Smoking Area Interviews: Common Grounds Collective – Conor Cunningham and Lauren Varian

I was very lucky to get on the guest list for one of the Common Grounds Collective events on the evening on March the 1st. Home is where the art is IV; a showcase by artists of their works in the front room of a student accommodation in Maynooth, considering these events run out of spots in their venue within hours of the event being posted. After the amazing evening the artists, founders and a swarm of the audience went to McMahon’s Pub where I was able to pull Conor Cunningham and Lauren Varian, two of the founders of the Common Grounds Collective into the Smoking Area for what was an informal but extremely informative interview over a pint.

Here is the text of what transpired.

Me: So, guys. Thanks for this, would you like to introduce yourselves?

Conor: I’m Conor.

Lauren: I’m Lauren.

Me: In further detail? Y’know, what you do what your roles are, that sort of thing?

Conor: So yeah, ourselves (Conor and Lauren) we run the Common Grounds Collective amongst many other people, there’s a core group of about seven or eight or us that run a lot of events in Maynooth. These events, are, we’d like to think they’re very special. You know yourself you’ve been to one.

Me: Or like, four.

Lauren: Yeah, I recognised your name from the guest list, I’m the one who puts those together.

Me: So, you guys are part of the main team for Common Grounds Collective, could you explain what Common Grounds is?

L: Common Grounds is a collection of artists from all over the country, kinda all over the world really, and basically we’re all about giving artists a platform to share their work and meet other artists. We aren’t focused on any specific kind of art, so we’ve had everything from costume designers to musicians to baristas. The goal really is for these artists to be able to meet each other and get to know each other and to share ideas, maybe collaborate on work… and from an audience perspective it’s really really nice.

Me: I find it’s really cosy, it’s not like a small intimate gig they can feel kinda phony, CGC (Common Grounds Collective) is different.

L: Yeah, we like to eliminate the barriers between audience and performer. We encourage people to ask questions throughout the gig, everyone still knows how to be respectful and when to be quiet but it’s a very level playing field, there’s nobody being put on a pedestal, it’s a symbiotic relationship between the audience and the performer.

Me: How did Common Grounds Collective start in Maynooth?

C:It was myself, Lauren and two other guys, Jamie Bishop and Conor McAuley in Lauren’s house and we were all sitting around the Kitchen, Conor brought up the idea of starting a record label and the situation kinda developed and it was just a natural thing of saying “there’s so many artists here that don’t have a platform to express themselves? Why are there so many that try so hard and never have their work seen?” We eventually came to the idea that we could start out own platform for doing this. That’s what we’re trying to do, as Lauren said, we’re trying to be a platform for others to share their work and push the boundaries of their own creativity. Like you’ve seen from the event we did there, so many of the people who present at these exhibitions feed off the art of other people, take it on board and work with other artists.

L: When we decided to start it, I think the next day was when I threw together a logo for it, we made a facebook page and just started doing events. The start was really successful and it’s just been growing ever since. We’ve been really lucky with unbelievable artists at every single event, we’ve had no duds. Each night you’re getting a very holistic view of the arts, more than at an event where it’s just focused on music, poetry or whatever. You get a wider view of the arts and find that artists are trying to do the same thing, take the world and see it through different angles.

C: The important thing to stress here is that all of us in the Collective are artists ourselves, on the exact same page as everyone who presents, a lot of the people we’ve had present are people who we as artists have worked with previously. Lauren is an amazing graphic designer, myself and most of the other guys in the Collective are in a couple bands that work through the Collective and I think that artists who present realize that this isn’t some sort of, excuse my language, but bullshit organization that tries to feed off artists and use their work to expand our own collective, we want to work with them not use them to further our own brand.

Me: So, I’m you guys mentioned Lauren’s graphic work and the bands, you guys want to plug those? (Links below for all artists mentioned in this and the CGC Facebook)

C: The two bands are Hatchlings and Tashka.

L: There’s another band called LemonCello, they’re on a break right now but they’re unreal. They’re starting back up in June. The graphic design stuff is just my own stuff, I don’t actually have a page for it.

Me: CGC isn’t a corporate thing, it’s definitely about networking and artists getting to know one another though, right?

