Alice Maher has just been out for a stroll along Limerick's old canal bathed in the early autumn sunshine. In the distance is the University of Limerick (UL) - now a sprawling metropolis- still known to her simply as the 'White House'.
The scene described is a perfect metaphor for the distance she has travelled from humble beginnings to respected artist in galleries all over the world. Like Alice 'through the looking glass' everything and nothing has changed in all that time.
Indeed, she remembers how it all began for her like it was only yesterday. Finding art, as a full time occupation, was a slow process-happening through many happy accidents and as well as by a few lucky breaks over the years.
She was born in Cahir, into a family of three brothers and one sister. It was not, she is adamant, a family of artists as such, rather a family blessed with artistic awareness.
Her mother was an ardent gardener with a beautiful sense of composition, even in the special way she laid the supper table. Her father was a great story teller and the family spent many evenings being entertained by him around that table.
The young Alice had never met an artist but a tiny seed had already been sewn into the fabric of her being by the narrative skills of her father and that special attention to detail displayed by her mother.
Fellow students loved to buy her old school books for their creatively drawn notes in the margins and for her miniature portraits of characters like Peig Sayers. When the nascent 'National Institute of Higher Education' (NIHE) Limerick, opened in 1972, she obtained a place made possible by an education grant from a local authority.
She took lectures in architecture and art history as well as in French and Political History in her chosen field of European Studies. After graduation she was employed with a paint company in Blackpool, Co. Cork, in 1978. She also started doing art courses at the Crawford Art College by night, as a pastime.
Slowly the 'night became the day' and her boyfriend at the time, who was an actor, supported her decision to pursue art full time. While one of her worlds was imperceptibly dying another was exploding into life.
She studied for four years at the 'Crawford College of Art' in Cork. The 'University of Ulster' followed and a Master's Degree in Fine Art (MFA). She, then, won a 'Fulbright Scholarship' to the 'San Francisco Art Institute'. The latter was an enormous step which helped to make her future career further assisted by a 'Guinness Peat Aviation' (GPA) Art Prize in 1990.The first of many.
She explains: "For any artist money is not the goal, it could not possibly be. Money merely buys time to work and work leads to more work. Artists give all their time to their work, waking and sleeping, going deeper and deeper into it, there is no time off or week-ends. It is a full time, lifelong pursuit, not a job with holidays and a pension. But we would not have it any other way.
"Art is a language like any other. You cannot expect to understand it straight away, just like you have to learn a bit of vocabulary and a bit of grammar to converse in French or Spanish. The more you look at art, the more conversant you become in its language. You don't have to study it, just 'talk' it. It's really easy and everyone can and should be able to engage with contemporary art.
"I mean everyone thought that the 'Impressionists' were rubbish when they first emerged, and now we think they are the soul of the establishment! Yesterday's revolution becomes today's repression. The main thing is to keep art moving on, to keep developing and adding to it, to make the language of art richer and more available to everyone. "
She can be rightly described as a 'polymath' with mastery of traditional as well as modern media techniques. Currently, she is fascinated by animation. Carefully and exhaustingly drawing and scanning and filming the process as it bursts into life.
Her animation is often put to music most recently working in collaboration with composer Trevor Knight. She claims to have no specific theme to work to and is drawn to Greek classics as much as to multimedia and modern film, seeing them all as inter-related pieces of the one jigsaw.
Indeed, she strongly believes that we receive and give information in a piecemeal kind of way and that we never get the 'true' story of anything. Her art is a reflection of this concept of multi-reception and multi-referencing. You could just as easily see a reference to 'Aphrodite' in her drawings as you would an image of her neighbour's cat. It is all part of the 'mixum gatherum' that flows through her work.
"I am not conscious of having any view of what my work is all about," she says. "Perhaps the human story, in all its complexity, is its central theme. I have used everything from cloth to paper, bronze, glass, nettles and even frost, as well as more accepted media like drawing. Oscar Wilde said that 'all art is useless' and I agree but is it the most essential useless thing in all of society?
