This wonderful story is really one of the “greatest stories ever strolled”, as it is already written in the headline on the website of the Icon Factory in Dublin. This article will take this beautiful story further out into the world, with a readable artist conversation on the making and there is also an interesting podcast waiting for you to listen to. This is the story of the Icon Factory and the Icon Walk told by team member and visual artist Aga Szot in an interview.
If you are in Dublin you should definitely check out this little creative oasis in the Temple Bar district. You will certainly visit this area anyway, because there are a lot of inviting, quaint and colorful pubs with live music, as well as an entertaining nightlife. The art gallery Icon Factory doesn’t really stand out off the mainstream streets at first, but in the meantime the collective project, which has been in existence for ten years now, has become a hotspot not only for art lovers, but also for anyone interested in Irish history and culture in general. The creative and committed group around initiator Barney did not stop with creative changes after the opening of the Icon Factory and brings consistently positive impulses to the city. This was followed by the Icon Walk, a stroll through formerly run-down alleyways, but which are now covered with works of art and information boards about famous and important Irish personalities. In the past these alleys were avoided and nothing good happened there.
In the meantime, not only do people dare to go to those alleys again, but the Icon Walk has also become an attraction which has been endorsed by Dublin’s UNESCO City of Literature Department as an important site for the celebration of Irish literary talent and culture. This open informative exhibition describes and explains in an innovative and exciting way why the Irish are Irish. Actually, every town and village on this world should have one of those icon walks. In the Icon Factory – the headquarters, so to speak – events and exhibitions take place regularly, new local artists are introduced and people support each other. A part of the sales of artworks is returned to the project and the officially registered charity organization, the rest is given to the artists. The collective takes care of the deserted streets, adds color to the grey walls, educates, informs and does a lot for the city, the community and society. And this for over ten years now! True to their motto “Knowledge Beats Ignorance”.
In an interview the visual artist and painter Aga Szot tells us the story of the Icon Factory and the Icon Walk. She has been involved in the project from the very beginning and is now housed with her atelier in a studio room right next to the Icon Factory. The gallery has expanded and almost every day you can admire her or other artists live through the large shop window while they work and create. Listen to the podcast below or read the written down conversation in the following page peppered with photos about the Icon Factory, the Icon Walk and numerous artworks of Aga Szot.
The Icon Factory is the gallery and you have the outside artworks on the Icon Walk, all together these are the Icon Projects.
Yes, so there are two combined projects. The Icon Factory and the Icon Walk. I´m an artist mainly responsible for both projects now and to run both projects. But I´m not the idea person for this project. Over ten years ago I met my best friend now and back then, an older gentleman who was 69 and he was an character. He was looking for artists to create this project with him. I met him through another friend because two years before I participated in another project in Dublin also in public spaces. We wanted to implement like an open air exhibition along the city river just to bring a different atmosphere to the board walk. It´s a space along the river where you can walk and enjoy the city scene from the river perspective. And my friend was responsible to implement this project in the city center. I haven´t known him back then. That was twelve years ago. The person who was running this previous project also introduced me two years later to my friend Barney who is fully responsible for the concept of the Icon Factory. So for the gallery space and then one year after that he created the Icon Walk Project but this one of course involved with other people and artists. But he was the person who had an idea, who knew how to empower people, how to enroll people and how to put things together and make it happen. So he was the person behind the whole project and we were people who really liked the idea and we started the whole thing.
I spoke already with Kevin Bohan a bit about Barney. He said Barney lived in New York for quite a long time and he has seen there a lot of different other projects and methods how to remodel and to remake dodgy areas. So Barney has a lot of experience in this field and brought those ideas to Dublin.
