Public Outdoor Project
Grimsby Public Art Gallery, Canada
In 2012 I was awarded a month-long residency in Ireland and while visiting sacred sites there, occasionally came across a tree completely covered in rags or scraps of clothing. I learned that it is an ancient Celtic ritual still alive in Ireland and that the fabric is meaningful - it symbolizes a desire or dream. Some leave offerings to saints, others to ancient gods or nature spirits. Sometimes the rag represents a wish or aspiration. The fabric used in rag trees is symbolic so the types of rags tied to branches vary widely, from lovely, shining silken ribbons to simple scraps.
This experience sparked a project that I introduced once back in Canada. ‘Rags for those Loved, intentions from Ireland’ was installed in September, 2012, with support from the Grimsby Public Art Gallery and Niagara Nights of Art. Local residents were given the opportunity to engage in this ancient Celtic custom in recognition of loved ones who were ill or have passed. The intent was to focus on the role hospital and hospice play in our communities.
The public visited a designated tree to offer their intentions and wishes in the form of pieces of clothing and personal belongings. They tied these fabric symbols onto the tree's limbs and branches with the belief that as the rag rots away, the problem or illness will disappear. The project continues to grow.
‘The custom is an offering in exchange for an intention (or wish), whether that be for those still with us, or for the memory of those who have passed. There can be a variety of items - from rags torn from clothing, to rosary beads, to lengths of ribbon, to hair ties, to belts, even socks! You find yourself looking at an item and wondering who had left it, or when, and what intention was so important to have granted that they would leave behind some part of themself, and most importantly - was their intention granted! Every item holds a secret and a story and I think it is this that makes the tree so full of mystery and symbolism!' Carol O’brien (Ireland)
My own wish or intention is for our public health care system to recover from unnecessary closures that are putting lives at risk. At a time when public health care is in a fragile state, this gesture reminds us of the personal stories and struggles by friends and family who have suffered in illness. The project considers the integral role hospital and hospice play in many small communities.