"Certainly, it speaks to the unknown and the unknowable parts of us but it cannot be a simple choice between bread and roses. We must have both! Art and Science are the twin pillars of society. Albert Einstein mixed with artists all the time. They were the only ones who could visualize what he was theorising about.
"On the other end of it, artists need to be like scientists in their uncovering of theories and questioning of ideas. I would hope my work is compelling rather than beautiful, that it is subversive yet funny, and that it draws people in through their own experiences and associations. It might look nice from a distance but it usually contains a sting in the tail for the viewer!"
Despite her vast experience she has no specific advice for young artists to follow although this did not stop over 70 from turning out for her recent speech at 'The Woods' exhibition at Istabraq Hall, in Limerick. The event was organised by Mary Conlon-the third recipient of the 'Shinnors Scholarship – MA in Curatorial Studies' at Limerick School of Art and Design (LSAD).
Ms Maher professes herself to have a strong work ethic and this is what propels her to continue making art. She does not sit around waiting for inspiration, she just gets down to work and before you know it 'one thing leads to another' and a new body of drawings, sculpture or films is in the making.
She has no time for nostalgia, though, and does not believe the idea that all eras are better than this one, or that the past was a wonderful place. She believes the world is in a continual state of flux, changing over and over and over again like a river endlessly flowing, and that it is our job to make the best of our little swim in that river.
She has no firm views on an 'afterlife' only that she is looking forward to seeing whatever comes next, viewing it all as part of that ever changing current. Although she criticises the church following recent events and what she believes is its whole history of suppression- she is none the less a lover of ritual.
Indeed, she sees pilgrimages and holy well patterns, as a kind of throw back to more ancient practices, or indeed a 'throw-forwards' to future practices as for this artist, time seems to flow both back and forth simultaneously.
She states: "We are only here for a very short time. Who knows what will come or who knows what went before? Remember there is as much left out of history as there is written in to it. Artists always operate in the margins and the back alleys of life, and it is their job to unearth the 'unwritten' history of humanity."
Ms Maher has an exhibition coming up in New York at the David Nolan Gallery in the second week of February 2011. She has previously shown at the 'Hayward Gallery' and the 'Science Museum' in London, as well as at the 'Tate Gallery' in Liverpool, the 'Irish Museum of Modern Art' (IMMA) and the 'cole des Beaux-Arts' in Paris.
She admits to doing a lot of travelling to galleries and museums in the USA and the UK and feels that this is the only way to keep up with what is going on. She also supports the work of 'Amnesty International' in standing up for people's rights all over the world.
Limerick, though, has retained a special place in her heart. Indeed, 'Martins Bar' on Sarsfield St., owned by her Aunt Mary and husband Tim, is always top of her list when visiting the city.
Now, the 'National Self-Portrait Collection of Ireland' (NSPCI) which is located in Plassey House, the Foundation Building and the Main Building of the University of Limerick (UL) campus has acquired a further work by her entitled 'Helmet' (2003). She already has a piece in the collection; a painting entitled 'Self-Portrait: Four Views' (1993). The addition of her second work, on October 15t, will give the viewing public an opportunity to explore her creative development ten years on.
'Helmet' is a photograph of the artist holding a helmet of snail shells close to her face. The picture tells us more about the sitter's interests and her profession than it does about her face and this is exactly how she wants it to be.
The University currently has more than 1,800 artworks, sculptures and decorative objects on campus including more than 430 works of mixed media. The 'National Self-Portrait Collection of Ireland' is annually increased following the 'New Additions' exhibition in October. The collection already includes works by Sean Keating, Sarah Purser, Derek Hill, Sam Walsh, John Shinnors, Dorothy Cross and Andrew Kearney.
The University of Limerick is home to several art collections by Irish and international visual artists including the 'National Self-Portrait Collection of Ireland', the 'Watercolour Society of Ireland Collection', several loaned collections including the 'Irish American Cultural Institute's O'Malley Collection' and the 'Armitage Collection'.
These art collections are located throughout the campus and world renowned artist, Sean Scully's 'sculptural wall', is to be seen at the entrance gate to the University. Alice Maher's most recent work is called 'Metamorphosis'-a fitting tribute to one of life's true chameleons.