When it came to choosing her GCSE options at school, Aislinn Cassidy was told she couldn’t do both Music and Art. She had to do one or the other. She chose Music.
It was a stark, either/or choice, but hardly a momentous dilemma with far-reaching consequences. It’s the kind of decision thousands of schoolchildren are faced with making every year. Schools don’t have that much flexibility to accommodate all wishes. Staffing and timetabling impose their own will. The decision was indicative of the way education is run. Subjects are clearly demarcated. A bell rings and English stops and History begins. Lessons learned in one classroom are left there, for new lessons to be learned in another. Rarely are do things spill over the lines, with learning applied in new ways or situations.
She did her GCSEs, good at pretty much all subjects, and then narrowed again to focus on the sciences at A Level. A degree At Queen’s followed, in Micro-Biology. Not wishing to commit to laboratory work, Cassidy went back to school, teaching Science for five years. Again, it wasn’t a big deal. No-one suffered at all, but at each stage of the education process, her possibilities became fewer, there were no side roads, a sort of benign kettling.
She left teaching to start a family before returning to full-time education in her late 30s, this time as a student to take a BTEC in Art and Design at North West Regional College, inspired by the art courses followed at the Pilot’s Row Centre in her home city of Derry~Londonderry. That in turn led to study for her HND in Fine Art, also at the NWRC. She is now in her second year, and plans to achieve her degree with a third year at Ulster University in Belfast, to which she’ll commute daily.
The first thing you notice about Cassidy's work station on the third floor of the NWRC’s Lawrence Building is the rack of test tubes on her table. There are a couple of dozen in the rack, some empty, some holding coloured fluids – orange, yellow, green, blue – and one holding a gold-painted rose. Above the desk lines of taut string go from one wall to another. There’s a sculpture made of plastic cups, that looks like a model for a radio signal receiver. And there’s a raw potato, sliced lengthways, on the table, too.
It looks like it might be a prep room shared by a science teacher and an art teacher. In a way, that’s what it is, except the two teachers are rolled into the one, and each is also the student; lessons are both given and taken.
Cassidy’s work investigates both the art of science and the science of art, and she is more than happy to use a variety of media to explore her themes and ideas, as is evident in her exhibitions of the past year. She showed examples of her early work in Reflections on the Foyle. Working mainly in oil on canvas and paper, these paintings move from the relatively bland representational depictions of light on the river to much more exciting abstract work, which shows strips of colour, hazy shapes and bold bands, pushing over the water.
These works, influenced by Hans Hoffman, Gerard Richter, and Morris Louis, herald the work that was to come, in which Cassidy uses a mixture of scientific techniques and experiments, sculpture, video, and installation to study colour, paint, poetry, and nature. Effluxus was an installation that studied chromatography. In many ways, it was the kind of thing you’d see in a science lesson, albeit on a much larger scale, and with extra dimensions in mind. Strips of paper were lined and hung together to create a 16ft by 4ft canvas. The bottom end of each strip sat in a trough of water, and then a dot of paint or food dye was placed just above the water line. As the water seeped into the paper, the component colours separated, diverged, and rose, creating landscapes of disappearing hills or fields of shooting flame.
Effluxus: Chromatography installation
'I’m fascinated by chromatography,' says Cassidy. 'These were paintings that painted themselves. It was science in action and art in action at the same time.'
Building from this, and again using techniques to be found on the science curriculum, Cassidy placed the stems of cut roses into test tubes of paint or dye. As with the chromatography installation, the process of the paint seeping into the subject and changing its nature and colour can be seen happening, becoming part of the work in itself. The paint worked on the rose to alter the colour of the petals.
Cassidy’s thesis is concerned with the similarities and differences between the artist and the scientist. One thing they have in common is a desire to explore, to take things further, to add or take away, in order to see what emerges. Cassidy’s work shows such a desire. Having experimented with the action of paint on a rose, she has created 'The Sick Rose', adding literature to art and science, in that William Blake’s poem of the same name provides the inspiration.
The installation is both beautiful and chilling. Clear ziplock bags of uniform size, all marked as containing a biohazard, hang from lines at exactly the same height. In each bag is a coloured fluid with a rose emerging from it, drawing the liquid up through its stem and changing nature in the process. It resembles some sort of artificial vineyard or a collection of pieces of evidence or subjects for study – sinister and disturbing.
A subsequent installation has taken the experiments further. The Garden of Love – based on another Blake poem – sees the roses hung upside down, wrapped in sweet and innocent candy floss, which then mutates and melts in the air, dripping coloured sugars onto the floor in macabre splashes.
In many ways, Cassidy’s work follows a school science course, the techniques familiar to anyone in Key Stage 3. She takes simple experiments and creates something unusual from them, often without knowing quite what effect she will achieve until the end of the process. It is a matter of 'What would happen if…'
At one stage, she felt her career was taking her down a tunnel. Now that’s not the case. Her work is meticulous and precise in many ways, but also richly deep and alive, open to all manner of possibilities she is only to keen to explore. At the same time, it points to a need for a much broader approach in education, one that doesn’t corral subjects and students in narrow walled paths.
The Garden of Love
Aislinn's work will be featured as part of the group exhibtion Synergy at the Playhouse Gallery and Plaza, Derry~Londonderry from March 7 - 11. Find out more at www.aislinncassidy.com and catch up on other stories and events featured as part of Creativity Month at www.creativityni.org.