DAVID LILBURN INTERVIEWS JANE MURTAGH ABOUT ‘A JOURNEY WITH METAL: CONTEMPORARY WORK’, HER EXHIBITION AT GLOR, ENNIS (3 – 30 APRIL).
David Lilburn: What is your attraction and fascination with metal as a material and when did it begin?
Jane Murtagh: The journey began when I was about 12 years old in Dublin. My father had an antique shop in Dawson Street and his love was Georgian silver. I was dispatched to collect the repairs from silversmithing workshops like Allwright & Marshall’s, where the beech benches were long and worn, full of containers of repousse and chasing tools, highly polished stakes and hammers. There was an engraver in a very old building off Georges street, three floors up; there was one light bulb, windows blacked out with brown paper, a radio with a coat hanger aerial and a crotchety old geezer behind the counter peering down at me. Never a smile! Fabulous.
Then there was Miss Zolkie who had a shop on Grafton Street where she re- strung pearls. She sat on a high stool behind the counter stringing pearls and chain smoking all day. These people fascinated me; their world was far more interesting than mine or school.
I loved growing up in Dublin, the moody slate greyness of it all, jet black iron railings around the squares, the municipal and national galleries, the forged gold in the National Museum and the Chester Beatty. At least once a month I skipped school and did a grand tour of the lot.
I studied fine art at Dun Laoghaire College of Art & Design from 1975 – 1979 and thought I would be a painter, but the moment I set foot into the metalwork room and smelt the metal and dust, that was it. The sculptor Niall O’Neill was my tutor. He got me to forge my own repousse tools, showed me how to make pitch and dragged me around to visit artists who were working in metal. One of these was John Behan and I think Edward Delaney was the other; they hadn’t a bean between them and looked like they survived on fags and tea. Niall was a very generous tutor, sharing knowledge with his infectious enthusiasm and wit. So too was Des Taaffe from the Dublin Silver Company. They are still there for me and I am very grateful having that support.
DL: One of the striking qualities running through the work is the variety and quality of colour of the metal. Could you elaborate on the patination processes you use?
JM: Drawing and music have inspired and driven my experimentation with patination. A few years ago I attended a ‘drawing with music’ course in Central St Martins, London. It was very exciting for me, matching mark making with sound and colour. When working through patinas I listen to early music, the Hilliard Ensemble, Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett. For years I did the basic brown patina with potassium sulphide, submerging the copper or bronze in a bath of the solution. Then I went to West Dean College in Sussex where there was an intensive course in patination. I came away from that with about 40 test pieces. Most sculptors will have the patination bible, The Colouring, Bronzing and Patination of Metals by Hughes and Rowe, but there’s no comparison to being shown by and experimenting alongside an expert. I treat the chemical like paint, stippling and building up layers aiming for a translucent effect.
Two works in the exhibition had new patination worked on them: The winter box garden and The lacemakers garden. With these two pieces I used wood shavings from fruit trees and oak sawdust. The shavings are soaked in the chemical and then the shavings are layered on top of the metal, covered and left for up to three weeks. I check it every day and maybe adjust the mix. It’s a learning curve and with the quality of copper and bronze changing over the past two years this means adjustments to the patination recipes have had to be made. Introducing the gold leaf in tiny amounts is relatively new for me; it can make the metal sing.
DL: You are a member of the Irish Artist Blacksmiths Association and, if I’m right, one of the only female members?
JM: I joined the Irish Artist Blacksmiths Association five years ago because I like spending time with makers. I am not the only female, there’s Gunvor Anhoj, a very skilled creative smith working out of Russborough House forge. I am on the board of this association because, like the other board members, I want to keep these skills alive and try to bring a contemporary sensibility to the craft.
DL: You use many traditional, in some cases ancient, techniques, but you also stress that in your work you are striving to develop a visual language that expresses a personal and contemporary sensibility. Could you explain what is involved in that quest and explain some of the different qualities of the metals and techniques you use?
