Frank Abruzzese, originally from Philadelphia, is a father, artist, educator and avid cook. Working alongside his wife Rosie O’Gorman, he established Cow House Studios, a progressive artist-run school, and a residency set in the farmland of County Wexford, Ireland. His work has been exhibited widely: was featured in Domus magazine, included in the 2012 Istanbul Design Biennial and currently resides in the permanent collection of the Office of Public Works, Ireland.
What is your favorite travel memory?
In the first year of our residency back in 2008, the resident artists, my wife Rosie and I decided to travel to Inis Mór, the largest of the three Aran Islands just off the coast of Galway. We had been there with our students earlier that summer and wanted to share this special place with our guests.
Of course, our first time, there the weather was spectacular. The sun was shining and it must have been in the mid-seventies. This time, however, mother nature wasn’t so kind.
All of my memories of the summer were still fresh in my mind. We had spent most of our time outside riding bikes and hiking the hills. I was worried that we wouldn’t have the opportunity to do much at all because, when the weather is poor, there isn’t much to do on the island of about 900 people.
Despite the forecast, we decided to continue our trip.
We got there quite late and didn’t have time to see much of the island that night. Because of the cold weather and rain, the pub just beside the hostel had the fire lighting. I have memories of that night of great conversation, a ton of laughter and frothy pints of Guinness. I think there is something about the way Irish culture has developed in this climate that lends itself well to nights like these. Great conversation, the occasional song and a warm fire seem to lift your spirits when the weather isn’t cooperating.
The next day, despite not feeling our freshest, we decided to rent bikes and cycle across the island. The weather wasn’t perfect, but the rain held off just enough that we were able to enjoy the cool Atlantic breeze.
We made our way to Dún Aonghasa, a 3000-year-old ring fort perched on the edge of a cliff. To this day, this particular site remains my favourite place in Ireland. The views and the fort itself are impressive but the place seems like more than the sum of its parts. Truly breathtaking. I took a photograph that day that would be the first image in a series I titled “Live Load”.
I have had the good fortune of travelling to many beautiful places around the world, but this experience stands out. I think it has something to do with my expectations at the time, how they were unexpectedly exceeded and the amazing people with whom I was travelling.
How have you changed/grown since working for your current company?
For me, Cow House Studios is more than a job. Over ten years ago, my wife Rosie O’Gorman and I established the studios with the hope that we could build an environment that both nurtures young artists and supports professional artists in their efforts to make new work. Having met in graduate school, we both recognized the value of not just time and space to make work, but being situated in an environment full of creative energy, where you’re learning from your peers, inspired by their ideas and approaches. This place is our livelihood and it is in many ways our life’s work, so the ways it has changed me are too numerous to mention here. However, as the years have passed, my approach to teaching has changed considerably.
I have learned as an educator the importance of placing trust in my students. Art education is quite different from other subjects. There are no wrong answers or clear metrics for assessment. There are, of course, many technical skills that I can and do pass on to my students; however, real progress in a student's artwork only comes from dedicated time in the studio. My role is to motivate students and encourage them to push their ideas and skills just beyond their abilities. If I can set my students on a path where they are itching to get into the studio every day, I know they will be successful.
I used to worry more about the outcome. I always wanted my students to feel content with every piece they made, but now I realize the process of art-making, the ways a student might follow through on an idea are much more important. My students must learn their craft; however, inquisitiveness, a sense of play and experimentation are the most valuable qualities I can nurture in people that come through our doors. I now realize it’s essential that my students have failures along with their successes because ultimately, if they’re not failing some of the time, they probably aren’t giving themselves a big enough challenge.
What is the best story you’ve heard from a student?
Several years ago, about a month after our summer program Art on the Farm was finished, the mother of Taylor, one of our students from earlier that summer, wrote us an email. In it, the mother expressed gratitude for the program, words of encouragement we are always happy to hear. However, it was the mother’s anecdote that followed which stayed with me.
As the mother explained, Taylor had been traveling to Block Island, a small island off the coast of Rhode Island, since she was a little girl. After our program, like any other year, she traveled to their summer home, only this time, she brought her camera along.
What we learned was that Taylor was inspired by a project that one of our other students had worked on during her session. In this project, our student had interviewed and photographed people she encountered in her travels across Ireland. The photographs and stories were compelling. It’s easy to see why Taylor was compelled to pick up on the idea herself.
During that family holiday, something she had done many times before, she decided to explore the island, meeting people she had no doubt passed by in previous years and learned more about their story. She spent her vacation working on this project and the mother just wanted to let us know.
For me, this story illustrates exactly why we do what we do. We know that many of our students will not go on to become professional artists, but what we do hope is that they leave our studios as more thoughtful, creative and inquisitive individuals.
I believe many of us go through our daily routine with blinders on. We don’t notice the incredible potential all around us. I think there is a perception that excellence in art entirely depends on talent. However, it is the way artists see the world around them that sets them apart. I believe this way of seeing is a transferable skill. I believe excellent designers, architects, scientists, engineers, business people and practitioners from professions too numerous to mention here all possess this ability to step back and see things with fresh eyes. Hearing this story from Taylor’s mother just re-affirmed a feeling that I hold close to my heart and I was surely grateful for that.
