DRESSED FOR THE DAY?Michelle Gavin relaxing in The Quiet Cailín Studio, Cong.?Pic: Elizabeth Toher
Serendipity in Cong
THE skies are ocean blue and the town of Cong is slowly awakening to a beautiful spring morning. Ladders are being put up to hang baskets and paint shop fronts and Michelle Gavin is sipping a coffee outside her art gallery, The Quiet Cailín Studio, taking in the beautiful sunshine. Dressed in period costume, she welcomes me in to have a look around.
When Michelle took the plunge to open up her own business in Cong last year she had €4 in her pocket, now the studio is about to celebrate its first year in business.
After spending 12 years in Cyprus, the Castlebar native moved home to her parents who live in Meelick, Swinford, in October 2013 and embarked on the daunting task of finding a job.
“I couldn’t find work and I was refused all types of social welfare. My son Gavin was six at the time and it was a case of make something or don’t eat. I didn’t drive so I would have to walk from Meelick to Swinford town to hand CVs into places, but I didn’t hear anything back,” she explains.
Michelle studied art in GMIT, in Leeds College of Art and under Bulgarian Cypriot artist Angel Michialov.
“The one thing about art colleges is they never teach you how to actually make money from what you create. As an artist you’re very aware of not ‘selling out’, but artists are terrible business people,” she explains.
A bleak time
Recalling the day she received a letter explaining that she had been refused social welfare payments and with no job prospects, Michelle admits she was in a bad place.
“I didn’t know what to do. I cried and cried when I got the letter. My now fiancé Chris told me that everything would work out. It was a very bleak time,” she says.
Just as she had lost all faith in finding a job, her friend Jarlath rang her and mentioned there was a shop for rent in Cong village.
Not knowing the village at all, Michelle got advice from Chris, who is from neighbouring Ballinrobe, and once the location was established she was urged to view it, even though she didn’t have any income and couldn’t get a bank loan.
“I didn’t know anything about business or opening a shop. We had it open in three weeks on a budget of just over €400. And once we opened it, it just grew,” she notes.
It was a busy time for the couple … the day the shop opened Chris was completing his final year exams in the National University of Galway.
A year on
Nearly a year on, Michelle is running the shop full time and paints by night, while her new fiancé works part time at the shop. Her brother Mark also works part time at The Quiet Cailín Studio offering audio services to musicians.
“We live in Cong and Gavin goes to school here. I just feel really lucky. The people of Cong have been so nice to me, for someone who had no connection to the village I didn’t expect the warmth I got,” she explains.
Michelle’s knowledge of art is helping the venture, and having to run the business hasn’t had a negative impact on her creativity.
“I have the pleasure of being surrounded by art everyday, and each little oil painting I do is like a mini meditation for me. I don’t feel compromised,” she says.
In time, she expects that the shop will expand and perhaps even move to a second location creating more jobs. Currently the shop stocks art from approximately 20 artists around Mayo and the borders of Roscommon and Galway.
Michelle thinks some of her success is down to simple serendipity. She recalls how she was looking for a silversmith to stock in the shop around the time Caroline King, who handcrafts jewellery in Roundstone, Connemara, called in to the shop.
In another case of serendipity, Michelle’s idea to conduct historical walking tours around the village was given the thumbs up and encouraged by the late founder of the well-established Derry City walking tours Martin McCrossan, who was visiting the area.
“We need to keep alive the heritage of the area. I missed the entire boom and when I came back to Ireland I couldn’t believe the change, we had forgot who we were. People come from all over the world to see what we have here,” Michelle says.
And they like to go home with some of it in their pockets too. Artworks that Michelle has sold are now adorning rooms in New Zealand, South Korea and Malaysia. Though 80 percent of the business is American tourists, the studio sells online to a lot of tourists, many of whom are repeat customers, some who have never visited Cong.
Although Michelle admits she’s far from a ‘quiet cailín’, she wanted the name of the gallery to be linked with local history. And by promoting local artists who use ethically sourced materials and providing historical walking tours, this determined cailín is ensuring those links to local roots and history are strong.
For more information on the Quiet Cailín Studio, visit www.thequietcailinstudios.com,