The story of the napkin box

March 7, 2017 in News, Newsletter

Paula Nolan from the Messenger Publications felt a moving of the spirit as she snapped the napkin box of the Jesuit community in Lower Leeson Street, Dublin.

Technology allows me to vouch that this photograph was taken on 24 February 2014, at 10.39am. Brian Grogan SJ, as superior of the Leeson Street Jesuit community, gave me permission to make a photographic project based on the community. This includes numbers 35 and 36 Lower Leeson Street, Dublin, one of the residences of the Jesuits in Ireland. On that morning in February, myself and Kevin Laheen SJ had a photo session in the dining room. Why that room? Because Kevin wanted to sit at the upright piano, and this is where it was kept.

Session done, I was leaving the room when I spotted the napkin box on the wall beside the door. I was stopped in my tracks, and before analysing why it caught my attention, took some photographs of it. There is a feeling you get when you ‘snap’ something special; a moving of the spirit. I got this feeling in spades that morning while photographing the napkin holder.

One of the strongest feelings was that something of the personality of the individual was evident in the different folds and rolls of the napkins. As a graphologist might analyse handwriting, it seemed as if hieroglyphics were formed by the lights and shades of the cloth, mysterious and indecipherable, volumes of untold stories.

The napkin holder naturally captures a moment in the history of the Leeson Street community, telling us who worked, ate and slept at that address, on that day, in that year. As such, looking at it I felt a deep sense of vulnerability to the passage of time. I wondered about the individual stories leading up to their name appearing on the box of napkins at that precise time, and wondered how these personal stories would unfold from that day onwards.

You can see on top of the box a notice on which the word ‘Community’ is just about visible. On a less personal level, this napkin holder tells us something about community living as a way of life. There is an order to be applied to communal living so that it runs smoothly; so that the small stuff doesn’t get in the way of more important day-do-day works.

Putting on my hat as a book designer, this napkin box provided the perfect visual ‘Contents Page’ for the book of the project, listing as it does the names of the members of the community.

It is interesting that this photograph was exhibited by the State Art Collection in the genre of portraiture. Jacquie Moore (Arts Advisor, Office of Public Works) who curated the ‘Portraits of a Nation’ exhibition in Farmleigh suggested to me that this photograph was included on that basis that, in an abstract way, it represented a portrait of each of the individuals named on the napkin box.

‘The portrait exhibition comes to life for me when no one is there! I imagine the sitters and the artists coming to life and having lively conversations with each other. All your Jesuits meeting David Rooney’s 1916 women, the de Valeras, Seamus Heaney and Aristotle! Night at the Museum where there’s a secret life inside the exhibition.’ – Jacquie Moore, Arts Advisor, OPW

Visiting the exhibition, a staff member told me there was a lot of interest in, and comment about, this image, all of it positive.

While the napkin holder moved me for many reasons, there is always a mysterious element as to why something captures and awakens the spirit. I’ve learned to let the mystery be; not to worry it or need to know the why. I believe this unknown quantity is ultimately what most grabs the attention of people viewing this image, and is why the napkin box has invited a warmer response than I could have imagined that February morning, at 10.39am.