C: Entirely, we’ve got a separate page to the Common Grounds Collective page which is the Artists’ Page, where they can send their work in and have it be seen by every other artist that we know. Once they do that they’ll see that “oh, this guy makes really cool art for bands, I can message him and see if he’ll do one for me.”

Me: Of course, everyone I’ve seen perform at a CGC event has been massively talented, but is there any artist in particular that you guys have looked at and been amazed to see them at such an intimate level before they’re going to explode? (Into fame and stardom not literally explode!)

Both: David Keenan.

C: He’s absolutely incredible.

L: History book kind of stuff. Unbelievable.

C: He’s so talented and just so in tune with the vibe of what we’re trying to do.

L: If you could sum up Common Grounds in a man, it’s David Keenan. I can’t believe that he’s real.

C: He’s just got such a beautiful way of telling the stories of his songs and his art, you just can’t help but be captivated by his art, I’m blown away by what he can do with his voice, his guitar and his stories.

Me: So, the “Home is where the Art is” events take place in the home of an organiser, how are you guys chill with inviting close to 100 strangers into your houses.

C: You sent me this question and that was the one question that sort of picked my interest and made me think “Woah, this is going to be such a good interview” because that question sort of sums up what we (The Common Grounds Collective) want to do. We’re so open to doing this because as we said already Maynooth has such a beautiful artists’ scene that, why would you not want to let these people into your house and have beautiful inspiring conversations with these people? See what they have to say about your art and their own art.

L: Well today, and for the last several weeks I’ve just been like “Oh my god these people are going to be in my living room”. We have a dinner before the event with the artists and it’s so special to be sitting around your dinner table with somebody like Dave Keenan or Conor Donoghue just having dinner conversation and then they go up later and do that (perform). It makes it so human and it’s so pure that way.

C: The dinner conversation isn’t something where you’d be going “wow, I’m about to change my life with this knowledge I’ve heard.” It’s the kind of conversation where, Conor Donoghue the Film Maker went to me and said “I’ve never had Chilli before”. That’s just the kind of honesty that we’re trying to portray, we’re not letting famous artists into our house. We’re letting artists into our house that we’ve seen and we know can make beautiful things.

L: There’s something special I think that everybody was so likeminded that presented tonight and so good at what they do, they’ve put in the hours. I think we’re straying from the question but we’re just blown away by these people.

Me: I know the Collective has done some stuff with Charity and wants to do more, are there any charities you’d love to work with and what Charities have you worked with already?

C: The first charity that we worked with was Focus Ireland, they’re an incredible group that work with homeless people in Dublin and obviously we all know that homelessness is a huge problem in Ireland today, yet alone Dublin, even in my hometown, a town of two thousand people and in Maynooth of twenty thousand people, there are homeless people living on the street. We organised an event called Comfort Zone which was in aid of Focus Ireland and we were shocked by how successful it was, there was an amazing amount of support for this.

The next charity we’re working with is an amazing charity called Samuha that is in aid of victims of genetic disabilities and burn victims in India. People in India really don’t have the access to beneficial healthcare.

L: It’s one of those small pure organisations where you know what work is being done and where your money is being spent and stuff, Focus Ireland is dependable like that as well. We’ve also worked with another charity called “The Lighthouse” and they put on art clinics and art lessons for the Homeless people in Dublin. They’re brand new and they’re doing great work, the founder is unbelievable. He was homeless himself and now he’s running these art classes. The people who do these classes actually presented their art at Comfort Zone and are going to have a showing of their art, or they might’ve already had it.

Me: Thank you guys so much for the interview, if people wish to get involved with Common Grounds or contact you, how can they do that?

C: It’s all through Facebook, Common Grounds Collective. On the page we’ve got links to every artist who’s presented, there’s also our Instagram and we’ll have a webpage soon.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CommonGroundsIreland/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/CGCollectiveIRE

Hatchlings: https://www.facebook.com/hatchlingsmusic/

Tashka: https://www.facebook.com/TashkaBand/

David Keenan: https://www.facebook.com/davidkeenanmuso

As it says above, links to all the other awesome and talented Artists can be seen on the Common Grounds Collective Facebook.

Special Thanks to Conor Cunningham and Lauren Varian for the interview and to all the Common Grounds Collective Team for being absolutely amazing and running such great events!