JM: Yes, repousse is a very ancient technique. It was used for creating highly decorative metal work during the Bronze Age and in the Far East. I am interested in keeping my shapes simple. I try not to let the technique do all the talking. I don’t have a straight forward answer as to why I do so much repousse. I love the process, including the tools (I use a 37-year-old German hammer) and the subtlety of low relief sculpture.
The etched work began when I wanted to get more drawing into the metal. I never had the patience for printmaking. I always wanted to leave the copper sheet in the ferric for longer. Then I realised I could to that in my own studio.
DL: You mentioned to me once that you came across a collection of estate maps covering the area where you now live. Did these influence your work in any way?
JM: Around 2012 I began to look closer to home for a story to get my teeth into. I live in the countryside on a farm. The Shannon boarders the land, long thin deep drains cut through the fields draining off the water like jet black charcoal lines on paper. There are estate maps from the 1800s on the farm and they inspired me make the estuary series works.
DL: There are references to Limerick lace, in particular to Florence Vere O’Brien of the Limerick Lace School, in some of the titles of the pieces. What is your interest here?
JM: Running alongside this new etched work were stories about a relative of my husband called Florence Vere O’Brien. In the 1840s Florence set up an embroidery school in Ballyalla, Co. Clare and went on to run the Limerick School of Lace. Florence kept a diary every day, which at present is being transcribed by her granddaughter Veronica Rowe. Her drawings for the embroidery are all wild flowers from her garden and the Burren. She employed local girls, taught them a skill that gave them financial independence and read to them with a pet robin on her shoulder. Anyhow, I needed to find my own way into that story, so I began writing a short story about Florence’s daughter Flora. I wrote a story about her walking around the gardens at night and lying on the damp grass imagining gold threads floating out the front door of the house towards Ballyalla Lake. The titles of the works, Gold Threads, Gold Seeds and Ballyalla Lake, connect to that. For me, art exists as a reminder. I need beauty and hope; it’s too hard to get through the day otherwise.
DL: You exhibit regularly in the Sculpture in Context exhibition in the Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin. You also are familiar with the library and archives there. What is your relationship with the gardens and how important is it to your work?
JM: My relationship with the Botanic Gardens goes back to my art school days when the late Donal O’Sullivan got us out there for drawing sessions. The Turner glass house reminds me of the great British metalworking and engineering tradition. A gardener in the glass house let me up to the gantry to draw, which I did many times during my four years in college. I suppose I was attracted to the big architectural plants and always imagined them in metal. Discovering the botanical lace in the archives was pretty exciting. These include actual jackets made from mallow fibres and a parasol made from nastursum fibres. The delicate intricate workmanship in the making is remarkable.
DL: Are there any contemporary artists that you think influence your work?
JM: In art college I loved Matisse’s bronze back sculptures, his pared down drawings full of joy and light. I also liked Egon Schiele, Giacometti bronzes, Barry Cooke’s Borneo paintings. Today I get inspired by Alice Maher’s massive charcoal drawings, Dorothy Cross’s film work. The American blacksmith Tom Joyce came to the international forge in up in Monaghan in 2011 and gave a fantastic talk on his work. His sculpture and blacksmithing is powerful – massive and delicate at the same time. it would inspire me to work in steel in the future. There are times I see bluey brushed steel in Charles Tyrrell’s paintings. The paintings by John Shinnors sing; he puts beauty into old galvanised sheet. Pat Scott’s embossed prints with gold leaf and a museum in Warsaw clad internally with brushed patinated steel are firmly imprinted in my mind at the moment.
David Lilburn is an artist and printmaker. He is a member of Limerick Printmakers, an associate member of Cork Printmakers and a Trustee of the National Self-Portrait Collection. Together with artist and writer Jim Savage, he runs ‘Occasional Press’ which publishes art-based books. He lives in Limerick. www.davidlilburn.ie
Jane Murtagh. A graduate in Fine art from Dunlaoghaire College of Art 1979, Jane specialised in metalwork and drawing. She works with non ferrous metals, forging and etching the metal creating 2 dimensional relief works.