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Warrior women at work

Ireland boasts an impressive number of female artists who have mastered the toughest traditional skills to create enduring art forms

Sculptor Helen O’Connell at work carving limestone.

They have spent years training to become a bronze sculptor, a stone carver, a dedicated goldsmith or a tapestry weaver with patience and incredible fortitude. It’s a ongoing voyage of discovery. The physical process is gruelling and arduous, the prospect of business success remote, and the ultimate rewards are never guaranteed. Yet these women warriors have succeeded in their visual art forms and conquered the most resistant mediums.

Native Dubliner Helen O’Connell is a stone carver and renowned sculptor. Although she has a degree in English literature and art history from TCD, she ultimately found poetry in stone. Rocks possess a resonance for her as she explores the layers of marine fossils that create majestic marbles or dark Kilkenny limestone.

“I know as a medium it’s problematic and it’s expensive, but I just keep getting drawn back to it,” she admits with a chisel in hand. “The simplicity of a pebble inspires me to master the rough and transform it into the smooth polish of stone.”

O'Connell did a stone carving course in Leitrim after graduating from TCD in 1996 and learned the ancient craft from Seamus Dunbar, Jackie McKenna and Martha Quinn.


“It’s the story that lies within the unique veins, coloration and molecular structure that combine to make the final structure,” she explains.

It takes a strong diamond cutter to carve the unyielding element of a rock. Does she find the chiselling and grafting tiring on a daily basis? “Stone drives a hard bargain when it comes to moving the material around,” she admits. “I am dependent on the kindness of colleagues and the goodwill of strangers when it comes to shifting its cumbersome mass. A well-equipped studio can help but moving stone remains one of the most challenging aspects of stone carving.”

The tactile beauty of her finished, polished rocks just begs to be touched and felt with the palm of your hand. It’s this connection she hopes to elicit with the public and her clients.

Most of O’Connell’s work is done outdoors no matter what the weather. “The creation of stone sculpture in the work studio is a far cry from the glamour of the gallery. It’s dusty, noisy and pretty unsociable! However, I cherish my uncluttered state of mind when sculpting and the freedom to create my own goals.”

She has exhibited extensively and has a residency bursary at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Co Monaghan.

For more, see oconnellsculpture.com

Woven wall-hangings

‘Seed Pods’ a tapestry by Áine Dunne.

Áine Dunne, an experienced tapestry weaver, makes colourful, life-affirming woven wall-hangings at her home in the Boyne Valley, Co Louth. Although living in a remote location, she has found the internet has opened a window into her life by showcasing her designs around the world. Now she gets orders from as far away as Australia and, closer to home, she recently completed a distinctive blue tapestry for the foyer of the LinkedIn building in Dublin.

However, major commissions can take up to six months to complete and she can find herself spinning and weaving for hours on end. Does she find this process physically daunting?

“Not really, it’s quite absorbing once the concept has been worked out. When I meet and discuss a tapestry with a client, we embark on a creative journey by coming up with the shapes, images and textures that they find interesting. There is an original buzz and conversation that precedes the work and then after that you are in that quiet place and concentrating on the project at hand.”

Business hubs like Creative Spark in Dundalk, run by Sara Daly, create supportive networks for the arts and assists in the marketing of their skills.

“I like to share the experience and interact with people on this creative journey by delivering workshops during my downtime as well.”

Once a piece is under way, Dunne follows a broad outline called a cartoon and has a prepared bobbin of specially chosen dyed wools to interweave the imagery.

“I weave the weft across the loom, allowing leeway for enhancing depths of colours. I could spend a morning on a brush stroke combining threads of different hues. A small colour or tension error could result in unravelling a whole morning’s work if it’s not working out. It is very time-consuming and requires a lot of patience, but it is also meditative and relaxing for me.”

Introduced to tapestry by artist Liam Ó Broin, Dunne also spent time in the 1980s training with Regina Bartsh and Helena Ruuth, both from mainland Europe. This was a time of craft revival in Ireland and now this ancient tradition has found renewed interest, inspired by the Ireland's Ancient East tourism concept.

“I also like to share the hand-weaving experience and give workshops to craft tourists who are attracted to learning more about the processes, from spinning the yarn to weaving a picture.”

To unwind between commissions, she creates small products on a four-shaft floor loom – from tapestry bookmarkers to a new line of ‘crios’, or braided belts. She also delivers workshops in hand-spinning, where she gets to discuss the process with those students and visitors who wish to learn this painstaking and intricate trade.

For more, see ainedunneweaver.com

Glass sculptor

‘Tidal’ by Alva Gallagher.

Alva Gallagher is an award-winning glass sculptor and artist from Co Donegal. She was born in 1982 and studied at NCAD, Dublin, and won a scholarship award at the Pilchuck School of Glass in Seattle, USA. She works mainly through the medium of molten glass and uses her luminous creations to reflect the wildness and tranquillity of the sea. She has had several exhibitions and her work is on display at the Beacon Hospital, the Gibson Hotel, the National Museum of Ireland and Dublin's Docklands.