Yes, he moved to New York when he was a young man around 26 years old. Many Irish people emigrated from Ireland to make it. And he made it in New York. Ireland is famous for emigration. A lot of people emigrate for many years or decades to find a better life and he was one of the people who tried this. He was not in an art business in New York, but he was running different businesses. And over 40 years living there and experiencing the city, I think he observed the transformation which happened to New York over those 40 years. Because New York in the 70s was not a nice place to be. There was a lot of criminality. When you watch the recent movie of the director Sara Driver which she made with artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and there she showed New York at the end of the 70s. You can see it really looks like a very dark place and not a place you would like to be. And over this 20 or 30 years from Barney´s stories, because I have never been in New York during that time. I visited New York twice recently, but from the stories he and his friends but also other people who lived there told, there was a part of New York which was very scary and you wouldn´t like to be. And Barney just wanted to share his experience, because I believe New York City Council and people who were involved wanted to change it. And they observed that there was a lot of art involved back then including Andy Warhol and a lot of different other artists who brought into the city a little bit of different vibes. And they all learned from this experience and felt that art can civilize and can make a difference.
Every time some of the artists showed up in those abandoned neglected places, after a year of two it was a place where everyone wanted to go and everyone wanted to experience something. So Barney had this knowledge and was thinking that Dublin was his city, the city where he was born. And he thought that he can implement and inject this Bohemian art projects which he saw when he was in New York and been part of it. That was his idea. So before we set up the Icon Factory he was doing similar projects in Dublin, but they were just temporary projects. They didn´t last as long as the Icon Factory and the Icon Walk, because the project is running for ten years now. So my experience was that I was a person that is open minded, I let it in and found his idea and whatever he wanted to do in Ireland, it was very inspiring. I saw a huge potential and I just wanted to be involved. And this is how the whole thing started. Then we got other artists involved and we made it happen. But the project survived because people love the project and the projects loves them back. This is our whole concept. We give something and everyone is real about contribution. That´s why the project is alive for so long.
I think the idea is just brilliant. It´s not only the way of using the art, like not only going in to a grey street or back lane and paint it. Barney, the artists and the whole crew, you combined this art with education. So it is in one way art, but it is as well teaching and informing people about important idols from your country. Kevin said it shows why are the Irish Irish. It explains a bit with some little stories how the Irish tick. I just opened the website here, you have ten section. One for example is the wall for Irish sports, then you have movie actors or Irish humor, here are Irish poets on another one musicians. But you didn´t put on all ten at once? I think it started step by step?
Yes, so first of all, that is interesting of being creative on ideas, you don´t have all ideas at the start. The idea comes from another idea and you just get continuously inspired. So when Barney came up with an idea for the little gallery space, he had only an idea to use some abandoned space. It was a recession back then and the little space used to be an old post office. It was not used for many years and it was not good time for business. The place was abandoned and he always wanted to promote his own culture and being Irish in his previous projects. They involved the same background. For example Barney was promoting Irish writers before when he was doing a project with Dublin port and then when we were doing a boardwalk along the river he wanted to promote local artists and also Irish culture. There he was asking artists to divine some artworks related to some famous Irish heroes. The next step was to create a little gallery space when on a monthly base we were going to introduce local artists. Young local and emerging artist. And we were going to show their creativity and the place would be commission free and artists would have a monthly exhibition for free. Of course we planned to have several different artists each year, different styles and different mediums.
Barney planned but I got involved and I was helping him to realize this vision. So he wanted that if we are going to introduce an artist to people than the artist will create some artwork or an image depending on the medium the artist was working with. The artist would create an artwork which represent some famous Irish cultural person or a hero who made a contribution to creating the Irish culture. So that was the whole concept of the Icon Factory. Each month an exhibition and then one artist is bringing an image of a writer like James Joyce or Oscar Wilde for example, or a musician like Luke Kelly. So the artwork is donated to the project and the project can use it to promote culture. We have started around this gallery space for about twelve month and the space was still small, so it was a quite intimate space. We had a few great openings and artists created and donated images with those Irish icons. After six month we realized, because we didn´t know that this area was actually that bad and it was not taking care by the city, it was completely abandoned, so we didn´t know that we were in a place you are supposed to be afraid of staying there. We were just thinking about the great space, the new place and we can use the area, we can have exhibitions there, great! But then during the day it turned out that no one is walking there because everyone is using the lanes for public toilet, drinking and using drugs. It was a scary place to be, but we still didn´t have an idea for the Icon Walk. That was not even close. I am saying we, but obviously Barney was the person who had the idea.
