Un Esprit Sauvage: catalogue essay by Ann Mulrooney, Galerie du Don, 2011. (essay also published in Ceramics:Art and Perception, Issue 86, 2011 (ISSBN: 1035-1841))


Cormac Boydell’s studio sits sheltered by the Caha mountains. The Atlantic Ocean lies in front, reached by a laneway cut through rock. He lives in Allihies,  at the tip of the westernmost peninsula of Ireland, on the very edge of the world.  The name in Irish is Na hAilichí, meaning ‘the cliff fields’ - an apt description of a landscape where rock erupts from the ochers of heathers and earth, pushing upwards into craggy  layers that still retain traces of their origins as seabed and water. It is an elemental and sparsley-populated place, dominated by the wild contrast of rock and sea, with a history of copper-mining that dates back to the Bronze Age.

It is impossible to ignore the stark beauty of the place – the rough undulations of the mountainous land, the hues of soft, earthy yellows, the surprising orange of  Autumn ferns or sudden, vivid blue of sky and sea... Boydell has lived here since the 1970s and although the landscape is not what he would describe as an intellectual inspiration or starting point for his work,  he acknowledges it as an influence that seeps in, in the same way that language is influenced by and grows from the landscape that it inhabits. Rather than being an inspiration, it is instead an echo – the depth of his material connection with place echoing his connection with his work, rooted in a deep engagement with materials and processes - a literal connection of hand and earth.

On his route to becoming an artist, Boydell trained as a geologist and worked in the extremeties of the Austrailian desert and the Libyan oil fields, analysing the mineral composition of rock and soil. It seems a logical step in his progression, this development from scientist to artist, though the raw materials stay the same.  An element of the scientist still remains - the studio walls are hung with glaze experiments and notes. He recites a litany of raw materials, pointing out  examples -  “lead bisilicate frit and white felspar plus opacifier, give a background for colour response; zirconium gives a hard, clean white, tin a softer white; vanadium pentoxide gives a soft yellow; copper with an  alkaline base gives Egyptian blue, or with an acidic base gives green... the percentage of each, the way they’re mixed, all affect  the finish...”

Boydell understands the materials and processes intuitively now, and works with them similarly to a painter, mixing raw minerals for his glazes.  His visual references are very much painting-related - Van Gogh, Matisse, French painting circa 1870 – 1950s, and their ceramics; Derain, Matisse, Picasso, plus also figures such as Miguel Barcelo and the Catalan ceramicist, Casanovas – although he also acknowledges his place in the still-young history of Irish studio ceramics, tracing a direct line from John ffrench and Grattan Freyer whose work he was familiar with from a young age. .

Unlike a painter, his work is schooled by the rigours of the process. The kiln has its own rhythm, as does the clay. Preparing, building, drying, firing, glazing – each part of the process has its’ own demands and requirements, not least that  the kiln only holds four large pieces at a time. He understands and enjoys that rhythm, allowing the material reality of the process to set the tempo and then stepping into the flow fleetly, like a dancer.  His studio contains groups of pieces in progress at all stages, allowing him to work continuously.  He works at times on single pieces, at times in groups, drawing onto the clay with slip then building the colours with raw glazes. Sketches for pieces are pinned on walls and rafters. Though intended only to be quick and descriptive, his drawing is beautiful – fluid and sure. 

Also unlike a painter, is the uncertainty – the elements of heat and clay and glaze can be directed, but always retain a life of their own. The transformation from raw to fired glaze contains many possibilities of change. Each piece is a mystery; each time the kiln opens it is with expectation. Colour composition, glazes – he is never certain until the kiln opens. There is no ‘way’ to be sure, and that alchemical uncertainty also becomes key to the process, allowing a dynamic and intuitive relationship to open with each piece.  “Certainty”, he declares, “can be very dead”.

Each is removed from the kiln and examined – some, like a mythological saint, emerge like a new-minted miracle fully-formed from the kiln. Vivid and vital, a green fool, an elemental, the composition is perfect. It will be re-fired with an edging of gold, but is otherwise complete. A new piece based on Paysage au Ruisseau (les aloes) Printemps, 1907, a painting by Matisse seen 5 years ago in an exhibition in France - salmon-pink, with bands of creamy yellow, aquamarine and inky navy – has shifted in the heat of the kiln leaving lines slightly unbalanced. The solutions are intuitive but also formal – the composition will be rebalanced and another glaze firing will take place. This returning and reworking is very much part of the process, and some pieces are fired multiple times in order to achieve the balance that Boydell seeks in a finished piece. It is a risk, as each time he fires there’s a possibility of cracking or glaze moving - temperatures have to be adjusted carefully.

“It’s hard to draw the line, to decide how far to go”, he says.  In the beginning he recycled nine out of ten pieces, frequently dissatisfied. Outside the studio door sits a small pile that couldn’t be resolved, forlorn and abandoned. Whilst the sensation of not being able to resolve some may be painful, it is preferable to putting out a piece of work before that point of certainty is reached – he  recalls the anecdote attributed to Irish painter Camille Souter,  that artists should never sell their work in their own lifetime – though there is an acknowledged inherent pleasure in selling, in making something that brings life and beauty to the world, and it being possessed by another.

Motifs re-occur over the path of years; foliage; the Lascaux bull;  Skellig Michael, the steep, rocky Island and ancient monastic site visible from the coast; elements of the traditional Willow pattern: he describes these resonant images as being like calligraphic forms – his interest is not in the specific meaning of the image, but in what he calls the ‘space behind’ .  The quality of line, the relationship of line within boundary, the thickness or thinness – when completely ‘in’  the process, each line becomes the natural starting point of the one following it and creates a sense of inherent ’rightness’ at its best.  Each piece represents a new opportunity to connect with that inherent sense; “It’s like coming into that space between form and formless, between object and unknown. There’s a kind of fulcrum there. My work is about that boundary between the representational and the formless. It’s a transcendence, not caught in the story but in the presence, the space behind the thought.’. The exuberant, painterly quality of Boydell’s work can often give the impression of an extrovert – but the truth seems more that each piece is a passionate encounter with that ‘space behind’.

Each is a sustained attempt at remaining present and finding a point of balance – in many sense of the word - with process and materials and place.  Balancing at the edge of the world.

© Ann Mulrooney 2011

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