Ria Czerniak-Le Bov is a visual artist and musician, someone whose drive to create finds outlet in many different forms but with one unifying force. That force is Ria’s clarity of vision – the way she looks at the world from sometimes startlingly original angles, and her extraordinary ability to capture with images, words, and melodies, the beauty and strangeness that she sees.
Gigging in Dublin since the age of seventeen, Ria released her album, Souvenir, in 2012, at a time that she was also studying full time at the National College of Art and design. Her work has been exhibited at Graphic Studio Gallery, RHA, RUA, Dunamaise Arts Centre, NUI Maynooth, St. Patrick’s Hospital, Impressions Print Biennale, Halftone Print Fair and Courthouse Arts Centre among others.
She tells Sonnets and Dirty Dishes: “I have a compulsion to create. I think the fact that my creative outputs are so varied helps to keep me inspired and motivated.
“Someone once asked me ‘Do you not think that if you’d just stuck to one thing, you might have been successful by now?’ The presumption of my failure was what I found most bewildering. I always think that if I can truly stand behind something I have created and know it is communicating what I intended it to, then it has ultimately succeeded.”
Read her full interview below.
In this section we ask artists to talk about what started them down the road they are on – how did it begin? On Sonnets and Dirty Dishes, we want to explore what motivates people to take the leap from dreaming, to doing. We ask: Can you tell us what drives you to do what you do?
RIA: “I feel like every creative has ‘the thing’. The ‘thing’ is different for each of us. It’s what drives us to create, what defines success or failure when reviewing our work. After years of working in a multitude of different media I think I’ve distilled mine down to its essence: communication.
I was one of those kids who made up long, elaborate stories and illustrated them, who was in every school play. I wrote poems and songs and sewed costumes for my dolls. My sister, my best friend and I used to put on shows in our living room and charge family, friends and neighbours in to see us recite our verses, sing and dance in our mad attire. I was very lucky, looking back that my mother nurtured that tendency so early. She had endless interest in every one of my creative endeavours. The thread that ran through each of them, that still runs through every song I write and image I create, is storytelling. I am forever attempting to set a scene, to lend a narrative credibility, to take the viewer or listener some place with me.
When I was nine my aunt, uncle and two cousins moved back from London and came to live with us for ten months. This short period had a huge impact on my child self. My uncle, a guitarist, songwriter and photographer and my aunt, a costumier, were probably the first adults I knew whose ‘real’ jobs were in the arts. Until then I had considered art and music as hobbies, not viable things I could grow up to do as a career. It was under my uncle Maurice’s influence that I first made melodies for my poems, taking up the guitar at twelve. Though my love of the visual arts continued, I studied contemporary music in college after leaving school, continuing on to study classical singing part-time. My 20s were spent juggling a multitude of part time jobs, gigging, songwriting and further attempting to educate myself.
At 25, I began taking courses at The National College of Art and Design. I had no particular goal in mind. It was just something I enjoyed. Over the course of 4 years I studied fashion and pattern cutting, embroidery, Art History, drawing and fine art printmaking through their adult education evening class programme. After four years I had a diploma and decided to return to college full-time for a further 3 years, receiving first class honours in History of Art and Fine Art Print from NCAD in 2016. When I left college I was given a Graduate Award from Graphic Studio Dublin which included a year’s membership and generous stipend for materials. It felt like the perfect segue, knowing I had somewhere to work every day, surrounded by experienced artists who were and continue to be incredibly supportive, knowledgeable and inspiring. It never really occurred to me that I would get work as a visual artist, but between art sales, commissions, teaching and editioning for other artists I have managed to keep myself afloat since graduating. I still also teach singing and do residency gigs which help and are very enjoyable.
When people ask what I do, I tailor the answer to the asker. Sometimes I have found myself saying ‘I’m in the arts’, other times ‘a bit of this, a bit of that’. When I’ve answered honestly, some people have doubted I was gainfully employed at all while others can’t understand why anyone would want to make copper plate etchings in the era of digital reproduction.