So first there was the Icon Factory and then a bit later the Icon Walk came as an additional project.
Yes, exactly. What we started to do, when the artists created those images of the icons, because we couldn´t get anyone to walk into the gallery because the place is empty and the area was really unsafe. So Barney came up with an idea that we are going to print a few posters and stick it on the side wall of the gallery. So will people will know that there is something inside and you can come in and see some artwork. Because it was really hard to figure out what was there. So we stick those paper posters on the walls and the posters attracted people. There were a few people coming to the gallery and they asked: “Oh, do you know who did those posters outside?” There were some of these posters and we just pasted them on the wall. So then people were attracted that there were images of the famous Irish icons. And there were a few people who were locking for those posters. They were asking: “Who did those posters and we would like to use those images.” For example they would like to put them in their hotel on the walls just to tell people stories about it.
So different things happened during the year and then Barney just had this blink. And he said: “I know what we should do. I have an idea!” He was also thinking about the Berlin Wall and the images on the wall. Barney had this vision about let´s create a story! Let´s create an Icon Walk and he said: “I have the idea and I am going to create a story! I have to find a few more artists who are going to create some more images.” So he had the vision straight away when he got the idea and he wanted to divide the story to ten sections, at the beginning it were eight sections. And he wanted to tell people a story. Barney is an historian and he used to be a teacher here in Ireland before he went to New York. And he was always interested in knowledge and a great reader. Therefore he had his own story to tell and he said: “I know what to write, I already decided. I´m going to tell the people something about music, something about sport, something about literature, something about humor and so on”. Barney was already an aged man and he has read a lot, he has interests in a lot of different topics, so he knew the anthropology aspects of the stories. So he was trying to explain people what does it mean to be Irish but in a human way. So why we come up with certain attitudes or some behaviors. Why we behave this way, why we respond to people that way, why we use music to express ourselves, why we use this kind of music, why we tell this story and why we don´t tell that story. So it makes the telling more narrow and show specific behaviors and specific attitudes.
Barney wanted to explain what does it mean to be Irish by sharing stories about music, literature, sport and people attitudes towards this specific areas of culture. Because culture for him is everything put together in box which made us who we are. We share passion, we share emotion and especially in Europe when you have so many different countries and the people say something like: “He is so German” or “She is so French”. But what actually does that mean? We say those things but we don´t really know what we are saying. So Barney wanted to tell people that there are certain things which make us connected more and be happy of who we are. That is more or less what he wanted to do. And he uses art to share his story and we artists participated. It´s something I think everyone identifies with. Just the context is different, because it is a different place where we were all born, with different politics or religion, but from the emotional aspect kind of view when we get sad, we get sad. When we get happy, we get happy. So it´s something which can get implemented at just every place in the world and everyone has a story to share. We just did it and we helped him. Barney is the person behind this because there has to be a person who is going to do it. You have to call to people and you have to talk to them, so Barney was the person who knew what needs to be done to make it happen. He enrolled people and he had the courage to do it. But we all made it together.
The idea is just fantastic and the results even more. On the website it´s shown really nice, there you have different parts with pictures. I really like this fader here, because there are photos and you have in the middle a fader. There you can switch it to the left and see the whole lane how it looked before or you switch it to the right and then you can see how it looks now. I think every city on the world or even village should have their own Icon Walk. It´s very nice. So actually you have two exhibitions in some way. You have the indoor place at the Icon Factory which is the kind of the headquarter, but you have as well this permanent outside exhibition and people can just make their own route along meanwhile ten spots. It´s not like chronologically sorted, like number one and then number two and so on. It´s just peppered around the Icon Factory and people can pass them and inform themselves.
