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Image / Living / Culture

A Dublin theatre designer recreates over 50 iconic paintings during lockdown – using her parents as models

by Lauren Heskin
17th May 2020

From Vermeer to David Hockney, Irish set and costume designer Molly O’Cathain has been capturing her parents under various artistic guises during lockdown.

We’re all feeling the pressure to be “productive” during lockdown, but set and costume designer Molly O’Cathain has channeled her time at home into something that is not only creative but also a shared endeavour; she’s been staging and photographing her parents in recreations of famous paintings and portraits.


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Home from London with her company MALAPROP Theatre to work on a show that was abruptly cancelled due to Covid-19, Molly found herself back at home with her parents. “On day 6 of being suddenly isolating with my parents, I dreamed up taking photos as a way to occupy ourselves,” she explains.

She and her parents, Liz and Brian, would select a famous painting or photograph to recreate using props and materials from around the house. “We were all freaking out a bit and it seemed like a good silly distraction. I never imagined I’d do 10, let alone 50-something.”

They all admit it’s been a great distraction and brought a sense of routine to their days, working usually on one portrait every day. “There’s been a few evenings where we’re feeling a bit tired or not bothered, but I think it has been good for us to have a project in common.” 


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After dinner each day, they select an artwork to reimagine. They’re not picky about what they want to emulate, drawing from a breadth of work including that of Vermeer, Renoir, David Hockney and Diane Arbus. The only real criteria is that it needs to have two figures or people and be something “iconic or intriguing,” as Molly puts it.

Once they’ve settled on a piece, they scour the house for similar colours and shapes, picking up bedding, scarfs, shopping baskets and kitchen implements to use. Green has been a particularly difficult colour to procure, says Molly, and they couldn’t find a rich green fabric to replicate the dress in Jan van Eyck’s “Arnolfini Portrait”.


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When it comes to shapes, they have to be equally creative. Molly’s dad Brian made a sword from “a kitchen knife, spanner, and piece of wardrobe” for one portrait and everything is held together with bits of tape and safety pins. Each portrait takes a few hours to pull together between moving furniture and dressing the set, but it’s always a team effort. “My parents are very much my collaborators,” says Molly, “my mom is great at suggesting things she has in her cupboards that might be useful and my dad has a keen eye for detail”.


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As they worked through over fifty recreations, there are a few things they’ve realised about these iconic works of art. “Certain angles or shapes are perhaps impossible to achieve,” she explains, “the angle of the head and neck in Klimt’s The Kiss for example, it’s not really achievable.”


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Looking back through the portfolio they’ve quickly amassed, all three of them have a few favourites in terms of which portraits they liked best. Some of Molly’s are the Edward Hopper, The David Hockney, The Klimt, The Vermeer and Jesus and Mary. But really, it’s been as much about the experience as the end result. “We have laughed a lot while doing them,” says Molly.

Follow Molly on Instagram or Twitter to keep up with her #parentalpandemicportraits.

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