A scene from "Notes from Sheepland."

Portrait of the artist as farmer

The farmers are happy.

And so is the Irish Arts Council.

Director Cara Holmes was aware that the latter was interested in ideas for documentaries made not with mainstream television in mind; that were instead non-traditional in their story-telling and cinematic. 

She applied for funding and was successful. The result is a 71-minute profile of County Wexford farmer and artist Orla Barry, “Notes from Sheepland,” which will be screened Thursday at the New York Irish Center as part of LGBTQ Craic Film Fest. 

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Back in 2018, Holmes was looking at the idea of a documentary on women farmers, something going beyond the cliche of the farmer’s wife.

A friend of a friend told her about Barry. “She’s an artist and she’s a farmer and she’s queer,” the filmmaker was told. “My interest was piqued straight away.”

Barry had written a non-conventional book about her personal experience being a woman in farming. “It had poetry, mad diagrams. It was hard to classify,” said Holmes, who went to the book launch in the Crawford Gallery in Cork.

“I asked if she would be interested in a collaboration,” the filmmaker recalled, “Her as writer and me as filmmaker.”

Holmes said, “She would describe herself as a visual artist, but I would describe her as multi-faceted — she’s a visual artist, she’s a writer, she’s a poet. She works in all these different mediums. 

“Another element of Orla’s work would be performance. That’s something I get sometimes and other times I don’t.

 “It’s subjective,” Holmes added, acknowledging the tensions in their collaborative process.

Barry went to art college in Belfast and later settled in Brussels, where she lived for 16 years. The de facto capital of the European Union is, Holmes said, one of those places that artists gravitate towards because they can live cheaply there. The woman from County Wexford worked in bars to pay the rent, but meantime put on exhibitions. 

Barry, now 55, has been back for a decade working in her home place as an eco-farmer.

“It’s three fields and a lake,” director Holmes estimated, saying the author refers to it as "Seafield." Her father is a retired tillage farmer next door. 

Barry lives in a modern house on her small farm.

“You know it’s an artist’s house, big glass windows. One room is her studio,” the filmmaker reported. “But then she walks out the back door and she’s in the fields.

“I was totally fascinated by her bringing her artwork over into farming,” she said. “And a lot of her art was based on her farming experience. She just flip-flopped between the two worlds.

“One of my first trips down there, she was describing how good-looking the sheep were,” Holmes recalled with a laugh. “And I was looking at her and saying, ‘Yeah, sheep are good-looking.’”

But, since making the film the director has come around more to the artist’s view of her pedigree Lleyn flock. “They really are beautiful, very well-kept sheep,” she said. “I think that was Orla’s art influence.”

Calling the film an “entrancing, compact documentary,” the reviewer for ScreenDaily.com said, “Traditional ways are dying out. Sheep are raised to see the requirements of supermarkets. The fleeces that lie piled high in her barn are not even worth the money that was paid to have them sheared.  There no longer seems a market for the wool that once made sweaters and blankets. What happens in her little corner of Ireland becomes a reflection of global events and challenges for everyone.”

The farmers like the film, its director said, because it’s bringing up some of the issues that they’re talking about all the time. Barry lectures at an art college, and so she has the skill-set required to start a conversation about the film’s themes on the road, which she’ll do locally with the director over the next six months.

The response has been very positive since “Notes From Sheepland”  was released in Ireland in 2023. Its accolades include the award for best documentary at the Dublin International Film Festival. The judges said, “Stylish, interesting, challenging in its form, ‘Notes From Sheepland' is a very well-crafted cinematic documentary. As well as being a clever and creative treatment of its subject, this is a film that brims with freshness and life.”