Someone once asked me ‘Do you not think that if you’d just stuck to one thing, you might have been successful by now?’ The presumption of my failure was what I found most bewildering. I never aspired to be famous or wealthy, so I reckoned my career was going reasonably well. I always think that at the end of a project, no matter its commercial or critical success, if I can truly stand behind something I have created and know it is communicating what I intended it to, then it has ultimately succeeded. There are times when they don’t and those prints go in a drawer and not into an exhibition, those songs are somewhere on a demo, no longer performed.
It is about balancing the almost unwieldy, experimental, unselfconscious creative process with the discerning inner critic, the one whose job it is to later sort the wheat from the chaff. If I let the critic out too early she may inhibit the maker from making at all. If I let the maker overpower the critic, I run the risk of something insufficient slipping in and weakening a stronger body of work.
I probably am a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’. I only ever achieved the required proficiency on the guitar to compose. I only know intimately the etching techniques that serve my aesthetic. There are not enough hours in the day for mastery, but as a project requires new skills, I am driven once again to begin new investigations.
In this section we ask artists to talk about their workspaces, tools, and resources they need. We ask what their work day looks like. We also ask them to respond personally to the Sylvia Plath quote that gives this project its title: ‘I would live a life of conflict, of juggling children, sonnets, love and dirty dishes.’
Copper plate etching can be seen as terribly unspontaneous. It does require a degree of planning and process, but within that there are a myriad of ways one can innovate and ‘play’. I use techniques that are reliant on acid baths, aquatint, heavy printing presses and sheet metal guillotines, making working from home nearly impossible. I can prepare plates in the studio and work on them at home to a certain extent, but it’s far more efficient to work there. Graphic Studio Dublin have their studio in an old distillery, behind Mount Joy Square. The 80 artist members have access to facilities 24/7. It is an incredible resource for me, the loss of which I have found difficult over the months of pandemic lockdown.
Printmakers are, I think, inherently social creatures. We are unlike the typical painter or sculptor in the way we work, the communal nature of our work spaces. That suits me. I like seeing other artists’ work drying on the racks, I like being able to ask what technique, ink or paper someone has used, getting and giving feedback on ideas as they become manifest. The studio has quiet desk spaces we can use, but they must be clear by the time we leave, ready for use by the next member in.
I have never enjoyed or been able to do any one task for too long. Printmaking is made up of lots of definite stages. Filing, de-greasing, applying grounds, drawing, etching, cleaning, proofing, more de-greasing, applying aquatint… it goes on and on. Some weeks are spent on visual research and preparing images, others on meticulously painting tiny details with bitumen. I nearly always work in series, etching multiple plates at the same time which requires diligent note taking. My projects seem to roll organically into one another, picking up where the last one ended. I have always loved the challenge of commissions and collaborations that take me out of my comfort zone, but as time goes on I have become more discerning about what I agree to. Since having a child I am increasingly precious about my time and how I choose to spend it.
Juggling is something most people in the arts have to grow used to. We wear many hats. There have been many times over the years when I felt like my life wasn’t balanced. We have a finite amount of energy and time and some jobs have taken more than I would have liked, leaving little for projects that were far dearer to me. Teaching, which I love doing, can have that effect. I have learned how many hours a week I can teach before I feel too drained to make my own work, how many covers gigs I can do before I lose enthusiasm for singing my own songs.
Having a baby is new challenge to wrap my head around. For months now, despite how all encompassing parenthood is, I have been bursting with ideas. It has caused me tremendous frustration that I no longer have the hours of undisturbed concentration needed to transform all those ideas into work. I remember shortly before my daughter Noa was born getting upset. When my partner David, who is also an artist (but also manages an arts organisation) asked what was wrong, I found myself replying ‘You’re going to get to go back to work, and I’m so scared that I won’t.’ He is incredibly supportive and of course I did go back, but that feeling was an accurate insight nonetheless.
For women in the arts, childcare is a major issue. In the absence of financial stability, affording to pay someone to care for your child is a challenge. I’m lucky that my partner’s hours are flexible, that my studio is just a short cycle away, that work has always presented itself to me – but the juggling is constant.
BEING IN THE WORLD
Publication, performance, recording, exhibiting. In this section we ask: how important is it to you that your work exists in a public space? Why do you think this is? And can you tell us about the time and effort you give to getting your work out in the world?
