Brushwood Studios Art Gallery - Parknasilla Woods - Sneem - Co. Kerry - Ireland - 00353 (0)64-6645108
Brushwood Studios - 40 years in Ireland
Before moving to Askive, Sneem in the late 1970s the Mullers, second and third generation South Africans, of Irish, English, Swiss and German descent, inhabited a remote and beautiful rift valley in the western Transvaal in South Africa where Max and Anne Muller founded an adventure camp (Sun Valley) for city children, while their own children, Etienne and Jo-Anne, mostly ran wild.
Having decided, due to the remoteness of their home, to home-school her children, Anne, an artist, would set work for them and then become lost in her latest painting. The children could then sneak off to less onerous pursuits. As Etienne and Jo-Anne grew older though, their schooling, if not their education, became more routine as they studied under the guidance of correspondence colleges.
With the passing of the years at Sun Valley the courses and activities on offer evolved to appropriately challenge the changing age profile of the young people who were availing of them. Serving the aspirations of many of the private high schools around Johannesburg, what was once simply physical adventure, revolving around rock climbing, remote trekking, kayaking, and the like, grew to become an integrated residential leadership course, covering many aspects of group dynamics and interaction, as well as communication techniques and how to work in teams.
During this phase of the life of Sun Valley, Max and Anne were asked by a Johannesburg based psychiatrist if they would be willing to accommodate an extremely narcotic-dependent teenager (the son of two doctors) in their remote drug-free environment. It was hoped that peer group change and access to the content of the leadership courses would succeed where medicine and psychology had failed.
One protracted and difficult success and the news travelled like wild-fire through the Johannesburg medical grapevine. Pressure came from various councillors to take on multiple drug addicts concurrently. Knowing that this would alter the very dynamic that had succeeded the first time, Max and Anne limited the numbers of rehabilitating addicts to three at any one time. Over the following years a high rehabilitation rate made Sun Valley the venue of choice.
Many of the previously troubled young people mentioned - because they were permanently resident for months, and indeed, typically, for years at Sun Valley - became very involved in the continuous running of the leadership course activities, involving themselves in every aspect of the running of Sun Valley, from climbing instruction to house building. However, without exception, drug addiction had stolen enough years from their teenage lives that none of them had finished their secondary education. For this reason, during the latter days of Sun Valley, Anne set up a remedial study centre, working directly, and through correspondence colleges, to enable these now committed workers to matriculate.
A spin off from this was the concurrent running of a low profile primary education class of questionable legality (according to South African laws at the time) for some very eager young black children at primary level from the surrounding farms who were without a school at all.
All of this innovative and dynamic activity was taking place in a right-wing constituency of a right-wing police state, and did not go unnoticed. Unsubtle undercover infiltration by the Bureau of State Security put the Sun Valleyites on their guard, and any cross-colour interaction was, by necessity, kept circumspect. The authorities, having nothing really concrete with which to curb this very low key bush school had little choice but to let Sun Valley get on with its ‘subversive’ (they were teaching young people to think for themselves) activities.
1976 though, was a landmark year for the apartheid regime in South Africa. A law was being enacted which decreed that Afrikaans, a language that has limited application internationally, and also the language associated with the oppressive apartheid government in the minds of the people, would be the primary language to be taught in black African schools.
This was strenuously objected to by students across the country, and in the so called township of Soweto, a security-fenced city of a million people, they organised a march. Thousands of students took to the streets to voice their opinion.
The white minority nationalist government was enraged. Their culture being very strongly identified through their language, they regarded this slap in the face as a huge insult and, calling the demonstration a riot, put tanks and troop carriers on the Soweto streets.
The results? Six hundred student deaths and many more terribly wounded. A massacre of unarmed people.
At the time the cold war was still very much an issue in world politics, and although the western powers were loudly denouncing the South African regime, they were also doing their utmost to support it as a staunch anti communist ally. The result being a stonewall policy to emigration from South Africa.
Soweto though, was a breaking point for many South Africans, and after much deliberation the Mullers and friends decided to leave South Africa and their much beloved Sun Valley as they could no longer continue to live in a system that included apartheid. They returned to the only home of their ancestral lines that would have them: Ireland.
