Artists in Conversation: Conor Nolan and Róisín Nolan

Maisie McGregor sits down with the Dublin-based illustrator and collage artist

Despite their shared name, Conor and Róisín have never met before. However, bonded by a shared approach to art, this conversation reads like one between old friends. Both based in Dublin, Conor works as an illustrator and printmaker whilst Róisín crafts intricate collage works. They relate their experiences with pandemic creativity, commercialism and the difference between analogue and digital art, whilst discussing the role played by the political in one’s work. 

Conor: First of all, before we get started, I just wanted to say that I was looking at your work and I really like it; it’s really great. 

Róisín: Thank you!

Conor: I absolutely love collage stuff, I have always loved it and wanted to do it, but it’s something that, like, once I sat down and started to do it I’ve never been able to. So I’m amazed by it, you know. 

Róisín: Oh my god, I’m really trying to bully loads of people into collaging with me because it’s all I do. So if you ever want to do a collage day, absolutely hit me up because I’ve got so much material.

Conor: Yeah that’d be class, I could do that for sure. I do this drawing group called Good Times with a couple of illustrators and we brought somebody in to do a collage once and it was so much craic. I do digital collage stuff, with textures and stuff, but yeah it’s obviously so much nicer to do it on paper. 

Róisín: I think it’s the physical texture of things as well, because I go image-hunting, so I get a lot of them from books, and then my cheat is if you find nice photography, it’s a nice photo anyway. So it’s easier to make it look nice and it doesn’t look as cheap. Especially with the glossier magazines, it’s a cheaper image. 

But yeah, I love your work too! I was looking at it the other day, you can really hear yourself in it. And congrats on the book! That’s amazing! I was like, ‘Jesus, you’ve done so much.’ 

Conor: Thanks yeah, I’m trying to keep busy. The book is an interesting one, like, I did the cover for that and I did a section of it; there’s ten artists in it in total. But yeah, someone sent me a picture of it in the window of Eason’s and I totally shit myself; I was just like ‘Huhhh!’ I think, uh, Maisie might have to edit out me saying I shit myself for the interview, but that’s fine. 

I was going to ask you, how did you get into collage specifically? 

Róisín: Um, I guess I always kind of did it. So like, my teenage bedroom was very much, you know those real old wooden panellings? Like real 80s buzz? And like during the Celtic Tiger I didn’t get my bedroom done up at all [laughing], everyone seemed to get their bedrooms done up and mine stayed the same. So, I just used to grab all of the Sunday Supplements when I was a kid and play around. I used to call it my “art wall” because I never thought of it as an art form, it was just something that I did, like put on my CDs and chop around and play with it. 

But then it kind of moved into me being like ‘Well fuck, I’m poor and I haven’t bought anybody a birthday present so I guess I’m gonna make them a birthday card?’ And then I’d do them all collage birthday cards. And then it was just something that I did a lot because I moved to Vancouver in 2018 and I was really lonely; I had no friends. And then I’d think, ‘What did I used to do when I was sad and alone as a teenager? I guess I used to collage?’ And I guess being in North America I was just quite irked by the politics there, so I put it into a visual form. And I had really bad writer’s block too so I just thought I’d move it into the visual. And now I just can’t stop doing it. 

Conor: That’s really interesting about moving to Vancouver. I would imagine that the reading material that you get over there is culturally really quite different to what you’d get over here, so, did you find any of that changed what prompted what you did? Does that make sense?

Róisín: Yeah, absolutely. I don’t print from the internet, it’s all like analogue and found imagery. So when I was over there, it was definitely more North American centric imagery. 

But then when I moved home in April 2020, I would just be flipping through books and there were just so many pretty beautiful images of Ireland, so I was like ‘Ohhh okay, this is what it was meant to be for.’ If that makes sense?

It’s that catch twenty-two of getting to do what you love as your job, but then also having to pump it out.

Conor: Yeah! So, had you moved away with the idea of staying there for an indefinite period of time and then had to come home because of Covid? 

[Róisín nods]

So, I would imagine that the way you think about Ireland starts to change when you come home after that sort of situation? 

