The Urban Classroom

A derelict space in Limerick has been utilised by artists for nearly 40 years. Informal art spaces contribute to the visual landscape of a city in a way that is serendipitous. One space I have used over the years sits along Rutland Street in Limerick City, opposite the Hunt Museum. I affectionately call this space "the Urban Classroom". Before me, other artists saw the potential in this site and used it for their creative endeavours. The first documented project took place in 1981, when students from Limerick School of Art and Design used the derelict facade to display paintings. These paintings have since faded (urban decay is not a problem that can be painted over) and 39 years later this site still sits vacant. The inside may be empty but the outside is truly alive. Below I will give you a brief visual history of the site.

The Urban Classroom was first devised as part of a group project during my Masters at LSAD around 2014. The plan was simple, conduct a walking tour around Limerick City looking at a variety of public sculptures. Once the walk was concluded we would then use the facade to write down our thoughts and opinions in chalk about the public sculptures we had viewed, thus making a temporary participatory public installation. A cracking idea...

Participants discuss the workshop whilst standing in the rain, some try to foster interest whilst others brace themselves to protect them from the elements.

It didn't go well. I remember my tutor saying it was the worst project they had ever been part of. It wasn't received well in academic terms and fellow classmates gave cutting critiques. I really enjoyed it, so I didn't take those criticisms to heart and proceeded to compile all the material I had gathered for the project in the hope that the site could be used again in the future. I had a sense of ownership over the site now. I felt like the Bull, it wasn't a field but it was my derelict shop front! 

 This is the most boring video I have ever made. Apologies in advance.

As the years progressed I continued to utilise the space for my own personal creative use. I persevered with the medium of chalk and drew a large WiFi symbol onto the facade in an attempt to create dialogue around the notion of free WiFi for the city; the idea of Wifi as a public good. Some people started to comment online and the site began to attract attention:

‘A street blackboard is currently active for the public on a boarded up space across from the Hunt Museum. There are no details provided on who created it but the blackboards on the closed shopfronts had invited such an intervention for a while. Now, with chalk and an open editorial policy, anyone can have their say. Someone has already written 'fight all points of authority’.

Paul Tarpey

 

A Wifi symbol drawn with chalk. I got a mate to stand there to make it look like he was trying to connect. Thank you John Paul.

My chalk phase thankfully faded away and I began to use more semi permanent materials. In 2017 'Make a Move', the urban arts festival, approached me to conduct a workshop with reference to the black abolitionist Frederick Douglas. I brought the participants down to Limerick Printmakers and we screen printed his words onto paper which would later be pasted onto the site.

The participants printed the posters in Limerick Printmakers prior to pasting them up. Photo: Wally Cassidy.

The workshop was followed by a walking tour of Limerick street art and then finally the participants created their own public installation using Fredericks words. The site acted as a temporary commemoration to Frederick Douglas. There were no peers to review or critique the workshop this time and the later online discourse proved positive. A win for the derelict site!

 

The first round of paste ups. I got the placement of the posters off and the final layout wasn't too pleasing to the eye but it still had a strong anarchist feel. Photo: Wally Cassidy.

The two phrases I chose were "It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men" and "I would unite with anyone to do right and with nobody to do wrong". This resonated with the Limerick public. The paste ups stayed for a relatively long time in comparison to other street art at eye level in the city. Eventually they were removed, I presume, by Limerick City Council. Great timing on their part as it came a week before the next 'Make a Move' workshop where I commandeered the site for the second wave of the visual infiltration. We had a spotlessly clean front to work on which made life easier. Thank you LCC.

All the posters are screenprinted. A time consuming task but one that brings people together in the most delightful way. Photo: Wally Cassidy.

The words this time were in Irish and hap haphazardly put together as I made my way from County Derry the night before. The workshop took the same format as the year before, with a slightly different colour scheme and better placement of the posters (I made a balls of it the year before).

That dazed look is man who came from Derry to Newry, Newry to Dublin, Dublin to Limerick and Limerick to Adare the night before. A fine trek of the country for a derelict facade. Photo: Wally Cassidy.

November 2018 was the last time I held a workshop at this site. Many fond memories took place there and some great, mediocre art was created. Recently I was online and came across a video clip from the RTE archives. The description reads:

"Students at Limerick School of Art have embarked on a project to brighten up the city. Student Charlie Harper explains how public murals have brought art out of the galleries and into the public realm throughout the streets of Limerick" 

These words were broadcast on RTÉ News, 9th July 1981 on the very site which I had been using all these years. Nearly 40 years ago art students were using this site. The same site, derelict then and still derelict today. You can watch the full clip here: https://www.rte.ie/archives/2016/0706/800656-inner-city-limerick/

 

The building with the scaffolding is where Charlie Harper created his public murals (the same site that I have been using over the years).

How long this site has sat derelict is a worrying thought. In the heart of a city no building should be left unused. Thankfully this site wasn't. People were brought together by this site - they made art, they talked and discussed a variety of issues, they laughed and criticised. Photographers got their shots, people got paid to wash and clean, to coordinate and facilitate, to document and promote. The site made RTE news, it gave moments of thought to passer by's and acted as a temporary commemoration to Frederick Douglas.

For a small site this little shop front has achieved a lot. Our city needs art spaces, formal and informal. In a post- Covid world this site will likely remain derelict for some time and maybe in another 40 years a young art student will utilise this space again (and do a much better job than I did!)

Has this space ever been used for something else or has it always been derelict? Leave a comment below if you have any information on the site in question or if you would like to contribute anything to the article.


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