As 2018 comes to a close, members of the Arts in Education Portal Editorial Committee have paid tribute to Orla Kenny, long-time Creative Director of Kids’ Own Publishing Partnership, who passed away in July. Here, members of the committee remember their first encounters with Orla and reflect on their experiences of working with her in different capacities within the arts and education sector. As director of Kids’ Own (the organisation that won the tender for leading the development of the Portal in 2014) Orla was instrumental in the stakeholder consultation process, design, development and management of the Arts in Education Portal in close consultation and collaboration with the Editorial Committee.
I first met Orla when Kids’ Own Publishing Partnership won the tender to advise on the building of the Arts in Education Portal in 2014. I had been aware of her work and publications prior to that. Apart from her vast knowledge I was instantly struck by her skills and expertise in working with the Portal Advisory Committee who were a heterogeneous group of people from education, arts and technology backgrounds. No question posed was too basic and her warm encouraging smile led to great working relationships. She took the concept of the Portal from concept phase to its official launch in the Printworks in Dublin Castle on the 19th May 2015. The Portal is now the key national digital resource for arts and education practice in Ireland, and thanks to Orla and her team, underpinning the continued development of the Portal is a strong and implicit shared belief amongst all stakeholders of the intrinsic value of the arts in the lives of children. She was a passionate advocate for the integration of the arts in education and she championed the voice of the child and the rights of all children to fulfil their creative potential. She is sadly missed by the large community of practice which has developed over the last six years and amongst whom she was a shining star. The last time we met she was with her beautiful son Oscar. I count myself very lucky to have worked with Orla.
Katie Sweeney, Chair of the Arts in Education Portal Editorial Committee
I recall my first meeting with Orla when Simon Spain introduced her as the new Director at Kids’ Own and his successor (he was departing for Australia). He chose well! – as the legacy of his and her work will ultimately prove. Orla worked with us in 2003 on their first exhibition to share the innovative work that they were developing in schools north and south of the border – Multimedia Maps (the result of a three-year project initiated and run by Kids’ Own Publishing Partnership) The project placed artists in school communities in the border counties in Ireland to investigate the use of new technologies as tools for creativity and the exchange of ideas. From 2000 to 2001 over 500 children in the border counties of Armagh, Cavan, Donegal, Down, Sligo and Tyrone, worked with six artists – Owen Crawford, Julie Forrester, Angela Ginn, Rachel Glynne, Ann Henderson and Sharon Kelly – in a series of residencies as part of the project. Orla was a perfectionist and knew that to show the quality of engagement that was happening in the artists’ residencies she had to have this reflected in the exhibition as well.
Seeing how the work of Kids’ Own developed since then and talking with artists who were nurtured by her supportive process has been wonderful. She will be missed by so many and it was a privilege to work with her over the past few years as a member of the Portal Steering Group.
Helen O Donoghue, Senior Curator Engagement and Learning IMMA
I first encountered Orla when we were both working towards a Postgraduate Teaching Diploma in Art and Design Education in Limerick School of Art, which she embraced with energy, ambition and inquisition. Some years later, our paths crossed again, soon after I started working in Kildare County Council and Orla, in Kids’ Own, when we collaborated on ‘Can’t Loose Cant’, a stunning pictionary with words in English, Irish and Cant. I admired her commitment to creating something with a strong aesthetic, while ensuring that the children involved were immersed in the process and that the local Traveller community were consulted on the use of Cant. In recent years, Orla and Kids’ Own led a series of artists workshops in Kildare (and further afield) on documentation, reflection and evaluation of work in education contexts – a much needed discipline that many artists neglect and that Orla was a huge advocate for. More recently again, Orla put her shoulder to the wheel on www.artsineducation.ie.
My children are a similar age to Orla’s son and over the years, we compared the usual milestones and dramas. My heart hurts at the idea of a child loosing a parent. I’m not sure that there is comfort to be found when a vibrant young woman dies. But if there is comfort, let it be in a life lived to the full, jam packed with passion, creativity and a desire to share what is good.
Lucina Russell, Arts Officer, Kildare County Council
The first time I met Orla was in The Model in Sligo. In spite of wearing a suit and tie, by the afternoon, she had me sitting in the lotus position, in a circle with artist Maree Hensey and others reflecting on the art work we had completed. She smiled when she saw me. With that smile she was able to disarm everyone of their inhibitions and positive work ensued. This sense of humour combined with a vision for the arts witnessed her bringing Kids’ Own Publishing on to a national and international stage. One of her great legacies will be the first ever Arts in Education Portal in Ireland. She was taken from us all too soon. It was wonderful to have known and worked with her.
Dermot Carney, Arts Officer, National Association of Principles and Deputy Principle
My overriding memory of Orla is of her great positivity, her humour and her practicality. You always laughed a lot in her company but she was completely serious about the work of Kids’ Own and its impact on children and young people. The depth of her knowledge was incredible and you can see this in the Arts in Education Portal which is her great legacy to us that she built with such passion with her wonderful team. It was a privilege to know her.
Deirdre Behan, Strategic Development Director, The Arts Council
Orla was the sort of person who lit up a room, whom you smiled to see when she walked into a meeting. She was fun and funny, and knew that levity was never mutually exclusive to serious intent. You knew she took her work and your work and especially children’s work very seriously. She respected it all alike, and made you feel valuable by that respectful attention. And she was a very attentive and bright presence, responsive, quick to pick up on people’s feelings and concerns. Jo and she came to teach us about documentation once at the Abbey and she was a clear and patient teacher, eager to involve us in the learning and to build on what existing skills we could bring to the process. It was in that session I realised how enormously skilled she was and how lightly she could deliver it. Personally I liked her very much and felt grateful that such a dynamic and visionary figure was part of the Arts in Education Portal and so we would work together regularly. Quietly I’d started to use her as a measure for what artistically inspired project leadership looked like. Her loss hurts but I hope she can be continuously celebrated by keeping her standards of commitment and joyful engagement alive in our work.
Phil Kingston, Community and Education Manager, The Abbey Theatre
What I loved most about Orla was her passion for the Arts and Education – a marriage which offers children and young people experiences which open up their lives and their creativity. She was always a pleasure to work with – her expertise and her dogged determination underpinned by humour, compassion and joy brought us all pathways to investigate, express and take delight in the work we all try to do. We will sadly miss her inspiring presence but will continue to celebrate the Kids’ Own legacy created by herself and Jo and carry her inspiration with us.
Emelie Fitzgibbon, CEO Graffiti Theatre Company