Róisín: Yeah, 100%. Definitely being stuck indoors for like three months with no job, and one of the reasons I’d left in the first place was because it’s really hard to gain employment in something that really goes against the grain of traditional work. So I was just like, ‘Right, they don’t want me? That’s fine, I’ll just go and make a fucking collage about it!’ 

[Both laugh]

I like to have that message in each piece, you know, try and trick people into being socialists!

Conor: When you say work, do you mean in a creative sense or just like work in general? 

Róisín: Um, I think both but like, I don’t have a degree, I dropped out of college, and I feel that that is such a huge impediment to getting a role that goes beyond minimum wage. [In regards to creative work] And especially with analogue stuff, you can’t really get commercial work because it needs to be bumped out a lot quicker. 

Conor: Yeah it’s tricky. I studied VisCom (Visual Communication) in NCAD, and they kind of instilled in me from the get-go to be very good at working quickly. And for that reason actually I’ve kind of used analogue stuff less and less, which is a big shame because I absolutely love it. But yeah, it’s very interesting how it can kind of affect your process. 

Even when I first started off I used to draw everything on paper, but now I’ve just started drawing on an iPad. It’s really weird, it’s really good and really quick, and it makes loads of things much easier, but I really wish I was making things more with my hands. 

At the start of the pandemic I was actually in Canada as well, but only briefly. I was in Saskatchewan. I was doing a residency over there, I was supposed to do it for about a month and I’d been there for two weeks when I had to come home.

So yeah, I had this period of a couple of months where there’s nothing really on and so I just got out a brush and a pot of ink and started drawing that way.

Róisín: Amazing!

Conor: Yeah, and I think I had kind of lost touch with that a little bit you know? From learning to work commercially and digitally, and I wish it was something I could do more.

Róisín: Do you find that when you use the iPad or make work digitally that it creates a disconnect between you and your work? 

Conor: Specifically drawing with the iPad, because it’s new, it feels very much like that, and I’ve only used it for commercial stuff so far. For my own stuff, yeah, I really wanna get back to that idea of “it comes from your head and it goes down your arm onto the page”. So yeah I really wanna close that gap as much as I can. 

Róisín: It’s difficult though, when there’s that expectation to make a living. It’s that catch twenty-two of getting to do what you love as your job, but then also having to pump it out. 

Conor: I was talking today about the idea of kind of like selling yourself as a creative, like, I really really don’t like it. And don’t get me wrong, I’m really happy about all the work that comes along, but at the same time it’s like you get pulled into these really commercial situations and I’m just so over wanting to do that. 

For a while, when I first came out of college, I was really excited about the idea of doing commercial work and I think that’s really valid, it’s cool to work with clients in big companies and I guess test yourself in that way.

But now it’s similar to when I came back from Canada, I just had this switch to being like, “I really just wanna make the stuff that I wanna make.” And if anything comes in the way of that it can be really frustrating.

Róisín: I definitely understand that.

Róisín Nolan - 'India'

And so, do you get loads of different ideas and you just have to sort of park it and come back to it later? How do you kind of work through that?

Conor: I’ve been trying to work like that for a long time, but I find that I’m really bad at going back to things, for whatever reason I just never do. If I have an idea and I have the time for it, generally that’s enough for me to follow it through. 

Róisín: It’s funny like, I’ve been thinking about Christmas so much now, just trying to plan and get work done and hope that I have enough to go for Christmas. 

Conor: I find it funny because I’m trying to resist being too kind of commercially-minded about it, but it’s really hard not to think like that. 

Róisín: 100%. I think last Christmas, because obviously there was a huge focus on ‘shop local’, I had a lot of people reaching out and asking what I had for sale, and I just don’t think I have enough work to go for the crisis shoppers at Christmas yet. But I also hate it! [Laughing] It’s awful, I’m just like “Don’t buy anything!” 

Conor: So then do you sell lots of your collages?