I think of the creative process as having many stages: idea, development, production, fine tuning and then release. Be it visual art or music, for me the audience completes the work. If communication is my motivation, work unshown becomes a monologue. I don’t view a piece’s success by sales or critique but often by questions and comments it provokes. That someone takes the time to really consider and engage in a piece of art or music is the mark of its success. I met a man at a gig who told me he had been listening to my album for years, that it had soundtracked a traumatic break up. It hadn’t really occurred to me that anyone would ever be as familiar with those songs as he or I was. I am that kind of listener though, that kind of viewer. I have listened to albums I love hundreds of times, revisited my favourite artists ad infinitum. I have let them engrave themselves in my psyche and I guess that is what I am forever trying to do with my own work: create something that you will want to forge a relationship with, a visual or aural scape that invites you in for repeated visits.
Honestly, I have neither the aptitude nor desire to engage in the business side of the arts. Perhaps this is my downfall. I remember a lecturer in college telling us (to my horror) that she spent at least a third of her time doing grant applications, submissions, artist statements. I knew early on that I didn’t have that in me. The simplest and best advice I ever received, spoken to my overwhelmed 20 year old self, was that ‘none of that was my job’. ‘That’ being (at the time) booking and promoting gigs, marketing etc. My job was ‘to make the best possible work I could and put it out into the world. The right people would find it’. That has worked so far. In the last 20 years I have never stopped making work and somehow exhibitions and gigs have always appeared.
Consistency, professionalism and reliability should never be underestimated. I know creatives who are stressful to work with, late for deadlines, poor at communicating with curators, collaborators, framers and gallerists. In a scene as small as Dublin, it pays to be decent and considerate no matter how talented or accomplished you are.
And working with others is one of my great joys. I love getting a brief or responding to new spaces. I think the most successful collaborations have been allowed time to organically evolve. I did a commission for Trinity College Dublin’s School of Chemistry last year and I felt like a child in a sweet shop. The staff were eager to show me their work and I visited for extensive tours and chats before I started making the work. I never want to shoe horn my work into a brief. I want to use any external stimuli to expand and challenge the work I do, to stay as open as I can for as long as I can before I start narrowing down my focus.
BEING IN OURSELVES:
Many creative people speak of periods of self doubt. It seems that choosing to persist with our creative projects takes great courage at times. In this section we ask: How has self doubt affected you, if at all? What have you done to bring yourself through difficult times and allow yourself to persist? What has helped you?
I have a compulsion to create. I think the fact that my creative outputs are so varied helps to keep me inspired and motivated. There have been months on end when I have not felt inclined to write a song. I have spent those months editing or recording others. Other times I have not felt inclined to create new imagery and I catch up on editioning previous works. In the absence of all the materials required for etching, I return to my love of drawing every time I travel. I still enjoy making clothes, writing, cinema… and all of these things repeatedly feed back into creative production. I am never ‘off’. I take notes and photos on a regular basis. I feel like that is part of my job. A couple of weeks ago I was walking with my daughter asleep in her buggy and I saw a bus. The advertisement on the side was applied in 5 panels. The centre one had been adhered upside down, rendering the entire image completely illegible. I was too slow to capture it but it stuck with me and I know that it will inspire some future work. Snippets of conversation, computer glitches, lens flare. It is all the accidentals that seem to have the biggest impact on me, things I couldn’t have anticipated. Often in creating songs or images, my biggest struggle is to capture in permanence what was fleeting and still maintain any of its spontaneity.
I think that it is very important for me to stay focussed on my reasons for creating. There are times when I do doubt its value. Many of my friends have jobs that even I deem more important than any etching or song. I am not totally convinced that what I do is terribly important. It is more a compulsion. So perhaps I view myself harshly in that regard. Like so many in the arts, I find it very disrespectful how underpaid artists are, how many unpaid interns compete for poorly paid junior positions, how much paperwork the Arts Council require for such little investment. We have just lived through a lockdown, due to Covid19, and of course the arts have been badly hit. My teaching, gigs, editioning and gallery sales have all but vanished overnight. In times of crisis humans need connections more than ever. They are not a luxury but a lifeline. And yet, there are certainly days when that notion seems horribly self-indulgent, when I have to persuade myself that there is a valid space to be playful and inquisitive, among so much seriousness.”