Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Making Obama

In September 2016 the bronze bust I had made of US President Barack Obama was finally finished. I had been working on the portrait sculpture for several months and the US Ambassador to Ireland Kevin O'Malley unveiled it. I was excited to receive the commission as Obama was a man I had long admired. There are not many world leaders that I find inspiring and he is certainly one of them. After I was approached by the commissioners I submitted a few concept sketches and we decided to use the one of him smiling. This was an obvious choice because most people would associate him with that iconic, big smile.

I was slightly trepidatious of making a smiling portrait though, because it is quite difficult to make a convincing smile in sculpture. A millimeter here or there can turn a warm smile into a frozen grimace. Think of the awkward grin your friend gives you when they receive a gift they don't like.

Anyway I started my research. Of course there were hundreds of photos on Barack Obama on the internet and I spent days finding just the right ones from just the right angles. Being such a well known figure was helpful because of the wealth of documentation but I also knew I had to be very accurate with the likeness because everyone knows what he looks like.

And so I got stuck into modelling the bust in clay. It was over lifesize and I must say I was so happy doing it; I was really in my element. And so after a few months the commissioners came to view the artwork and were very happy with it. I then went about moulding and casting the bust in bronze.

The unveiling was wonderful and I spoke a while to Ambassador O'Malley. I asked him what the President was like and he told me that he was a charming man,very knowledgeable about many subjects but humble in conversation. The Ambassador was an impressive man clearly impressed by his boss. Especially considering what has happened since in the US elections it was an honour to make a sculpture of such a man. The bust is now on permanent display at the Barack Obama Visitors Centre in Moneygall, County Offaly, Ireland.

A link to an article and vdeo of the unveiling  RTE video 



Saturday, 4 June 2016

Thomas MacDonagh Statue

As 2016 sees Ireland celebrates the centenarry of the Rising I was honoured to be commissioned to make a bronze statue of Thomas MacDonagh. The statue was to be placed in his home town Of Cloughjordan, County Tipperary. He was a signatory of the Irish proclamation and took part in the rebellion and was executed for his involvement. As I studied him I realised he was not a soldier but a teacher and a poet and so I tried to portray a thoughtful man.

The fact that he was one of the seven men that signed the proclamation and that not many people had read this interesting document convinced me to design a sculpture that would display the proclamation. This way I could show the figure in deep contemplation in a moment in time and also allow viewers to intereact with the statue and read the document.

And so I developed a series of sketches and the committee in Cloughjordan chose this one though the design changed slightly when I realised how big the document was and I had to lower it as not block the view of his face.

I spent a lot of time modelling his face as I wanted bring out the humanity of the character and to ensure that it was in no way pompous or triumphant.

The people of Cloughjordan organised a fantastic event for the unveiling which was done by Thomas MacDonagh's granddaughter Muriel McAuley. 

At 3 am the next morning a vigil was held as it was exactly 100 years ago that he was executed.

All in all this was a significant, challenging and ultimately rewarding project. 
Thanks to Louise Joyce and Jacinta Guinan for the photographs.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Materials and Senses

I was working in the studio this afternoon making a plaster mould of a new sculpture. Plaster generates a small amount of heat as it sets and I was smoothing off the last layer with my hands, feeling the warmth and seeing the smooth organic form take shape. It got me thinking again about materials I use in my practice and how lucky I am to use them. Maybe luck has little to do with it because I choose to use them. I have also been thinking about the materials that we all come into contact with in our day to day lives and how they have changed over the decades. Paper, wood, metal, wool, stone. So many materials replaced by plastic. Plastic is an amazing material of course but it doesn't offer the sensory experience of other materials. The weight and smell of a new book versus swiping a touch screen tablet.

I encourage people to touch my sculptures. Feel the weight, feel the texture. I made them with my hands and through their hands they can understand more about the work and maybe more about me.

The materials I use most in the studio are clay, plaster, wax and bronze. I love clay. It is what I primarily use to model the artwork. I like the feel of it in my hands and the endless amount of textures I can make with it. Soften it with more water and I can make a slurry. Let it dry out and it will harden and crack as it shrinks and can be carved. I have bags of it in my studio that I have had for years. After I have finished moulding a piece I strip off the clay, wet it and put it back into bags.

 Plaster is another amazing material that has been used for centuries by sculptors. I use it mainly to make the moulds. A few hand fulls into a bucket of water and this soft white powder magically turns solid. Whether flinging it onto a surface in it's runny state or waiting until it is semi solid and moulding it with my hands it's such a versatile material and quite beautiful too. Not so beautiful that I don't curse as I put my hand into a cold bucket of plaster on a Winter's day.

I use wax to model small pieces and also to cast into moulds to get a wax copy for the casting process. It softens in the hand and again can take on so many textures whether from sharp tools or the smooth molten surface from heat. One can often see the finger prints of the sculptor left in the wax in the final bronze. If bees wax is mixed in the wax becomes very smooth in the fingers and also give off a lovely scent.

And to bronze; a seemingly ancient and timeless metal that can be cast relatively easily and yet be strong enough to stand for centuries. In fact the years enhance the appearance of bronze as the elements slowly patinate the surface.

You feel me?


Monday, 18 May 2015


        And Now for Something Completely Different!

I recently installed a sculpture at The National Museum of Ireland at Turlough Park, County Mayo as part of the festival Feila na Tuaithe. The theme for this years festival was "Migrant People, Places and Spaces".