Róisín: Yeah, I sell I’d say like every second one I make and put on my Instagram. Which is a pretty good strike rate! I don’t really do commissions because I find that they stress me out a lot for the most part, because people are like, “Oh I really like that flowery thing that you did in the last one!” And I’m like, “Well that’s an original, and I don’t want to recreate what I’ve already made.” So I just sort of think, “If you like the piece when it’s done, then it’s yours!”

And also, I’m very politically driven with my work. So I like to have that message in each piece, you know, try and trick people into being socialists! 

Conor: It’s funny, sometimes you can make something that you think is really well thought out, like in my experience I’ll spend ages on something and absolutely love it, and people will just be like “Huh”. And then you’ll make “the nice thing” and they’ll be like “Ah, that’s deadly!”

Róisín: I know, I know. It’s very difficult, I think, having to rely on socials to showcase your work and, like, have a reach, because you’re human and you don’t necessarily want to be online all the time! 

Conor Nolan - 'East'

Conor: So you mentioned that you like to make your work political, was that something that kind of emerged alongside you making things, or did it come from somewhere outside of that? 

Róisín: I think sometimes when you put words to something, like in an article, they stick in a different way and lack that space for interpretation, you know? 

Whereas visually, I find that I feel more comfortable expressing those things because it gives me more space to explore them and not feel afraid. I feel that it gives people space to kind of ingest the ideas, they can think about it for themselves, I’m just directing it. 

Conor: Yeah I guess it’s less confrontational. 

Róisín: Yeah, exactly, exactly!

So, who are your top inspos? 

Conor: I find that I can get a lot more out of stuff that is very different to my own. Some of my favourite artists are sculptors, there’s this great American sculptor called Tom Sachs; he makes a lot of weird sculptures out of, like, plywood and really heavy duty work that’s really physical, really tactile. And illustration work from people like Nathanial Russell, who makes these really amazing woodcut prints.

What about you?

Róisín: I really like Cindy Sherman, I’m a big Cindy Sherman fan.

Conor: Class.

Róisín: I just think that the way she’s able to manipulate her sense of self, and explore it in her relation to being a woman. And then, I love this German artist, Hannah Höch. She’s the one that kind of inspired me to look at collage from a political perspective. Also, Wangechi Mutu. Her work kind of explores colonialism and womanhood, so I guess those themes sort of resonate with me too. 

Conor: Do you have a favourite piece that you’ve made?

Róisín: Yeah, I do. It is actually one that I recently made, and it didn’t sell! So I was really happy because I got to keep it! But I was playing around with stained glass imagery, so I used a lot of bright colours and took out the template of stained glass and made my own kind of stained glass-ish image. It’s actually of Saint Brigid,  but it’s called Mary Immaculate because I made it after I watched Promising Young Woman, have you seen it? 

Conor: No!

Róisín: Oh it’s amazing! Watch it! Anyway, I used visual imagery from the main character in that, so it’s kind of a commentary on the Madonna and the whore. 

What about yourself?

Conor: There’s probably a few that I could pick, but I made a print there recently, it’s called East and it’s just a big image of a bird, a big square screenprint. It’s the first screenprint that I’ve done in like two years. So yeah right now that’s one of my favourite things and one that connects a lot with what I’m trying to do moving forward. 

Do you find it difficult to say that you like your own stuff?

Róisín: Um, no! Because I have to be my number one supporter, I have to believe in myself. You have to be proud of what you do, otherwise what’s the point?

Conor: Yeah I dunno, it’s really weird, I have found that over the years I’ve started really liking the stuff that I’m doing, and I try to be really quiet about it.

Róisín: Oh shout about it! Let everyone know! 

Conor: I guess it’s one of those things, you don’t wanna be so loud about it and then someone says it’s not good. 

Róisín: Ah but it doesn’t matter what they think! Fundamentally, fuck everyone else. 

Conor: Yep! Well it was great chatting to you anyway.

Róisín: Yeah absolutely, and if you want to come over for a snip snip time [mimes scissors] I’ll try and see if I can find some birds!

Conor: Ooo yeah very good! We should do that, for sure. 

Illustration by Ottoline MacIlwaine.