The Elemental World of Cormac Boydell

Perched on the very edge of Europe and facing into the Atlantic Ocean, the far west of Ireland is a terrifyingly beautiful place to set down your roots. Our own little spot, overlooking the comparatively calm reaches of Roaringwater Bay, faces into the winter gales and it’s a constant fight to keep the weather out: always a losing battle. But, could we live anywhere else? Certainly not. This week we met up with Cormac Boydell and Rachel Parry – two artists who live just about as far away as it is possible to be in wild West Cork. Like us, they battle with the elements; like us, they couldn’t envisage living anywhere else.

Cormac Boydell (header picture – in his studio) and Rachel Parry live on the edge of Ireland: their cottage and lush gardens feel as if they are carved out of the mountainside to seek maximum shelter from winter storms. They are well off the beaten track close to the end of the Beara Peninsula: the nearest settlement is Allihies (from the Irish Na hAilichí, meaning ‘the cliff fields) which was a centre for copper extraction in the Bronze Age and from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution when generations of Cornish Mine Captains came here to manage the mines, providing work for a substantial local population.

Connection with the landscape is something that’s inherent in the make-up of Cormac Boydell. It must be significant that he started out studying and working as a geologist – getting to know the physical fabric of the rocks and the earth around him – before setting out on a more creative path, working with those very elements to produce exuberantly robust ceramic sculptures which are unique and highly sought after.

Cormac’s tools are his hands. He works raw terracotta clay and crafts the shapes of his pieces without wheel or mould. He applies colours and – most importantly – textures into the surface, and firing provides the finishes – not always predictable. For him, this is all part of the living process. But that’s the physical process: into the whole equation, also, are his close observations of the environment around him – the geology, textures and colours of the rock surfaces from the natural and cultivated landscapes. He sees the way rocks break and how they weather – how time is an element in their metamorphoses. Somehow, into all this surveillance and appreciation of nature he also makes stories. He finds inspiration in ancient sagas, particularly those from Ireland, as we saw in the exhilarating work on the walls of his studio.

Cormac Boydell is one of the important group of artists who came and settled in West Cork during the second half of the last century – a group whose lives and work have yet to be properly celebrated. Like many others of this group he has stayed for life and contributed to raising the profile of art produced in Ireland. In a catalogue of work produced by West Cork artists and displayed both in Skibbereen and the Crawford Gallery in Cork 30 years ago – Living Landscape ’87 – he writes this of his own contribution to that exhibition:

. . . Landscape is not the first term I would apply to my work. However I always welcome challenge. Breaking new ground stimulates creativity where repetition kills it. Experimentation, welcoming both failures and success, working out beyond the boundaries of my vision… that’s the excitement of art making. Using rock and fired clay as elements of the landscape, “Earthbone” expresses the spirit from which the landscape is formed . . .

Alison Ospina wrote in 2011 in the introduction to her book West Cork Inspires:

. . . Hidden down the leafy lanes of West Cork I have found artists whose work is of the highest calibre and should be considered of national importance . . . I have selected people working in a variety of media whose work has had an impact on other craftspeople and has been influential in developing West Cork’s reputation for excellence and originality . . .

In her book she writes of Cormac Boydell:

. . . Cormac’s work is organic and elemental, the earth is its source. It resonates across millennia from when the bedrock of this country was being laid down and speaks of torsion and vortices, glacial drift and the alchemy of fire. It taps into the energies of nature, to which it is inextricably linked . . .

One of my favourite new pieces from Cormac Boydell is this large plaque inspired by the story of the Irish Saint Éinne (also known as Saint Enda): the patriarch of Irish monasticism. He is the brother of St Fanchea (see Finola’s post about Irish women saints) and was a warrior until Fanchea persuaded him to lay down his arms. He went to Aran in 484 and founded the first monastery there but the local chieftain Corbanus intervened. Éinne’s response was to banish all of Corbanus’s horses from the islands. This is the scene which Cormac has illustrated and it’s one of a recent series which is based on myths and legends.