On arriving in Ireland
So, back in 1977, feeling like a family of political refugees, they arrived in Ireland, having left their third generation South African homeland in disgust. An Irish grandmother, on Max’s side, from Glengariff enabled the Mullers to obtain Irish citizenship at a time when white South Africans, or black ones for that matter, were persona-non-grata in most modern countries, unless, of course, they had buckets of money.
A buyer’s market in South Africa, due to the Soweto massacre, ensured that Max and Anne Muller, in their early forties, and son, Etienne and daughter, Jo-Anne, aged twenty and eighteen, and young friends, ex Sun Valleyites, would arrive in Ireland in a state of penury. Knowing very little of Ireland, the group roamed around the country in search of a place to call home, and eventually, after a short stay in Lisdoonvarna, in 1978 they settled in the village of Sneem where they began their art business in the old courthouse, later to become the museum, since demolished and rebuilt. Their joy at their new sense of freedom lent them energy and optimism, and they settled in to work on their art, and on building their new home in the Parknasilla Woods near Sneem.
Six months after settling in Ireland, Etienne wrote to his teenage sweetheart, Pam, and asked her if she would like to come and live with him in poverty in a caravan in a boggy field. The answer was yes, and the family compliment, for the moment, was complete. Etienne and Pam celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary in august 2013.
Anne (aka M. A. Muller), an artist previously painting in oils, found the climate and atmosphere of her new environment drawing her more and more into the medium of watercolour. The Irish art scene at the time, often reflecting a somewhat bleak and monochromatic outlook, spurred her, after her first forays into the wild landscapes of Kerry, to paint in ever brighter and more vibrant colours. She scarcely could imagine what this would lead to.
At this time Max, Etienne and friend William Dorling, were busy with what would later become their home, studios and gallery. Inspired by friend: David Procter, who some in Sneem may remember, they were also developing a line in sculpture, reliefs and carved furniture which were helping to fund the project. The noise of mallets hammering on chisels emanating from the old court house acted like a magnet for curious children and adults alike. People would come in to watch a work of art in progress. Etienne recalls a tourist, watching silently for about fifteen minutes while he carved a teak panel, then asking him, “Is it wood?”
It was Anne, though, who had set up her studio in one of the high windowed holding cells at the back of the courthouse which she called Alcatraz, who seemed to have struck a chord, and was taken immediately to the Irish art lovers’ hearts. She became the artistic powerhouse that would drive what would eventually become Brushwood Studios. Anne would sell a painting and more bricks would be bought and added to the walls of their new centre in Parknasilla woods. Thirty five years on and the village is possibly still largely unaware that there is an artist of renown living in the parish. One of the benefits of country life: it helps one keep one’s feet on the ground.
Daughter Jo-Anne, then 18 and just out of school, began to dedicate her energies seriously to painting and, somewhat less seriously, to shoestring travel. At first watercolours, because her mother’s paints were at hand, but, knowing her daughter’s nature, Anne dug out her old oils and some canvass: Jo-Anne suddenly found her medium. The paintings that began to roll off her easel in considerable numbers are so distinctive that after an evolution of over thirty years they have become a known genre in their own right. This style, coined by a patron, is known as Jo-ism.
Pam, in the meanwhile, also at first under Anne’s tutelage, began to work with cotton, silk and linen, making batik wall hangings, using hot wax and dyes to create her beautiful works.
Moving to Parknasilla Woods
By mid 1980 the men, and sometimes the women, had with picks, shovels and rocks, managed to re-establish the old Sneem road through Askive to a condition where a vehicle could gain entry to their land. The mobile homes were moved up onto the land and serious work could begin on the house and gallery. Two years later the first part of the building was ready for roofing and Ireland was deeply in recession. Etienne looked up at the shell of the building one morning and declared, “I think we have built our own ruin,” which summed up the situation for many people at the time. In those days the banks were not too enamoured of the idea of giving loans to artists, and who could blame them, however, the staunch patrons that had supported them at the beginning continued to do so, and by 1984 the first half of the project was completed. The gallery was moved from the court house, which had served it so well, and Max, Anne and Jo-Anne finally moved into their new house.
Etienne and Pam, and their young children, Michael and Diana, would continue to live on in the mobile homes for several years to come.
