Wirksworth-based sculptor Denis O'Connor
PUBLISHED: 12:08 28 March 2015 | UPDATED: 12:08 28 March 2015
Denis O'Connor speaks about the inspiration behind his exciting landmark works of art
Eight miles off the coast of County Cork, there is an isolated rocky island crowned by a tall lighthouse. This tiny outpost in the Atlantic Ocean is called Fastnet, or Carraig Aonair, meaning ‘Lonely Rock’. In the nineteenth century, it was also christened ‘Ireland’s Teardrop’, because it was the very last part of Ireland that emigrants saw as they sailed to start a new life in North America.
Many other Irish people have moved from their homeland to start a new life in Britain. The Wirksworth-based sculptor Denis O’Connor is one such person. Brought up in Millstreet, a small town in County Cork, several miles inland from Fastnet, he showed early promise as an artist and as a craftsman, talents which he developed at Limerick Art School, where he was a student from 1978 to 1982. Anxious to pursue further studies in sculpture, he then moved to the University of Central England in Birmingham.
Since completing his postgraduate year in 1983, Denis has been primarily based in England, although he has made frequent trips back to Ireland, where he now has a ‘second home’ in Barna, on the coast of County Cork, from where the he can clearly see the lighthouse at Fastnet.
When I visited his studio/workshop in Wirksworth, Denis said: ‘My interest in “making” was inspired by watching my father, who was a shoe-maker. I have little time for contemporary artists who seem to think that working with your hands has less intellectual value than more conceptual artwork. These are sculptors who come up with ideas, but are content to leave a team of craftspeople and fabricators to put them into practice, whereas I believe that it is only possible for artists to express a narrative through sculpture by being fully engaged with the entire process of making.’
Shortly after finishing his studies, Denis was lucky enough to secure a residency at the Jaguar car works. Over the years, he has been involved with many other residences, including recent spells with the National Trust at Ilam Park and at the Rolls-Royce Trust Collection in Derby. Both these residences involved his Fine Art students at the University of Derby, where he teaches on two and a half days per week.
An early commission that came his way as a sculptor was to design work for the National Garden Festival that was held at Stoke-on-Trent in 1986. The plot chosen for the festival was a site that had become derelict after the closure of the Skelton Steel Works. This would be the first of many commissions for public sculptures that Denis has undertaken in various locations in both Britain and Ireland, especially in places that were being regenerated after the disappearance of old industries.
Working with his partner Bernadine Rutter, a printmaker and arts education worker, Denis set up Sculpture Works in 2004 as a company that designs, fabricates, manages and installs steel landmark sculptures. Denis says, ‘We always begin a new project by carrying out lots of research into the history and intended use of a site, before involving members of the local community, schools and other interested parties In workshops and extensive consultation, with the aim of giving them ownership of the sculpture.’
In 2005, Denis returned to Stoke-on-Trent to design ‘Privilege’, a landmark sculpture that reflects the past achievements and future aspirations of the city. The work references the pottery and steel industries, and uses a ladder and a tree to symbolise growth and regeneration. Standing adjacent to the A53, the huge sculpture is seen by over 30,000 motorists every day. Three years later, Denis was asked by Stoke City Council to create another sculpture for a forest park at Hanley. With the title ‘Tree Stories’, it pays tribute to the miners who worked in the nearby Hanley Deep Pit.
Installations created by Sculpture Works for locations in Derbyshire include ’Elements’ at the Sure Start nursery and community centre in Rosehill, three projects at Chesterfield called ‘Summer Fruit’, ‘Factory Memoirs’ and Fables’, a work called ‘Last Foliage’ at the Sinfin regeneration site, sculpture and lighting for the pedestrian bridge at St Alkmund’s Way in Derby and an award-winning sculpture called ‘Football Stories’ at the former Baseball Ground.
Denis’ work at Sure Start was undertaken in conjunction with Derek Trowell Architects of Wirksworth. The aim was to create a safe area for children, which the sculptor has enclosed by a steel ‘crinkle-crankle’ wall decorated with images of insects. ‘Summer Fruit’ at Chesterfield depicts farming and summers from a bygone era, and incorporates flowing water, fruit bushes, wild birds and old farm implements. And ‘Football Stories’ at the former Baseball Ground reflects past heroics by Derby County legends.
Currently, Denis is involved in a project for the Castle Ward area of Derby, which is being transformed by a £100 million redevelopment into a new urban village. In addition to work on this important project, he has been busily creating small-scale sculptures of a more personal nature, which were shown in a solo exhibition at Derby Art Gallery last autumn. The works were prompted by his reflections on frequent travels between Ireland and Britain over the last 30 years and by his experience of having homes in both countries.
Denis said, ‘I am sure that the question ‘Where is my home?’ must have been asked by thousands of Irish exiles. My own response to this question has been to create small sculptures that illustrate my uncomfortable feeling of displacement, as well as the instability that comes from living in two places.’
One of the works that featured in the Derby exhibition is called ‘The Crossing’. It traces the journey that Denis makes half a dozen times per year between his family homes in Britain and Ireland. It features a small chair that is perched precariously in the middle of the line that represents the crossing. The position of the chair symbolises the uncertainty surrounding which of the two destinations is Denis’s real home.
A sculpture called ‘Hiding in the Attic’ is a memory of childhood in the family home, and another work called ‘Once a Catholic, always a Catholic’ features a small chair trapped in a room that resembles a cage supported by legs that looks decidedly wobbly. Denis said, ‘This second work is intended as a reference to being brought up as a Catholic and still being bound by its rules, even though I have been away from the church for 25 years. That wobbly base is also a comment on the current unpredictable state of the Catholic Church in Ireland.’
Describing another work called ‘Looking towards the Fastnet, Denis said: ‘This sculpture highlights the importance I associate with the rock that I can see so clearly from our Irish home. It acknowledges that the vision of Fastnet in my mind is constantly drawing me back to Ireland.’
Denis O’'Connor at work in his studio
'Once a Catholic, Always a Catholic'
'Looking out from the Fastnet'
The Fastnet or Carraig Aonair
Privilege at Stoke-on-Trent
Tree Stories at Hanley
‘Conversations’ at Sure Start, Rosehill
‘Summer Fruit’ at Chesterfield
Football Stories at the former Baseball Ground, Derby
A detail from ‘The Crossing’
Denis O'’Connor with his sculpture ‘Hiding in the Attic’
Sculpture Works (www.sculptureworks.org.uk) is based in Wirksworth. To place commissions, email firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone: 01629 825270 or 07887956332.