You can lose yourself in the space and in the streets, but I think that Barney had a concept to put a story into the Icon Walk. The Icon Walk includes images, but for him it is a story. It´s an continuous narration and like reading a book. He was thinking if we put a story into those lanes the people will follow the story because they would like to know more. They can read an introduction then they read a story and then they would like to find out how the story finishes. We found out that very often the people start from the section of the end of the Icon Walk, but they put the whole story together and they love the story. And we were thinking guiding people and showing them the way how they should go through the lanes, it would save those lanes. Because there were two particular lanes in this area and they are still affected by anti-social behavior. But definitely not as much as they used to be. I think the place improved like 90 %. We really wanted people to go from one street to another, so it has to be kind of a smart way to tell the story. But it worked and then we printed small maps to guide people how to walk around. Now schools are coming and they have a lot of these games where you have to find different facts. They walk around and create a crowd.
I think the experience Barney had is probably an experience which is known since thousands of years and we are not really thinking about it. When you put people in the place and you see people moving and you see people looking at something, you know you create this space where everyone feels save and it´s something which civilizes people. Art was in public spaces for thousands of years and it was always something everyone was attracted to. Look at the architecture in Italy for example. There was always a place where people gathered and they liked to meet. Something with energy and creativity of the space, that made people always more human I would say. That was Barney´s idea and we really wanted specifically to hang around those two most badly affected lanes. And it happened! And what happened then when no one used to care about those streets because no one was walking those streets, no one paid attention. Now we had people walking through, taking photos with they cameras and with their belongings then other people started to pay attention to the place. Which means businesses and the city and the lane started to be clean. It brings reputation to the place and the neighbors wanted to make sure that the people don´t get experience from some not nice stuff. It was really kind of a chain reaction when we started doing those things.
Another important part is also there has to be somebody to maintain the place, because you can paint the walls and do everything, similar to put some plants and then you just leave them for three month. The plants will dry and the walls will be dirty again and it would turn in the bad previous place again. It was one of Barney´s inspirations called “The Broken Window Theory”. Can you imagine at your place and you stop cleaning your living room for a year or you just don´t wash dishes or just leave the bin in side for three month. Someone breaks the window and you are not going to fix it. It´s just something which is already proved that this kind of attitude make things getting worse and are not improving them. The idea is great but it has to be maintained and it hast to be continuously taken care of. Like everything in our life really. So it was a concept of putting a complete narration on the walls and people would follow the story while looking on the images. In the Icon Walk project the story is important too. Because the story is explaining who we are as humans in context of being Irish.
You are organizing tours as well with groups and you guide them through the walk.
You read the Icon Walk and the idea was that people would do the walk by themselves because it´s like reading a book.
Ah ok, so the photos are just some random photos because it looked a little bit like there are some guides staying or here is a person who is explaining something. But maybe this is from some city guide tours and not from you.
Exactly. There are many tourist guides who come and show people the project. It became a tourist attraction by now over the last few years. We have been asked to do some tours but mostly we just do some kind of an introduction and we artists share the same story as I am sharing now with you. That is a story. But there are a lot of different little stories about the different icons, there are different situations and different contexts. And I think as an individual when we read a book everyone creates a different connection to a story. And these stories are sometimes very individual, very personal and then you see everyone is experiencing it differently. It is not a long story, maybe you would need an hour. But people should read it themselves and we want to encourage people to read. We even have in the writers section a research about the importance of having books at home. You have to imagine things when you read. We don´t do tours, maybe sometimes some quick ones, but we always recommend that the people should read the story, because that is what makes the project powerful. People contact us on a different base and they ask us if we can do a tour of the Icon Walk. So more or less we are focusing then on the story which I am telling you and how we made it and what it is about. We want people to wander around and read the individual panels.
