Carving a niche for himself


A childhood friend of the sculptor Fred Conlon has written a touching account of the life of the Irish artist

JACK HARTE’S Unravelling the Spiralis an illuminating account of the life of the sculptor and teacher Fred Conlon. The two were cousins, friends and, for the first eight years of Harte’s life, next-door neighbours in the townland of Killeenduff, near Easky, in Co Sligo. There was just 10 months between them. “We grew up together, went to school together, more often than not ate our dinner from the same table,” Harte writes. Their paths diverged, but they remained close.

Conlon was born in October 1943 and died early in 2005. The previous year he had been diagnosed with a brain tumour, and Harte visited him frequently during his final illness. “His physical deterioration was rapid and horrific.”

Yet Conlon had achieved a great deal during his cruelly curtailed life. Chances are you have encountered at least one of the many public sculptures he completed at an exceptional rate during his more productive years. Harte writes extremely well about their common rural background, a hard world of subsistence living and limited prospects, with emigration as a fact of life.

He recalls visiting a souvenir and craft shop in Easky when he and Conlon were 12 or 13. By then Harte’s family had moved to Lanesboro, in Co Longford, and Harte was back for the summer holidays. While they were looking for postcards of Sligo Conlon picked up a model of a thatched cottage and remarked to Eileen Mary Harte, who ran the shop (and wasn’t a relation), that he didn’t think much of it and could do much better himself. She took him at his word and gave him a packet of Plasticine with the instruction: “Take this home and see if you can make me a better cottage.”

Conlon set to the task, basing his model on a nearby cottage. With a bit of additional tweaking the finished object made a serviceable ashtray. Eileen Harte was so impressed she had a cast made from the original and produced a number of plaster copies. If Conlon painted them, she said, she would sell them and split the proceeds. It was the beginning of what Harte jokingly refers to as a cottage industry.

More than that, it unleashed the young Conlon’s creativity and offered a glimpse of a different path in life. He was in demand as a painter of religious subjects, and he painted landscapes. He attended Easky vocational school, completed the Group Certificate “and then stayed on for an optional third year”, enjoying lessons in woodwork and rural science. He might easily have followed the emigrant trail to England. Eileen Harte was determined that he should go the National College of Art in Dublin, and applied herself to making that possible. It was a daunting task. It meant winning hearts and minds, and dealing with many layers of bureacracy.

“The prospect of a young fellow from Killeenduff, son of a landless farmer, with no education beyond the Group Certificate, whose life experience had been limited to endless farm work, going to the National College of Art was unthinkable, unimaginable. And yet it happened,” writes Harte.

The Vocational Education Committee was persuaded to institute a scholarship on the basis of Conlon’s exceptional promise. He settled into the National College of Art under the guidance of Domhnall Ó Murchadha, then assistant professor of sculpture, and into a relatively bohemian life in Dublin’s bedsit land, though as Harte makes clear he was not at heart a bohemian.

The artists Aidan Hickey and Henry Sharpe numbered among his circle of friends. His artistic direction was decided when he attended a lecture by Françoise Henry on early Irish stone sculpture, from elementary megalithic carvings to the complex patterning of high crosses. His subsequent work places him squarely in this tradition of monumental stone carving.

The sculpture department at the college was, paradoxically, both oddly progressive and severely conservative: an approximate reflection of Ó Murchadha’s thinking. In his history of the college John Turpin notes the department’s “austere Catholic and nationalist viewpoint, typical of the Ireland of the 1940s and 1950s”, and its distinct lack of enthusiasm for modernism, with the singular exception of the work and philosophy of the visionary architect Le Corbusier.

“Of particular importance was the cultivation of an Irish cultural identity and the search for deep European roots, even if the advice given was somewhat limited in range,” Turpin writes.

For whatever reason, Conlon identified very strongly with this ethos and with Ó Murchadha’s views. When he was taken on as Ó Murchadha’s assistant, at the end of the 1960s, he was politically and temperamentally out of tune with the students and staff who were agitating for change.

He abhorred the unrest that swept through the college. The troubles blew over, but the atmosphere had soured, and he knew that he couldn’t return to the college. Harte tries to understand Conlon’s blanket rejection of the case for reform, even when reform would have suited his interests as an employee of the college, and concludes that the basic stubbornness of his character precluded compromise.

In the end he just couldn’t seem to make the imaginative leap that might allow him to embrace a broader vision of art and life, and held to what might be described as a narrowness of outlook. That intense, narrow focus contributed to both the strengths and the limitations evident in much of his artistic work.

Giving up on Dublin, he went to work as a teacher with the VEC in Sligo, where he set about establishing the art department at the regional college in 1972. This was the beginning of a settled period in his life. He married Kathleen, and they had five children. He proved to be a dedicated, inspirational teacher. Among his sculpture students in the 1970s were Jackie McKenna and Eileen MacDonagh, both now well-established artists.

Yet he suffered from the most predictable problem facing any artist turned teacher. He was frustrated that he was not producing enough of his own work – an average of two pieces a year or less, Harte reckons.

So he leaped at the chance of taking an early-retirement package in 1989. Pouring all his energy into his work, he made up for lost time, embarking on a hectic round of publicly commissioned sculptures and sculpture symposia. And he wasn’t a conceptual artist who could phone in his ideas and have someone else execute them. His art was intensely physical and committed; in time the hard labour of carving and carrying took its toll on his muscles and joints.

Although the pace of work increased dramatically from 1989, he had produced works of substance throughout the 1980s too. Stone carving was the essence of what he was about – though, as McDonagh observed, he had remarkable facility in virtually any medium. Inspired by early Christian and indeed pre-Christian stone carvings, spiral, curvilinear forms recur.

Harte encouraged him to record his thoughts during the final year of his life. Conlon said: “My work has been in conjunction with the spiral. The centre is everything. There is nothing without a point of energy. There is in nature and man a great centre of force.”

In Éibhear Alban, from 1987, which is in Catherine McCann’s Shekina Sculpture Garden, in Co Wicklow, he takes a block of granite and brilliantly visualises its flowing, molten birth. The idea served him well again in a piece made for Roscommon Library in 1989, and there’s another exceptional spiral form from 1991 in a park in Kerala, India, though it is in a neglected state, Harte writes.

Conlon alternated abstraction with figuration quite happily. Several of his figurative pieces are outstanding. On occasion there is a tendency towards stiffness and a stilted quality, though that can actually be fine in a public, formal setting. Among the best are the two young girls in bronze on Portland Row in Dublin (1993), a good, solid figure of Parnell in Parnell National Memorial Park, close to Avondale (1991), and a mother and child carved in Donegal granite (1989), bought by Harte for Lucan Community College in 1995.

“I eventually decided to write the biography as a personal memoir,” Harte notes of his book. It is carefully researched and richly illustrated. As a memoir it is valuable not only in offering a record but also in bringing alive a time and a place in recent Irish history. In addition, it performs an important task in putting the measure of Conlon’s achievement on the record.

Unravelling the Spiralby Jack Harte is published by Scotus Press (€24.95)