Parental Pandemic Portrait

Posted November 16, 2020 in More

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When Molly O’Cathain unexpectedly found herself back home with parents at the start of the first lockdown, she enlisted her parents to start recreating iconic art and photographic images featuring couples. She posted one a day on Instagram, earning global acclaim for it. 53 portraits later, her parents Brian and Liz reflect on their involvement.


“We had great fun making the bodyguard’s sword from a rail from a wardrobe, a spanner and the hilt of a kitchen knife”

“Molly was at home for a few days in March around St. Patrick’s Day as she was working on a Malaprop project at the Project Arts Centre. She got stuck staying with us when the lockdown started.

The project started on day six of the lockdown, which was March 20th. Molly asked us to dress as the couple from American Gothic, the famous 1930 painting by Grant Wood. I had fun wearing Liz’s round glasses, with my pitchfork made from a salad fork. By day two we were on to Frida Kahlo and Diego Riviera, and on day three we were totally into it with The Kiss by Gustav Klimt, probably one of the most difficult ones we did.

We are living in a rented house just now, with most of our possessions in storage. And, of course, Molly had nothing with her, as she was only supposed to be visiting for a few days. So, it was fun and challenging to try to recreate these famous images with whatever we could find to hand in the house. Liz’s collection of colourful scarves, and mine of Indian lungis together became every costume under the sun.

One of my favourite recreations is of Hellelil and Hildebrand (The meeting on the Turret Stairs)  by Frederick William Burton, from the National Gallery. This painting was voted Ireland’s favourite painting in 2012 by Irish Times readers.

My Blue Gor-tex raincoat from many walks in Wicklow and Connemara doubled as an expensive renaissance gown. We had great fun making the bodyguard’s sword from a rail from a wardrobe, a spanner and the hilt of a kitchen knife. The helmet he carries across his arm was made with a saucepan.

What was most enjoyable about the whole project was that we all contributed to creating the costumes, with Molly directed the setting, the lighting and the photography to create the overall look, and to capture the perfect image. We quickly discovered that many artist images painted in 2-D on a flat surface are almost impossible to model in real life, as the perspectives are wrong, or the bodies are contorted into impossible shapes. The bent neck of the woman in The Kiss was almost impossible to achieve.

The one that got away was The Arnolfini Wedding. We identified that we wanted to do it on day one, but due to lack of props, lack of green gowns and general challenges in re-creating, we never got around to it. One for the next time! – Brian


“It’s always in that spontaneous moment without any pressure that art is at its best. It’s the flow of creativity” – Liz

“This project was a really important ritual during the lockdown. Routines have always suited my temperament and in that new lockdown situation yoga in the morning and portrait recreation in the evening anchored my day. We didn’t have to discuss what was going to happen in the evening as we knew that we had a portrait to do. It kept us away from Netflix!

It was great to have the three of us to work and play together and pull different skills and perspectives together. The roles were clear; Molly was the artistic leader and curator and we were the co-creators and models. Together we created a team.

We often came up with solutions of how to solve a problem for a portrait by wandering around the house looking in cupboards and drawers: ‘What do we have that is yellow that can be a background? How do we create a black hat with height? What dress can be used as long skirt that it touches the floor? And then next: What room to use, which light do we need and how do we get one person to look taller than he or she really is? We bounced ideas off each other and new solutions were created every day.

It was because it was solely for own amusement and never aimed at a future exhibition, book or other product that it was fun and we sparked off each other, which crazy ideas out-competing each other. It’s always in that spontaneous moment without any pressure that art is at its best. It’s the flow of creativity.

Sometimes the process was quick and instant as some evenings we had to spend a bit more time to find the right solutions. Hair pins and bulldog clips were essential to do a tuck to keep a scarf in a certain place, to make it look like a waistcoat. We discovered talents among ourselves that we did not know we had as a family.

It’s also interesting to step into so many different roles, situations and historic periods and to realise how differently you can look at yourself and each other when in costume, especially as a couple who had just turned 60. Sometimes we played younger and other times older, both easily. We found that Brian had a high attention to detail which came in very handy. As we went on we allowed more contemporary pieces to inspire us.

It’s hard to select just one photo as my favourite – its the project as a whole and the extensive time which we spent on it which made it special. But if I should select one image – I think it has be day six, The Duke and Duchess of Urbino, where Brian and I are looking at each other, the oval shaker box is draped with a scarf to become Brian’s hat and my head pieces has a bra on the side to make the side decoration, plus a cloakroom tassel from the Goring Hotel in London! To create the background of a hilly landscape Brian selected some images in a book he had about Kurdistan which sort of matched the background of the original. The result is somehow extraordinary, iconic, memorable, and fun. – Liz

Vist Molly O’Cathain’s Instagram page @mollyfreja to view the 53 portraits she conceived of and created with her parents.

Image Credit: Molly O’Cathain – Steve Murray


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