text from Neue-Keramik / New Ceramics 5/16

Words by Cormac Boydell, edited by Nigel Atkins



2016 is the  centenary of the Easter Rising, the founding rebellion that paved the way to the War of Independence, and also, by the way, marks my seventieth birthday. All these years I've lived in Ireland apart four years in the Australian outback and six months in the Libyan desert. The intensity of this Irish experience has ceaselessly inspired me to explore my relationship to this country, to closely examine what might constitute Irishness, and to consider my work in terms which must nevertheless exist beyond the bounds of nationality.

My family name is from Normandy and my ancestors lived for many years in England before they arrived in Dublin in the 1880s. My family are non-Catholics in a country that was for many years defined by the Catholic Church. My parents encouraged me to depend on my own wits and creativity and dissuaded me from entering the world of commerce. Hearing my speech many Irish mistake me for English. I am an outsider, and yet I feel the warmth of home in this land and among its people, and more and more a resonance with its fabulous creativity.

For the last forty-four years, I have lived on the tip of the Beara peninsula, the western frontier of Europe, the rocky mountains behind me and the vastness of the ocean before me. It is very elemental. Atlantic storms come straight in here with no barrier, waves crashing against our coast to end a journey of thousands of miles. The weather is raw and ever-changing. It is rough living but there is a softness in the sheltered places and in the people who live here. This elemental Ireland predates mankind and it is out of this that our language and our ways of expressing ourselves have mostly arisen.

My way of working is largely through the domestication of unpredictability rather than through logically following an idea. I trained as a geologist, not as an artist, and I have developed my work with clay, colours and heat through a process of continuing experimentation. It would be a mistake to assess my work by taking a too literal approach to the titles I may use, or indeed to the subject matter, because in my experience, even though I may well start off with a title in mind, once the making process is engaged, other self-generating forces come into play. The first marks in the clay become the principal motivators for those that follow. A line laid down dictates where the next should be. And then the question of colour, or the chromatic play between colours, becomes one of permanent interplay where fickle transformations due to the heat of the kiln may need to be reworked and re-fired until I'm satisfied. To ensure surprise, that vital ingredient for keeping all artists on their creative toes, many of my materials have been chosen for their unpredictability. That way, the firing process participates in the creative act, occasionally wonderfully, but more often rather less so. Usually there is the suggestion of a way forward, probably one I would not have anticipated. So when the kiln door opens, my first rule is to give each piece a good space of silence in which to look. At this stage, the importance of the initial subject loses its precedence to the reality of what now is.

I am not so interested in words on art unless they open doors, unless they lead on a journey to where art exists in a space beyond the words. I am currently reading the essays of the Catalan artist Antoni Tapies and he writes about the need for the artist to work from an inner quietness and how he can thus offer the observer an experience that reaches beyond the conceptual. I find that living and working here in remote rural Ireland, far from the bustle and stimulants of the city, is perfect for this.

So to return to my reflections on what defines Irishness, I sense that this unspoken connection between the land and the elements, if only by its immensity, is the essential uniting current that underlies all else. There lies the foundation, on which has been constructed a way of being that finds its roots in the unresolved battle between our bloodwashed Pre-Christian values, when prowess was the proper subject of bards, and the Early Christian spirit of interdependence and God in all things. In Ireland, this bringing together of environmental might and historical succession is cultural fusion at work, a welding of man to place, of hardness to softness with all the inescapable force of an Atlantic undertow. This is the energy I know. This is energy I like.

How do I work? Like many artists, I need my own space, both in my head and physically. I've always had to compose myself before starting a new piece but, because of the importance I attach to this exploration of Irishness, which I knew would lead to a snow-ball accumulation of ideas, I decided to go on a "studio retreat" starting in early January and running, if all goes according to plan, until the end of the summer. This means enjoying continuity and minimum distractions.

In preparation for this series of figurative works, I have reread a lot of our myths and much of our national history, making drawings of the imagery that comes to me from this. These drawings are imagined, mixing imagery anchored in the verifiable with fantasies that spring into my mind as by-products of my source material. Living here on this weather-beleaguered "western frontier", the details of what I see when I step outside, when I can, also seep into my being. I try to maintain the quietness and discipline that will let all of this emerge in my work.

Cormac Boydell 2016

(edited by Nigel Atkins)


ISSN 1860-1049

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