One man's journey from an organic farm in Midleton to fashion designer in Dublin
(From the January - March 2018 issue of VOX)
Dublin-based designer and artist Brendan Madden creates woven stories with thread and fabric for his fashion label Brendan Joseph. From the silvery blues of Dublin Bay to the rusted leaves of Autumn in New England, he wordlessly describes a world bursting with life. Here Brendan shares his own story in his own words, from his childhood on an organic farm in Midleton to a manor in Avoca where he first encountered sincere devotion to Christ, to becoming a father and entrepreneur.
Tell us a little about your family and where/how you grew up.
I’m the second youngest of four, and the only boy. I spent my first few years just outside Midleton, County Cork, before moving to Glasnevin in Dublin. When we lived in Cork, we lived in this beautiful Victorian mansion in the countryside and my mum ran an organic farm and guest house. My parents were both originally from Dublin where my mum was one of 11 and my dad was one of 3. My granny had an absolute cave of toys and always made cakes, and grandad, who was blind and a basket weaver, sometimes brought me on errands. I was fascinated by how he ‘saw’ with his hands, as well as his sense of place. He always knew exactly where he was and what direction to go.
I love to understand and explore the history and meaning of things all around me. At 15, I went to school in Munich and the rush of freedom excited me. Each weekend I would travel and explore some far flung town of Bavaria. I loved to draw and create, and so when I went to The National College of Art and Design and started weaving, I found a way to work on all the things I love at once.
How did faith or religion fit into your life as a child?
I went to a special needs primary school called St Declan's that was set up by a Jesuit priest. Father Andrews was a very kind man and totally radical in terms of how people thought about children at the time. St Declan’s was a place where children were loved and cared for, and where each of us was empowered and of worth. My first teacher, Sister Marion, was an amazing woman. She rode a motorbike and brought the stories of Jesus to life, as well as being kind and patient with us. We did First Communion and First Confession and it was all really special.
It wasn’t until I was applying to mainstream secondary school that I even realised this ‘special school’ was not called that because of how each child there was so deeply cared for. I was just glad to be there, and because of that I didn’t see autism, which I had a diagnosis of at age 2, as anything wrong.
I expected things to be the same in the local church, but it wasn't. The ladies who ran the events wanted us to be perfect and do what we were told, and were cross if we didn't. At mass, I was skeptical of the whole 'sign of peace' gesture with people who I knew were whispering cuttingly about each other moments before and moments after. It felt like such a lie. I declared I wasn't going to confirm unless it was what I truly believed—I was not interested in the automatic. My mum arranged for me to meet with a priest who sat with me and patiently explained how Jesus could be God's only Son, how all of us were also God's children, and how Jesus died and rose. We pored through the wording and tradition of the ceremony and its origins, and so I made my confirmation.
Was there a specific instance in your life when Jesus became more real and you intentionally chose to follow Him?
At 15, I was thinking a lot about God. If he was real, surely then faith would make a difference in people's lives. I wasn't seeing that around me and I wanted to. One afternoon we dropped my sister down to Ovoca Manor, a Christian camp in County Wicklow, and I saw something I'd never seen before: teenagers my own age who were excited to be there, being themselves, and talking about Jesus.
I was conflicted, too, because some of them I knew from school and they were totally different there. It was like they went from guarded and cold to fluid and free, and I wanted to know more. What was it that gave them the confidence to drop the act and be open with one another? And what was it that made this place safe, special and undefinable? So I signed up to go on the next camp.
Since I was certain this was only going to be a research trip, I found a Bible at home and highlighted all my questions and notes. My big questions all centred around the difference between what people practice and what they preach, and whether or not I wanted to be a part of it.
At camp, a woman named Kathy simply opened the Bible and showed me the answers to each and every question in the words of Jesus. Nothing complicated, nothing explanatory, no cross-referencing other than showing a different angle on the same issue. It was utterly compelling. I realised my relationship with God was not to be determined by whether or not I wanted to be associated with what others did with their Christian label. Rather it was a response to his love for me as his son. Nobody ever told me Christianity wasn't about what other people were doing, or what other people thought of me. Christianity was about responding to Jesus.
I'd never before used simple words to describe my feeling out loud, to people I didn't know. So when I found myself standing up and explaining to everyone there the decision I had made, I was as surprised as my friends from school. I went back to school and started a Christian Union group and things at school were never the same again.
