Published 17.08.2018
by Kids’ Own

Orla Kenny: Tribute to a friend and colleague

One month on from the sad and untimely death of our long-term Creative Director, Orla Kenny, I would like to take the opportunity to pay tribute to a great friend, mentor and leader who inspired me in so many ways.

Orla began working with Kids’ Own in 2000, when the organisation’s founders were still putting Kids’ Own on the cultural map as a unique publisher of children’s voices and artwork. After Orla’s death, co-founder Simon Spain, wrote from Australia, saying, “We have so many memories of her first coming to work with us at Kids’ Own Publishing Partnership in Balintogher, in the year 2000. We felt instantly that Orla was a strong voice for social justice and believed in the power of the arts to make change. Over the following three years, Orla became one of the family in our home/office and, when we were invited to head over to Australia for a new project, there was no doubt that Orla would be the champion to continue the work of Kids’ Own Publishing across Ireland.”

In the years that followed, Orla moved the organisation in many new directions, becoming a champion for professional arts practice with children and seeking to support artists who were committed to developing their practice through meaningful and reciprocal processes with children. So many artists who have worked over many years with Kids’ Own have talked about the influence that Orla had on their practice, probing them about their motivation, making them continually question and challenge themselves, interrogating the connection between their practice and their work with children. Over the coming weeks and months, I hope to gather further tributes from some of these colleagues and friends who will have so much to say about Orla’s legacy.

Orla took Kids’ Own on the road and loved getting hands-on with projects herself. She was the lead artist on numerous projects alongside writer Mary Branley, and developed a whole range of books that gave credence and visibility to the voices, experiences and creative expression of children from all backgrounds and sectors of society. She designed many of those books as well. In short, she single-handedly blazed a trail with Kids’ Own, as artist, designer, fundraiser, mentor, project manager and documenter (always documenting). She also developed wonderful relationships with partners from across many sectors – library services, local authority arts offices, venues, funding bodies, national agencies, third level colleges, education centres, childcare facilities, and on and on. Many of these people would consider Orla much more than just a professional colleague. To many, she was a real friend.

Orla approached everything with ambition and rigour. A small idea would spark a seed and once planted, Orla would be determined to make that seed grow. Many projects developed out of sheer will and a passionate belief in their value and importance. Her excitement and enthusiasm for new projects was infectious. I often came into the office in the morning to hear her say, “I’ve been thinking… wouldn’t it be great to…”

Over the years, I saw – through Orla – how drive and ambition, and the pure force of positivity – could bring about so many exciting projects, from (an online space that was developed for artists working with children), to the Kids’ Own Travelling Library, large-scale touring exhibitions, cross-border residency projects, international initiatives, countless book projects and professional development days.

Through all of this, I also watched Orla raise her own son, who was born in early 2009, the month after I started working at Kids’ Own. In many ways, I could say that I saw my own growth mirroring his, since I also flourished under her direction and mentorship. She was interested in supporting people and bringing out the best in them, both personally and professionally. She struck a precious balance between being strong in her own mind, while also respecting and enjoying the opinions and ideas of others.

Something I admired very much about Orla was her refusal to compromise or to let something pass unchallenged. She always asked “Why?” Her need to question everything brought rigour and integrity. Her use of the word “meaningful” aimed to distinguish work that was considered and carefully developed, not lazy, quick or slapdash. Not careless, dumbed down or taken for granted. She particularly liked to quote Vea Vecchi, who described this kind of approach as “an attitude of care and attention for the things we do, a desire for meaning; it is curiosity and wonder; it’s the opposite of indifference and carelessness, of conformity, of absence of participation and feeling.”

The meaning behind all of Orla’s work became apparent when she was in the presence of children. The care and attention was truly visible then; and the child’s experience was really at the heart of her motivation. Of course, as an artist herself, she brought her own practice and playful sense of enquiry to bear on her work with children – in the same way she urged others to do.

Over years of working together, Orla and I developed a good rapport in which we respected and challenged one another. Beyond all the work that we did together, we also spent time together as friends. I am truly grateful for this long-term connection, both personal and professional. I will remember her sense of joy, her generosity of spirit, her quick mind, her endless questioning.

Godspeed Orla.

Jo Holmwood
Acting Director, Kids’ Own