 As these are not meant to be permanent artworks I decided to have some fun and I changed my usual medium of bronze to use some recycled furniture and luggage. I have emigrated myself and after several years of moving around it was a relief to unpack my suitcases and put my things away into cupboards and wardrobes. These experiences have inspired the work. I have imagined the wardrobes and luggage transformed into the traveller.

A video showing the interactive elements of the sculpture.

Friday, 8 November 2013

The Quiet Man Statue

Earlier this year I was awarded a commission to create a bronze statue to commemorate the making of the film "The Quiet Man" in Cong, County Mayo. The first problem I had to overcome was to find a model tall enough to pose as John Wayne. After some searching I hired a model from Galway named Florian who was 6ft 5in. My wife Jacinta modelled as Maureen O`Hara and both models were very patient as I took photographs and measurements in the studio.

I then proceeded to make the steel armature which would support the initial artwork
and then applied the clay which forms the artwork.

Next came the mould (below left). When the plaster mould sections are removed they will be used to paint the wax into. These wax sections are then used in the "lost wax process" which in principal dates back
nearly 5,000 years.

Once the casting is done and each section is welded together, the supporting internal steel frame is inserted and the metalwork or "chasing" is done (above right). Then the colour is applied using a process called patination. Link to video on patination I made. 

Lastly there is the installation and the unveiling. I usually don`t like unveilings but the people of Cong went to a lot off effort to make this an event and were very kind and appreciative. Below are a few photos with some local people including extras who appeared in the film in 1951.

Photo Andrew Downes

Photo Andrew Downes

Photo Liz King

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Bronze Beehives in Galway.

Late in 2011, after an open competition, I was commissioned by a National School in Galway to produce some sculpture for the school grounds. The brief directed that the sculpture reflect, in some way, the ethos of the school and also that it relates to a story. After some research I came across the story of Saint Modomnoc who, it was said, introduced bees from Wales to Ireland (much in the same way that Saint Patrick rid Ireland of snakes). In my application I proposed to make several bronze beehives and also have a workshop and a presentation with the school children. At this presentation I told the children the story of Modomnoc and made these illustrations for that purpose.

Original concept sketch. The idea was beehives in a Dr. Seuss style. 

                     Beehives in the foundry


This commission was installed in September 2012. It was a lot of fun to make and the teachers and students at the school were very enthusiastic. Thanks to Eoin Collins for the photos.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Figurative Sculptures in Dublin

I am spending a few days holiday in Dublin, a city I lived in briefly a few years ago. There are quite a lot of sculptures in the city, some wonderful and some awful, and I have decided to take a few photos and post some thoughts on a few of my favorites. 

The Chariot of Life by Oisin Kelly does not get the audience it deserves in the courtyard of the Irish Life Buildings. Somebody once told me that the sculptor died before the piece was finished; I dont know if this is true but this large and powerfully modeled sculpture is my favorite in the city. I wish I had made it.  

Cuchulainn by Oliver Sheppard (1911) on display in the window of the General Post Office is a beautiful example of neoclassical sculpture but I think, as with a lot of classical styled work, the male figures tend to be feminized. This piece does not seem to represent a man who performed feats of great strength and endurance but is nonetheless a masterpiece of its genre.

Another of my favorites, also by Oisin Kelly, is this depiction of Jim Larkin. It is sited on a high plinth in the middle of OConnell Street and the figures upward sweeping arms, oversized hands and rough texture all say one thing to the viewer; rise up. A powerful piece. 

This sculpture of four trumpeters is quite unusual in its arrangement being centered within a fountain surrounded  by alternate panels of glass and bronze relief. I am not sure but I think the sculptor may be Edward Delaney.

The Famine Memorial on Custom House Quay by Rowan Gillespie is a powerful and haunting arrangement of figures. Its success is due to the wonderful modeling, the bravery of the artist in depicting the horror of starvation and the highly textured surface. The surface includes "flashing" which is small traces of bronze which seep into fine cracks in the moulds surface when casting. These are usually removed but have been retained by the artist to great effect.  

This piece by Henry Moore is not often seen in its rather secluded location within Saint Stephen's Green. Maybe not one of his best but I love the texture carved into the original paster artwork before it was cast into bronze. Looking at Moores work always reminds me of the interesting time I had working at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds 10 years ago.

This massive, complex and skillfully made monument to Daniel OConnell is impossible to miss in Dublin city but as with much Victorian sculpture is quite stayed and does not have the energy of some of the other pieces I have mentioned. There are a few bullet holes in the sculpture which occurred during the 1916 uprising.

When walking into the main entrance of Trinity College you will see this sculpture of Oliver Goldsmith on the right hand side. It is one of two figures set either side of the entrance made by John Henry Foley who is also the sculptor of the OConnell monument but this piece is more successful through its weight distribution, composition and charm. A conventional piece for sure but it works well.

Lastly another piece by Oisin Kelly. The Children of Lir in the Garden of Remembrance is slightly outside the city centre and again is not seen by many but is well worth a look. This piece was enlarged and cast in Italy from Kelly's original model but I can forgive him this as it is a massive piece and maybe the facilities were not available in Ireland at the time.

 So thats it, please let me know any of your own thoughts in the comment section and maybe seek out the sculptures if you go to Dublin. There are many more sculptures in the city to see, some figurative some not but as I mentioned these are a few of my favorites.