One important part you already mentioned is the maintenance. It´s not only about putting something out, you have as well to keep it clean continuously and make sure that it will stay like this. Therefore it´s very helpful and nice to have the Icon Factory as a headquarter inside the Temple Bar area. And for you Aga, let´s speak a bit more about your personal art, for you there is actually as well your work space and your studio atelier.
Yes, I was the person who helped Barney to visualize his vision. I loved the concept and I would love to implement this project in my hometown which is Krakow in Poland. I´ve been taking action in this but so far I haven´t been successful yet. You need to enroll people and to empower them. I haven´t been successful with this yet, but it hopefully will happen in the future. During the time I was working with Barney on the Icon Factory and the Icon Walk and other artists, I was also working on my own art besides. Then after a few years we got an opportunity to have another space besides the gallery which is like a small studio space. And this time I had a vision which Barney agreed with me. My art mission was always to show people the power of art and let them experience strongly the art. I always wanted to make art more real and accessible and I always had this vision that people who know you should go to the museum or you should go to the theater, they already are on a different level and they already know that they are getting something by doing this. So my mission as an artist is to make it more wider and make sure to reach the people who don´t really know this, because that could help to grow the whole society and community.
When we got the space and I saw the big window, I said to Barney: “Let´s do a live painting studio! Let´s everyone who is passing the street experience an artist being in a work space and painting!” It´s something which is unexpected. You have this experience of walking on the streets and when you see someone painting or singing you stop and listen and watch them. We know this and I was thinking that it would be something I could benefit as an individual artist and display myself on a daily base and kind of perform but also do my own thing. And it turned out that it was a great idea. Barney was really a fan of this, but I believe my idea was an idea which came from the few previous years experience with creating the Icon Factory and the Icon Walk. I also was inspired by the Francis Bacon Studio which has a permanent exhibition display in the Hugh Lane Gallery. When you see the artist in the art studio it is something which makes you freeze for a second or a few minutes. This is was I experienced when I was painting in the front of the window and I didn´t pay attention. I was just doing my thing and creating artwork, every time when people were passing, I would say like 90 % of the people stopped and got frozen for 30 seconds or a minute. You let people be somewhere else for this moment. It´s like reading a book or watching a movie.
I think the visual art needs more attention and it needs more of it in general. It´s something which maybe fades away because the other medias are taking over. So this is the Aga Szot Studio which I share with the artists and we are doing the same things. We are just trying to stake our paint and create this live painting activities there. And we want to make sure that we bring a different value to the city and not only shop windows full of clothes and shopping products.
At the moment I am on your Facebook page. Listeners can go on it as well, it´s called Art by Aga Szot there or on your website people can see the artworks. You are painting on canvas. The one here with Oscar Wilde is very nice! Tell me a bit more about what materials and colors you use or if you only paint on canvas and what else you are creating.
This whole story in my life is something which I didn´t plan. At least this last ten years. I graduated at an art college with a fine art degree in Krakow and I graduated there with a graphic degree. So I was not that much into painting because I had to work with a different medium over the few years. At the end I had no space to work, so I limited myself just to paint and canvas. But I couldn´t only stick with paint. I had to add some photographs or ink. Over the years I created my own individual technique which is a mixture of my own photographs and my own drawings. Ink based drawings at the start and then I am filling it with oil paint. I think because I always wanted to be a photographer and a movie maker and I realized I cannot be everything altogether. I am being open for possibilities and I created my own still which I think expresses myself best. And I like to add my own photographs.
