process of questioning. My work is quite dark. I tend to explore things that are sad or out of control in my own life.  

In my final year project, all of the images were about the home we are now living in.  When we moved in, the back garden was overgrown with bushes and it had become a dumping ground.  We uncovered vodka bottles and beer cans.  The previous owner had died of alcoholism.  That resonated with my own personal experience. 

In most people’s lives, there is dramatic, dark stuff happening.  It could be grief, addiction, or sickness. It is the terrible within the domestic, the darkness in the familiar.  I used the garden as a metaphor. In one image, my Dad is sitting on a chair. You would hardly notice him. It was a great way of showing him in the midst of that, but separate from it.

My tutor told me, “All of your work is about the human condition…” I was thinking about this recently.  I never want to paint rainbows or doves.  Through the artistic process, you can transform ugly things into beautiful objects. 


How do you reconcile the dark themes in your work with your Christian faith?
I’m still wrestling with my faith in terms of my art.  Because I am a Christian, should I only be doing “happy” things? There is a tendency in Christian culture to demand that art should “improve” on life.  This can lead to fluffiness and sentimentality.  Some question why I would create art about depression.  For me, that is like asking, “Should you be honest?” I think an important part of the Christian walk is being honest and open with questions.  It is a healthy wrestling.

Your final year project won awards.  Tell us about that.
I was really blessed.  After my graduate show, I was selected for a graduate award, which gave me free membership for a year at The Graphic Studios, one of Dublin’s two large print studios.  I also received the RDS Printmakers Award.  I’m currently exhibiting in three galleries.  I’m also volunteering at Tearfund and helping out at my church.

What do artists need from the church?
As an artist, I would love to meet other artists who are Christians so we can have a discussion.  I have wrestled for ages with how my work is “kingdom-bringing”.  From the practical side, young artists who are Christians will almost certainly fall away from God if they do not have support, especially if they see a disconnect with the body of Christ.  Artists can be quite extreme.  Christians who are artistic and creative do not want to have to choose between their art and their faith.  They do not want to hide their identity.  

What is God teaching you right now?
God always takes me through “themes”.  One of the themes I’m going through now is the realness of God’s continuous presence. We can be so driven. I want to learn not to stress about “getting better at this” but instead just to enjoy God.  I still have so much more to learn.  I know 100% that He wants me to rest more.  I feel guilty if I stop. 

I listened to a really good talk by Tim Keller recently about, “blessed self-forgetfulness”.  Too often low self-esteem and pride are two sides of the same coin.  It is not about thinking less of yourself so much as thinking of yourself less!  I need to learn to enjoy things and to not worry about how they are making me look or how they are adding to my CV.  In God, there is no more judging.  We can just be.