Irish artist sets up studio in police station

MIDDLEBURY — Cormac O’Leary has been confined to the Middlebury police headquarters for around a week now.
Fortunately, the confinement has been voluntary, not to mention extremely productive. O’Leary is a visiting artist from Ireland who has been using the space and seclusion of the Middlebury Police Department’s conference room to complete his painting of a Troy, N.Y., portion of the Erie Canal.
O’Leary is one of several international and national artists — including locals Doug Lazarus of Middlebury, Cameron Schmitz of Vergennes and Dennis Sparling of New Haven — who will be submitting works for a new exhibit celebrating the rich history of the Erie Canal and the incredible work that went into its construction.
“This is the most relaxed police station I have ever seen,” O’Leary said late last week as he added colorful flourishes to his oil-on-canvas depiction of a vine-covered waterfront building along the canal in Troy. It’s a scene that O’Leary recently visited to photograph and sketch as guides for his final painting that is quickly taking shape. There will be a total of 12 paintings in the exhibit, along with Sparling’s 9-foot-tall sculpture of Leonardo Da Vinci, the iconic inventor credited with designing the world’s first elaborate canal systems.
Lazarus — curator of the exhibit — is painting a scene of a man collecting bait in the Montezuma Swamp area of the canal near Syracuse, while Schmitz is creating an abstract painting of a canal lock.
The assembled works will be displayed in a show sponsored by the Bronx County Historical Society with assistance from the American Society of Civil Engineers, the American Civil Engineers Council and the American Canal Society, among other groups.
A grand unveiling of the works will take place Sept. 19-24, at the annual World Canal Conference in Rochester, N.Y. Lazarus explained that each year, the World Canal Conference celebrates “great canals of the world,” and the 2010 honoree happens to be the Erie Canal.
The exhibit this fall will travel to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute on Troy, N.Y., which is coincidentally celebrating its 175th anniversary this year. It was the engineers of the Erie Canal who established the RPI engineering school. And because of the Da Vinci angle, the exhibit will also be shown at the Italian Cultural Institute in New York City, this December.
“The interesting thing is how many dimensions there are to this project,” said Lazarus, who last year spearheaded an art exhibit that paid homage to Lake Champlain on the 400th anniversary of Samuel de Champlain’s visit.
“There is the history of American engineering, the Leonardo story, and the fact that the canal was primarily dug by Irish labor that was primarily brought over for that purpose,” Lazarus noted. “They came to work by the thousands.”
Indeed, more than 3,000 Irish workers helped build the 363-mile long Erie Canal, which stretches from Albany to the Hudson River in Buffalo. Workers toiled from 1817 to 1825, earning 80 cents to $1 per day for back breaking work that produced the first major transportation system between the eastern seaboard and the Great Lakes. The canal dramatically cut transportation costs for goods and greatly promoted settlement in the interior U.S.
Given the canal’s strong connection to Ireland, Lazarus recruited artists from the Emerald Isle and landed two very accomplished ones — Vincent Crotty, who is painting an Erie Canal scene in Utica, and O’Leary, who hails from Dromahair, a community of around 1,000 residents in Northwest Ireland
Crotty happened to be in Boston, while the Leitrim County Council in Ireland paid for O’Leary’s trip to the U.S. O’Leary was able to land a very reasonably priced room in Middlebury for his 10-day stay. And he got a big assist from one of the community’s most prominent Irish-Americans, Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley, who not only gave O’Leary the green light to set up his easel in the police department, but also loaned him a bike, set the table for a salmon dinner and serenade him with some classic Irish tunes with his band O’hAnleigh.
The hospitality and surroundings clearly made an impression on O’Leary, who was delighted to get the opportunity to submit a painting for the Erie Canal project.
“(Lazarus) called me out of the blue, on a misty, dull Irish winter’s morning, probably in one of the worst recessions we’ve all experienced,” O’Leary recalled. “I was wondering what I was going to do this year and it occurred to me I had very few shows lined up. The phone wasn’t exactly hoppin’.”
The project “sounded extraordinary,” said O’Leary, who described his artistic style as being “realistic, but that veers to the abstract,” exploring light quality and color textures.
He arrived in Vermont on June 11 and was in town until Thursday, June 24. He enjoyed the trip to Troy, where he found a kinship with the surroundings and his late countrymen who helped fashion the massive canal.
“It is a very emotional experience for an Irishman to be at a site where so many Irish people struggled,” O’Leary said. “It must have been a very tough working situation. It struck me how easy my job is and how difficult theirs must have been. It’s a very striking contrast.”
On the other hand, O’Leary noted many of the immigrant workers “probably got opportunities they would have never gotten in Ireland. If they survived the digging of the canal, they might have prospered.”
Though he was only in Middlebury for a few weeks, O’Leary developed an instant affection for area residents, many of whom quickly learned about his artistic assignment and waved to him as he walked through the village. It was a friendly, laid-back demeanor he recognized from his homeland — not to mention the verdant countryside, also reminiscent of Ireland.
“I will go home and spread the word about Vermont to my friends,” O’Leary said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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