You could own a piece by Cormac Boydell! This ceramic – based on a story from the Finn McCool cycle – has been purchased by Uillinn, the West Cork Arts Centre gallery in Skibbereen, and will be on display there from this week until the end of the Art & The Great Hunger Exhibition which runs from 20 July to 13 October. While the gallery is open you can purchase draw tickets at only 5 Euros each: the prize, which will be drawn on the last day of the exhibition, is the Boydell ceramic. What an opportunity – every ticket stands an equal chance of winning this unique work of art! And all your contributions will be supporting the activities of the Arts Centre.

With grateful thanks to Cormac and Rachel for allowing us a glimpse into their world

Celebrating Irish Design in West Cork

7 Hands crafts

2015 was the Year of Irish Design. In celebration there were exhibitions, events, talks and programmes all across the country. RTE aired a four part documentary, Designing Ireland, introducing us to the history of design in this country. Hosted by Angela Brady and Sandra O’Connell this fascinating series took us from our roots in vernacular design and use of materials, through the dawn of modern design in Ireland via innovative architecture and fashion designers, to the heady days of the Kilkenny Design Centre and into the digital era where computer-based planning is married to mastery of materials by engineers, architects, fine crafters and designer-makers to produce products that can stand with any in the world.

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Alison, Angela and Sandra at the 7 HANDS Exhibition in London, with Alison’s greenwood chairs*

Artists and craft people gravitated towards West Cork throughout the second half of the 20th century for the light, the distance from civilization, the beauty of the countryside, the affordability of land for studios and housing and for the support of a community of like-minded individuals. Alison Ospina, in her book West Cork Inspires, describes this period  and profiles many of the practitioners who discovered this unique area, drew inspiration from it and made their home here.

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Last  summer in Ballydehob the 7 HANDS Group harkened back to this golden era of West Cork Design with a stunning exhibition of contemporary fine craftwork by seven local artists. The exhibition moved on to Dublin and London where it was well received, although I cannot imagine the settings there could rival that of our tiny pristine Haugaard Gallery on the Pier in Ballydehob.

Kieran Higgins is a master woodworker *

The exhibition was supported by a series of artists’ talks and it was quite magical to listen to Brian Lalor talk about the detail and precision of his etching process, compared to Alison Ospina’s approach to her greenwood chair building in which the material reveals the ultimate design to her.

Angela Brady walked us through the making one of her luminous glass creations (those gorgeous beetles!) and Paddy McCormack spoke about the fiery furnace in which his wonderful chess set was forged.

We came away with our own little souvenir – yet more hares for Robert, this time by Etain Hickey.

Etain Hares

The 7 HANDS group has larger ambitions. They want to re-establish West Cork’s place in the Irish design and craft pantheon. With this, their first exhibition, they have made an excellent start.

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Patrick Connor’s quirky portraits *

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The extraordinary intricacy of Brian Lalor’s ‘Liffey with Cranes’*

*A special thank you to Angela Brady for some of the photographs in this post.

West Cork Creates

We were bowled over by the latest exhibition to open in Skibbereen on Saturday: West Cork Creates. It shows collaborations between local craftspeople, visual artists, photographers and designers – combining their skills and expertise to produce exciting, original work.

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Top picture – The Great West Cork Obelisk (see below) is featured by the entrance to the gallery; above – fired test pieces from the obelisk project

Here’s a riddle: what’s the difference between an artist and a craftsperson? If you have a definitive answer please tell me, because this is a debate that will last forever… Grayson Perry contributes to the discussion in this Guardian piece, starting provocatively with:

…I see the craft world as a kind of lagoon and the art world in general as the ocean. Some artists shelter in this lagoon, because their imagination isn’t robust enough to go out into the wider sea…

Grayson Perry makes pots, so is he an artist? Well, presumably the British art establishment thought so as they gave him the Turner Prize in 2003, the first time it had gone to a ‘ceramic artist’.

