"I was so far away from home," says Caít NiSiomón, a native of County Cavan, Ireland, who transplanted herself to the Sonoran Desert nearly six years ago. "I was researching my roots, and trying to speak more Gaelic." Feeling in a "powerful place" artistically and personally, she decided that her ancient Irish name suited her better.
"The name Caít (pronounced koytch) is a powerful word," she says.
NiSiomón's been drawing nearly all her life, but it was in Tucson's dry desert that she made her first paintings. Now showing in a three-woman exhibition at downtown's Arts Partnership Gallery along with work by Emily Ralph and Janice Marin, her oils on board paintings are realistic, but ambiguous.
The people seem half-remembered, like blurred dreams, their soft-edged figures standing on empty beaches or peering out of cabin windows. The dark landscapes they inhabit are colored in muted grays and greens, and the low horizons hunker down under heavy skies. They conjure up her native land as surely as does NiSiomón's new name.
"I dream of Irish winters in the Tucson summers," she says, seated beneath nine of her paintings at the gallery. "I dream of the fog and frost that I love ... those colors, the dark, dull atmosphere, the low ceiling." The wintry Irish weather, rarely seen by tourists, dampens and darkens the famous Irish emerald greens, she says. Like her paintings, "they end up being gray-green."
NiSiomón, 25, grew up in the Irish midlands, a rolling landscape dotted by the cabháns, or little hills, that give her county its name. Cavan is watered by as many as 365 lakes, one for every day of the year, the locals say. Her mother is a nurse, and her father a musician, a guitarist and singer who plays country-Western and traditional Irish music. The youngest of three children, NiSiomón says she fell in love with drawing as a kid.
"I was obsessed with it. I would stay in my room and draw anything. ... Art was the only thing that kept me in school."
Each year the local bishop would come to the classroom, she remembers, and ask the children what they wanted to be when they grew up. Young Kathy, as her mother still calls her, changed her prediction each time. One year, it was a poet, the next year, a pianist. But when she was 10, she had a definitive, present-tense response for His Excellency.
"I am an artist," she declared.
NiSiomón studied one year at the Cavan College of Further Studies, undergoing intensive training in all aspects of art, craft and design. The following year she went farther afield, enrolling at the Galway Mayo Institute of Technology in Galway, a seacoast city where Irish can still be heard. The art campus, Cluan Mhuire, was housed in a "really cool" old monastery where the art students were free to stage performance pieces in the seminarians' old cells, or fill them with installation art.
Her first year in Galway was a disappointing retread of her studies back in Cavan, but by the second she was specializing in sculpture and new media. Her strategy was to learn the complicated stuff at school, and to teach herself to paint later.
"I knew I could paint if I wanted to, but in college I was giving myself the opportunity to learn video, film and so on."
Nevertheless she soon grew restless within the monastery walls. She envied the real-life wisdom the older students brought to their art.
"They had so much experience. They had a lot to say. I didn't know enough." Plus, she adds, "I had a bit of a gypsy in me."
So she left Ireland in 1999, on a projected one-year journey, and followed her brother Ray to Tucson. She took on a house-sitting job, but her plans took a detour when she fell in love and got married. (The marriage has now ended, amicably.) NiSiomón was feeling burnt out on art, but she started back in with pastels. After she had a pastel show in 2003, she finally felt ready to tackle painting.
"I suppose I had to learn a lot of stuff about life first," she says. "I started painting and painting and learning a lot, with a plan for each work to be better than the last."
She dislikes the way the woven texture of canvas shows through paint, so she paints on birch wood instead. As a result, her paintings are smooth and glossy, built up of many layers of oil thinned with a medium. She glues the board onto a wood frame several inches deep to push the paintings closer to sculpture.
Since she can't afford to hire models for long periods of time, she takes dozens of photos at a single session and uses the pictures as a basis for the paintings.
"I take a lot of photographs. For one painting I might take 60 photos, from all different angles and positions. Then I lay out the photos, but it always turns into its own thing. The painting tells you what it wants to do."
The biggest painting in the show, at 54 inches square, "Tripen" pictures a woman and a man standing immobile on a beach, in front of a breaking wave. With their backs to the sea, they're oblivious to the impending watery onslaught. The painting started out as a critique of America consumerism, the artist says, but somehow turned into a psychologically tense drama on the sands.
Born and bred on an island, NiSiomón particularly likes setting her paintings on the beach.
"It's a very temporary landscape," she says.
Tucson may turn out to be a temporary landscape for her. Her marriage has ended, and her brother is back in Galway. She pays a low rent for a tiny house in the barrio, and she's come to love Tucson, she says. She's even making a living with her art, selling every painting that she brings to the Arts Partnership Gallery. But she's begun to long for Ireland, and home.
"I have a need," she explains. "I want to be in Ireland. I miss my family and Irish culture."
She hopes to finish art college in Ireland, where higher education is free, and where she'll be one of the older students she used to envy, somebody who's seen a bit of life. After the years of teaching herself and working alone, she wants the bracing criticism of a good art teacher, she says. To keep up her relationship with the gallery in Tucson, and her patrons, she may even switch materials.
"I'll have to learn how to paint on canvas," she says, "so I can roll it up and ship it back to Tucson from Europe."