I love photography and I paint from my own photos most of the moment. I take pictures of moments which I think they could somehow turned into paintings. I just take a photo and then I work with photograph and create a story about it. So I have different stories with different photographs. Or I create a composition. As well I used to work a lot with lithography in college and I was also doing my degree in lithography. Therefore I used a lot of ink and I am quite familiar with ink mediums. I couldn´t get loose from this ink in my paintings and I always want to add some black contrast. With all that I feel pretty confident but then sometimes I just only use oils. Just recently I am doing some sketches and I have only involved oils and try different backgrounds. I think life is a movement, the universes is a movement, everything is a movement. So you cannot just specify things and say this is the way it is and it will never change. It´s just that things happen and then you go with whatever is around you and create.
And it´s all the time continuously developing of course. I really like the website. You said it´s not that old and you are still working on it. There is a lot of information about the Icon Factory, the Icon Walk, about the exhibitions with the several individual artists and also your platforms on social media. People can as well help your project with making donations and also there is an online shop to buy some of the wonderful artworks. It´s not only art from you, there are works from many different artists you are promoting. Kevin already told me, when you sell products there is a percentage for the artist and a part goes into the project.
Yes, on the website www.iconfactorydublin.com you can find more about the Icon Walk and the Icon Factory. There is the story about it and you can also go on our social media and find out more about the recent activities. At the moment we are updating the online shop were you will be able to find a lot of products and artworks which are sold in the gallery. The products belonging to the Icon Factory and the Icon Walk turn into 100 % donation to the project, because we are a registered charity. The artists who participate, help and volunteer in the project and share some work in the gallery, they donate 20 % of the price. Some artists want to donate more, so 25 % or 35 %. That is how the project is basically funded and that is how we keep our sales alive for ten years now. Me as an individual artist, you can go to my own website www.agaszot.com. There are links to my social medias too and you can see a selection of my artworks. There is also an online shop with the available artworks on sale. It´s still in progress like everything is in progress and moving and changing. You have to add things and work on it like the same with the Icon Factory or the Icon Walk, but also with every other artist website. Everything is in progress all the time.
Of course, artists at work!
Yes, exactly! We hope that the recent situation is giving us a new lesson and I think for the last few years the project is small and the amount of volunteers is not that big, so we all kept ourselves busy in the place. We didn´t have much activity online except putting some updates about new art and artists on. But now we have a little bit more time and we are thinking to combine an online presence with our physical gallery. So we hope that we are able to show the same artist which we are showing in the gallery, that we are able to show them at the same time online and you would be able to purchase those artworks online so that the artists can get more support and reach a bigger audience. This is something we are working on at the moment and we hope to be able to launch the whole project soon.
The Icon Walk could start from one idea but it spreads to another idea and any people who are saying that they have the courage to do something like that in their own city they can contact us. We are here to share the story, our experience about how we made it and how it took us a lot of work to do that. We can share how to prevent failure in this kind of project, because there are a lot of projects which go alive for one moment and then no one cares anymore about them. So it has to be well planned. It´s a complicated project and it´s not easy. If people are saying it is easy to go and rent a space to create a project, that´s not true. It´s a mission impossible a lot of times. It needs so many people to be in love with what they do and what they care. And I can tell you that many many people ask us how did we do it. There are not many individual or independent places in Dublin who do what we do. Like being an independent gallery. Everybody is thinking about how we did it and it´s difficult for us to answer this question, because we sometimes ourselves don´t even know how we made it.
But I think it´s just simple: Love your work and work your love! We always colaborate with different people and sometimes projects didn´t work out for people. So we just noticed you have to love the project and then the project will love you back. It has to be pure authenticity about what you do actually in any area of your life. I think that´s the answer for the whole thing. If you are being authentic the life or the situation has been so generous to us because also the landlord was very nice to us. He didn´t care much about money, but rather what we did and he wanted to support us in our mission. So you have to find people on the same level of communication and people who understand what you want to do. We could meet people who are only caring about money but then it would be a completely different story. Somehow if you are being authentic in what you do and you don´t pretend nice things happen!
The Icon Factory
Adress: 3 Aston Place, Temple Bar, Dublin
Open: Mo – Sun, 11 am – 6 pm
Phone: +353 862024533
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