More from the obelisk project and – right – Brian Lalor, one of its creators

Where does that leave us? Is someone who makes flowerpots an artist, because a flowerpot might be an attractive object? Where do you place something like the Book of Kells? It’s a functional object – the four Gospels lavishly illuminated – created in medieval times by many different hands. Yet it’s unique, overflowing with stunning visual images, beautiful and priceless. It’s a wonderful example of collaboration between the functional craft of the scribes who penned the texts and the minds of the (undoubted) artists who produced the decorations around those texts: perhaps they were the same hands.

Left – metamorphosis of two of Alison Ospina’s Greenwood chairs and – right – Dee Forbes, President and Managing Director of Discovery International, formally opening the exhibition

What about Finola’s subject for today, Harry Clarke – artist or craftsman? Stained glass is not ostensibly functional (except, perhaps to change the quality of the light coming through a window) yet the making of it is a craft requiring a lengthy apprenticeship and a garnered knowledge of specific materials and their use. I have no doubts: walk into St Barrahane’s Church, Castletownshend, and be dazzled by the Clarke windows there. They are inspired: true art. Harry Clarke designed and made these windows, so he was artist and craftsman rolled into one.

book of printsArtist and printmaker Coilin Murray with The Big Book

For me West Cork Creates (part of the Taste of West Cork Food Festival) demonstrates conclusively that you can’t differentiate between art and crafts. As you enter the gallery you are immediately presented with an iconic piece – The Great West Cork  Obelisk – which stands almost three metres high. It is a collaboration between two minds and two sets of hands: Brian Lalor and Jim Turner. Brian we have met before in the pages of our blog: he is a true polymath. He writes (prolifically), he produces art (prolifically), he has been an architect and an archaeologist. Jim is a ceramic sculptor of renown. Egyptian ‘obelisks’ are commemorative monuments of the Pharaohs and they usually carry a lengthy inscription praising the deeds of some significant individual.

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The Great West Cork Obelisk

This one is constructed from four terracotta sections made by Jim in his Clonakilty studio and fired in a specially constructed kiln. The base inscriptions are all quotations, two from social philosophers and two from writers, all concerned with the state of society. Brian’s images derive from these, from the contemporary world and from the local environment. The artists’ statement says: Obelisks may be the new round towers of the landscape… (remember that Brian has written the standard work on Ireland’s medieval round towers). I agree: I’d love to see this work prominently displayed in a public place locally – and many more like it. The obelisk absorbed our attention for a good half an hour, delaying us from moving on to the rest of the exhibition: it’s a show stopper!

Alison Ospina and – right – one of her Greenwood stools painted by Etain Hickey 

There are chairs and stools: functional objects to be sat upon. But you’d think twice about sitting on these. They are initially examples of the work of Alison Ospina who uses coppiced hazel to make distinctive seating, but they have been transformed by others (painter, sculptor and felt maker) into works of art which will primarily be looked at and appreciated.

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The gallery space includes a sales area where you can buy the work of the participating exhibitors

There are thirteen collaborations in the exhibition including stone sculptor and furniture maker; metal sculpture and photography; basketmaker and visual artist; painter and felt maker; painter and boatbuilder; cutler and jeweller, all based or working within West Cork… This is just a taster – we have to go back and catch up on the other genres and artists and perhaps write a further blog post. The exhibition runs for five weeks from 8 August to 10 September at Levis’s Quay in the centre of Skibbereen, and is open from Mondays to Saturdays between 11am and 6pm. Be sure to get there – you won’t be disappointed: watch out for the gallery talks, too.

Sculptor Helen Walsh collaborates with photographer Rohan Reilly

Once you have seen the exhibition, you might like to comment and add your contribution to the artist / craftsperson debate.

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