The endless summer experiment
In 1986 Jo-Anne married an Australian, Gary Yelen. After a number of years Gary, finding the climate in Kerry somewhat trying, especially the winters, suggested that a spell in Australia might be an alternative to rainy Ireland. He and Jo-Anne moved out there for a while and suggested that the rest of the family may like it too. The endless-summer notion was born. Could they could live in Ireland for the northern summer and in Australia for the southern summer? Surely that made a lot of sense? Mike Murphy, an old customer, had been selling Australia in his TV series, Murphy’s Australia, and it looked very tempting.
Well they did it. They opened another gallery on the Gold Coast, and it was fun for a couple of years, with people coming and going between the hemispheres. Australia is a huge place and, contrary to outside perception, a highly urbanised society. The Mullers were caught between the need to conduct efficient business and the wish to live in the country. The commuting, between countries, and locally, was horrendous, especially with young children, and they found themselves often talking about home, and for the first time home meant Ireland, not South Africa. So in 1989 they shut down the Australian gallery.
With everyone back home in Ireland they concentrated on completing the the building of their art centre, and by 1993 everyone was able to finally move into proper houses. Not a moment too soon. That winter both of the trusty mobile homes were totally destroyed: completely blown apart in gales.
With Brushwood Studios now well established in the Irish art scene it became possible to enjoy a little more leisure, and the following years were very much involved with experimentation with different mediums and development of new artistic styles, but also with the fascination in and interests of four young children: at the time being home-schooled. They had plenty of time to write stories and poems, paint, build cubby houses in the woods, and otherwise be creative and active, growing up in the atmosphere of a working art studio with family at home providing stimulus and materials to play with. The pebble beach at the Parknasilla golf course became a favourite haunt of the children, rock-pooling for interesting fauna and inventing fantasy adventures which revolved around the old tower and pier at the Derryquin Castle site. Anne, a master easter-egg hider and finder, would hunt for hours with the children for lost golf balls, collecting hundreds, buckets full of them. These would then be given to golfers from the hotel when they came into the gallery, only to be lost again, and found again.
The old Derryquin Castle pier was also the closest and most convenient windsurfing launch point for Etienne, who sailed happily from there for many years until improvements to the car park made the old pier inaccessible.
A return to oils
For years now Anne had been painting prolifically and joyously in watercolour, supplying a seemingly inexhaustible demand for her work, but the stay in Australia, and the effect of this very different landscape upon her, caused the old urge to paint in oils to arise in her again. The results were a series of large abstract explosions that took her off on a completely new tack.
With this renewed fascination in oils she was now no longer comfortably able to keep up with the established demand for her watercolours and was burning the candle very bright. Pricing for supply and demand had moderated her workload somewhat, but Etienne, still sculpting in wood, and now also painting, but more for variety than for passion, worried that his mother, now not as young as she once was, was overdoing things.
At this time technology was advancing apace and Gicle printing arrived on the art scene, changing the limited edition market forever. A friend, Oliver Aylward, prompted the Mullers to get into limited editions, and they sold a derelict cottage on the land and used the proceeds to purchase possibly the first Gicle printer to be sold in Ireland. Producing limited editions of Anne’s watercolours satisfied some of the demand and enabled her to concentrate on new avenues of experimentation and expression. These high quality limited edition prints can be seen on this website and at the Brushwood gallery.
The evolution of Jo-Anne's work was to take a new turn as well when her teenage sons, Liam and Andy, started a band. The music room was a source of inspiration for her and led to the consolidating of a new style which she had been playing with for a while: thrusim, a new departure, even for Jo-Anne, with her extravagant colours and compositions. Her work is so instantly recognisable, no matter how far-afield it may be found, and, due to its unique style, appeals to people on many levels. Investment collectors buy Jo-Anne's paintings because they actually like them.
The Australian adventure had another secondary effect which came about entirely by accident. One summer in Ireland, with her young grandchildren in Australia, Anne began to write letters. News being boring for kids, and wanting to keep them in touch with their other home, Anne wrote her first story. (Click here for story) This arrived by post in Australia and was well received by the grandchildren, so she wrote another, and then another. After the third letter Etienne realised that this may become a habit and found the first two, and then collected the rest as they arrived. These eleven stories would later be published as The Elfree Stories.
Not knowing anything about the publishing world, and being a DIY sort of person anyway, Etienne decided that a publishing arm to the Brushwood Studios effort may be interesting and fun. The first Macintosh (a horribly expensive Quadra 840 AV) was purchased, and AskifPress (www.askifpress.com), the modest publishing arm of Brushwood Studios, was born.