“My practice explores concepts of depth and rhythm through my chosen medium of glass. I am passionate about the sea and try to mirror its ferocity and serenity through my manipulation of glass in its molten state.”

Gallagher spends a lot of time in Italy doing research and sourcing materials. She lives with her husband and her boxer dog Frankie.

Her Glassical creations are defiant and enchanting with a dreamlike attraction. Where does she get the energy and patience to work with such a complex, weighty and yet incredibly delicate material?

“I have never really thought about that physical side of it,” she laughs. “I love the process and physicality of working with hot and heavy materials and that challenge of striving to give them the appearance of lightness and elegance in the finished works”

What’s the driving force of these glass installations?

“They are inspired by the vastness of the ocean and the intimacy of our diverse shorelines. They harness the intrinsic beauty of crystal and of tidal movement and entice the viewer to peer into their depths.”

For more, see alvagallagher.com

Jewellery designer

Gold heart in silver spirals by jewellery designer Elena Brennan.

Elena Brennan is a jewellery designer, master pattern maker and sculptor, who lives in Cavan. She created the "Children of Lir" line of jewellery and turned the ancient legend into a modern collection. Her silver and gold pieces are full of detail – from swans to cows, frail petals to enchanting angelic wings in gold and silver.

“I make my master patterns in wax and then these intricate sculptures are cast in silver. There are seven stages of finish until you reach the polished jewellery piece that glistens on the shelf.”

She works in her garden studio protected by lots of dogs and cats. She also is married with children, who keep her busy.

“I need space to feel energised and find nature inspiring, so I love to be surrounded by trees and rivers.”

Brennan’s journey began in transition year in school, when she was placed with a trained goldsmith who recognised her natural ability and encouraged her to pursue an artistic career.

"Yes, Maurice Harron, the amazing Irish sculptor from Derry, was my art teacher during my secondary education. His encouragement helped me immensely. After school, I went on to complete a fine craft design and jewellery degree in University of Ulster, Belfast, and a post-grad in the Sir John Cass College London. My final-year degree show included a bronze chess set of imaginary creatures set on a tooled leather board."

She briefly worked in 3D special effects, making monsters, but fortunately returned to Ireland to her original work.

Brennan is now busy with jewellery orders as well as private bespoke commissions for special occasions. She would love to take a step back and work on a range of fresh considered sculptures. “I enjoy once-off commissions and would like to create a range of equine jewellery and horse sculptures. I have many more angel ideas that I want to create, so watch this space.”

For more, see elenabrennan.com

Imposing sculptures

Sculptor Orla de Brí at work.

Judging by the dimensions of Orla de Brí's imposing sculptures, you'd be forgiven for presuming the woman is larger than life herself. However, this award-winning warrior is often dwarfed by her massive bronze creations that can range from the huge Niche, who stands at the University Of Limerick to the towering Thinking Man, who is reminiscent of Gulliver, or the massive Bastard son of Sisyphus in Park West Business Park.

De Brí has been fortunate to have had many of her bronze artworks on view to the public too. Visitors to Bloom may have spotted her Bronze Woman sitting in a gigantic red fibreglass apple. Many of her works have been commissioned for site-specific locations while others have been bought by private collectors including Jerry Hall, Hilary Swank, Dermot Desmond and the collection at Kelly's Hotel, Wexford.

Pitting her strength against heavy-duty materials bronze and steel seems to increase her determination to transform them and mould them into shape.

Where did this obsession with bronze begin?

"At the beginning, I started working in clay, then learned to work with metals from sculptor Andrew Clancy, who also taught me bronze casting at NCAD. When I got my first public commission, sculptor Eamon O'Doherty taught me his technique of scaling up from a model."

Over the last 23 years, De Brí has worked relentlessly, like a human dynamo with inexhaustible energy. Where does she get the strength?

“I do yoga every morning before embarking on a day’s work that puts me in a positive frame of mind. Although I love my work, I try to keep the hours in my workshop between nine and five. I may sneak in and out over the weekend to tweak a work in progress.”

Her two children have both followed her into the arts with her son in film, while her daughter is a director and writer.

Her latest commission is a bronze figure with a magical 24ct gold-leafed tree that will stare over the Norman turrets of Belvelly Castle in Cork.

“I love the physicality. I head out to the studio in the morning, get on the overalls and whether it’s welding or modelling in wax, I am soon totally immersed in the process and the sparks are flying. I like to be well-rested as I find accidents happen when I am tired – that’s on the few occasions I might get burnt.”

How we relate to nature is a recurring concept.

“My themes are focused on human evolution and how we connect with our surroundings. I bring subjects and materials together that on first glance seem incompatible. Combining steel with diamonds or fibreglass with polished bronze . . . I am always intrigued with juxtaposed ideas and textures. I try to seek a different perspective on life, love and the self.”

De Brí's public works include Perch in Co Meath, Flow in Istanbul and Apple Seat in Chelsea Harbour, London.

For more, see orladebri.ie