If you could go on any program that your company offers, which one would you choose and why?
If I had to choose one program, it would probably be FieldWorks, our 12-week gap year program.
We developed FieldWorks out of the experience we acquired running both our residencies for professional artists and Art on the Farm, our summer program for teens. Like our residencies, FieldWorks provides plenty of time and space to independently think and make new work. This is balanced with workshops, demonstrations, valuable insights and critical feedback from an incredible group of creative practitioners, much like our summer program. I truly believe a thoughtful combination of focused time in the studio, hands-on instruction and direct critical feedback yields the most productive path for making progress in one’s artwork.
The reason I think I would enjoy FieldWorks is that I recognize that in my creative practice, what I value more than anything else is uninterrupted time and space to think and make new work. FieldWorks provides this in abundance but also exposes each participant to new methods for making work. Artists at all levels benefit from this approach. Even though I’ve been making art for over 20 years, I’m sure I would get a lot out of the programme. Honestly, I’m often envious of our students. With so many other responsibilities, I would rarely have the luxury of time to just work through a project uninterrupted.
Beyond all of this, I enjoy working with students during FieldWorks. The length of the programme allows students to develop at a pace that not only yields noticeable growth throughout the twelve-week programme, but instills studio working habits and methodologies that have a big impact on the way their practice develops once the return home. We have built some great relationships with our students and I know the students who have participated in the past have built some great friendships.
What makes your company unique? When were you especially proud of your team?
I think several factors make our company truly unique. Firstly, Cow House Studios is located on my wife Rosie O’Gorman’s family farm. She grew up here and the farm itself has been in her family for over 250 years. We are deeply connected to this particular place. This connection manifests itself in our collective knowledge of the landscape and environment, our connection to our community and our respect for its heritage.
Second, we are quite a small operation. As Co-Directors, Rosie and I not only run the company, but teach and develop the curriculum. We work closely with Caitriona to make sure the food is both extremely tasty and nourishing. We are there when our students are having difficult times and stay in touch once they go home. In short, we are Cow House Studios. This place is a reflection of our values and motivations as artists, educators, and individuals.
Another big factor that sets us apart is our commitment to utilising Cow House as a place not only for education but as a place that can help in the production and support of contemporary art. We dedicate large parts of our year to residency programming. This activity does not generate revenue for the studios but gives back in other important ways. For Rosie and I, it informs the way we make and teach art. It helps us stay connected with what’s happening in the art worlds of London, Berlin, New York, Los Angeles and beyond. Additionally, many of our teachers here at Cow House are former residency participants.
One of these former resident artists is Ann Maria Healy. Based in Dublin, Ann Maria regularly teaches new media during our summer and gap year programs. I was most proud when one day in the autumn I received an email from Pamina, a student from the previous summer who informed me that she had won two awards in the Scholastic Arts & Writing competition for her animation “Famine”. A National Gold Medal and a Film and Animation Best in Grade Award. She wanted to be sure Ann Maria knew about her accomplishment as she felt the project would not have been possible without her help. These are the types of emails that make all our hard work seem worthwhile!
What do you believe to be the biggest factor in being a successful company?
There are, of course, many factors. However, I would say the single biggest quality that has contributed to our success over the years has been our commitment to listening.
A lot of work goes into our curriculum development, our food, building and maintaining our facilities, but it all really doesn’t mean much if we’re not sensitive to the needs, ambitions, and thoughts of the people that have decided to spend time at our studios. Every year, even now that we’ve been running many of our programs for over a decade, we re-assess how we deliver our lessons, what mediums we offer and who we invite to teach. This all begins with direct and indirect feedback from the students and artists that pass through our doors.
I think the act of listening comes in several forms. Sometimes it’s really direct - people will just tell us exactly what they’re thinking. But other times, out of politeness or shyness, people will hold back their real feelings. In this case, we need to pay attention to what’s happening in the studio during a lesson or how someone might seem when the walk down the stems in the morning. Am I looking at a bunch of bored faces as I talk? Are students not engaging with their assigned projects? Do they seem tired in the morning? Does it seem like they are having trouble gelling with the group? These are all possible signs that something might not be right. It’s not uncommon for us to shift around the schedule or tweak rooming assignments to make sure everyone is happy.
Listening extends beyond the classroom and our accommodation. Caitriona always pays attention to what people are enjoying around the dining table. Every group seems to prefer different foods so we try to modify our menu to keep everyone happy. It’s not uncommon, especially for some of our younger students, to get upset. This can be due to homesickness, or feelings of uncertainty regarding their artwork. It can be due to friction amongst the various personalities within the group. Sometimes, pulling someone aside so they can voice their feelings is all that’s needed to get them back in a good headspace. We’ve found that over the years there is no formula: we just make a concerted effort to concern ourselves with the happiness and well being of everyone that chooses to spend time with us at Cow House.