Having formatted and printed The Elfree Stories they realised that a revolution was about to take place in the literary world. For, just as the Gutenberg press in its time made it possible to publish for a wider audience, the PC (well, let's be honest, the MAC) had made it possible for the amateur to produce a ready-for-printing manuscript on CD at home, without the need for any outside help.
To date Askif Press has four books to its name.
An anthology of poems by Etienne, Pam and Michael Muller: Perspectives
These books are all available online from http://www.askifpress.com
Pam, in the meanwhile, with her two children fast growing up, their education now in the hands of a correspondence college, had been taking the art of batik to a different and complex level, becoming known for her beautiful detailed depictions of fairy folk and woodland scenes in a medium in which detail is not easy. Her intimate observation and love of the wonderful detail and variety of the flora around her led her to pursue an interest in the medicinal properties of the environment and she did a course in herbal medicine. This led to the realisation that she now had the time and resources to follow a long standing fascination with homoeopathic medicine she had had since her youth. Qualifying after four years of intensive study she set up rooms for a clinic in 2004. Pam now divides her time between her art and her homoeopathic practice where she sees patients and also runs introduction courses in homoeopathy.
Max, who had always had an interest in anthroposophy built a thriving biodynamic garden. Visitors to the gallery are often delighted, and sometimes bemused, by being handed the gift of an organic lettuce on their departure.
On first arriving in Ireland Etienne, previously involved with Max in rock climbing as part of the South African adventure-sport business, found a new interest and love: the sea.
He badly wanted to get out on the water, but lacked the funds for a boat, so he borrowed a book on kayaking from a friend, which included the building instructions for a simple plywood kayak, and built his first boat for the grand cost of £60. Thirty years later, and somewhat battered, it is still in use.
Little did Etienne know that the first boat would lead to a compulsion to build many more over the following thirty five years, including a speed boat, a sailing dinghy, a one man trimaran, numerous sea kayaks of varying sophistication and magnificence, and a life long love affair with the water. For boat building click here
The next generation
Etienne and Pam had their two children young: Michael and Diana.
Michael lives and works locally and is well known around Sneem. He has written prose and poetry from a young age and was one of the winners in the first Poetry in the Round Competition at the age of thirteen. Some of his writing can be found in Perspectives (an anthology www.askifpress.com)
Diana is also an artist. Once again Anne’s formidable teaching talents have been invaluable and Diana is developing a style that is all her own, reflecting so eloquently her interests and time of life. (www.dianamuller.com)
Jo-Anne’s elder son, Liam, finished his masters in media studies at UCD and works in sound post production, and Andy, the younger, did his time at the Brighton Institute of Modern Music. They are known locally for their band Calix, now alas no more.
In 2006 Brushwood Studios appeared on the RTE television show Nationwide.
The Brushwood Studios gallery has now been open seven days a week for forty years. The Muller/Yelens continually find themselves involved in fascinating conversations with amazing people who visit Ireland and find their way up their winding track. Visitors are delighted by the variety and quality of paintings, colours, books and personalities they encounter there. People often say in letters and emails: that a visit to Brushwood has been one of the highlights of their holiday in Ireland.
Etienne was once asked how they could flout the three tenets of business: location, location, location? His reply after some bemused thought: “We operate on ‘the better mouse trap’ principle.’’ (if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door).
Brushwood Studios is more than the sum of its parts. There is something intangible about what has made it a success. There is a distinctly relaxed, non-commercial atmosphere on entering the gallery. The artwork of M.A. Muller, Jo-Anne Yelen, Pam Muller, and now Diana Muller has over the past thirty years quietly worked its way into the hearts of our nation and beyond. The love of Art and the absolute joy in what they do has allowed this family to do what they love and spread beauty far and wide for three decades while maintaining an ever higher standard of quality and a level of personal and professional integrity that is refreshing in the often cynical art world of today.
The end of an era
In November of 2012, at the age of 77, after philosophically enduring a decade of pain and inferm health with grit and good humour, Max passed away. Thankfully he had all his marbles and was able to enjoy his interest in family and fascination with philosophy to the very end. A memorial was held for Max at Brushwood which caused a traffic jam on the winding road.
His memorial tribute can be found here.