I had been bullied and I'd always been different, but I tried to bring that spirit I found at camp back to school with me. It wasn't as if I stopped being bullied straight off, but other than the occasional broken bone and damaged property, it didn't matter anymore.
How do you see your work as an artist complementing your life as a follower of Jesus?
Identifying as an artist was a long journey that I felt for a long time I had to justify. I like to solve problems and debate solutions, but in real life, that's not how it works. In taking on the identity of an artist, I came to terms with things I can't resolve or understand through logic and reason. It softened how I talk about God; I can speak what I believe through what I do. When I talk to people about the themes of my work, some of which are deeply personal and touch on creation, on religion and on God, they’re open and interested. I’m not trying to convince them of anything; I’m just sharing what I’ve explored and answering questions.
I used to be afraid that if I put myself out there as an artist and opening myself up to criticism, so I was private about the journals and research behind my pieces, but when I saw how people - who maybe wouldn’t be able to buy my scarves - connected with the journals, I began to share them on my website.
I had this false belief, wherever it came from, that things about God had to be distinct and only about God, or else not be about God at all. I’ve had people tell me my work needs to share the Bible (in a literal sense), that it isn’t worship if it doesn’t, but this sacred spiritual divide is a false one. Either using your gifts to serve God is worship, or it isn’t; it can’t only apply to a specific set of gifts that people are comfortable with, and it can’t only apply to what you do in church services. I believe that we have to live out our work in our daily lives as well.
Maybe the Christian cultural distinction between the spiritual and the secular comes from the Old Testament priests having been ‘set aside’, or maybe it’s a compartmentalisation of our church lives and our work lives that people don’t want to think about. The church can be deeply afraid of artistic creation. It’s impossible to fully understand, there’s an intended meaning that might be shared, but there’s layers of hidden meaning too, and there’s also a deeply personal meaning that each person who experiences it finds for themselves.
Two years ago, I did a series in my journal, which I'm currently translating to the loom, called If not for love: A currency interrogating this question of 'Love. Dad'—the two words in their different vectors and what each means to me. Two images from the series stick out for me: one is of this headstone in a pet cemetery where someone had inscribed for their dog that they had a faithfulness no human did; the other image was an exploration of the word 'covered', which is mistranslated in the NIV Bible as 'knit' (in the womb). The reality of fatherliness, sonship, and vulnerability lies on this spectrum for everyone, and this strongly resonated with me.
Did becoming a father change your relationship with God?
In becoming fathers, I think a lot of men reframe 'the father' in the image of the father they want to be, which can negate the complexity of the Trinity, in that the Father and the Son being one, the Father sacrificed his own Son so we could be his own sons and daughters. I think it's impossible to understand the idea that you could allow harm to come to your only child, but it's also impossible to understand the idea that someone who was 'one being with God' would willingly submit to such brutality as the cross.
We have this false notion that we must hold on at all costs to keeping it all together. Struggling as a new parent, and in struggling as a new business, I felt under so much pressure. Surrender to God, something I'd always found easy, no longer seemed so automatic. I have an image I keep coming back to from my journals of a man holding onto the last dead branch at the edge of a rushing waterfall. Life can feel like that and in finally letting go, I’ve learnt from my experience of being a father, what it means to be a son.
What's next for Brendan Joseph - the man and the company?
In wanting to be a successful artist with a successful business, I've realised there's sacrifices at every turn. Some of them are possible only because my wife and my family have stepped in and supported me, but even the early bird can't catch every worm. I find there can be an 'opportunity travellator conundrum' where we feel we need to keep moving on a series of conveyer belts, like in an airport, never stopping to think if the destination at the end is where we actually want to end up. The toll on health, wellbeing, and relationships is not worth whatever could possibly be at the other end.
One of the things I’ve learnt in the past year is to step back and make sure I’m going in the right direction every time I can get a break. I know I'm called to create, but I also know I don't have to fulfil anyone else's version of what I should be, or even my own. I need to choose between all these competing goals and decide what MY goal is, not from a menu of what's possible or what's considered a success, but asking: if I am truly listening to God, where does that take me?
Visit www.BrendanJoseph.com to view more of Brendan’s work, or pop into his shop at 30 Anne Street South, Dublin.