I am a retired public servant from Ireland, who has been working with the ancient wood of bog oak for more than 30 years. Since retirement in 2012, I have been a full-time artist, also running my own Bog Oak Studio in Clane Co. Kildare since 2000.
Nature and being close to the countryside and everything contained therein was always close to my heart. I can remember as a youngster when collecting the cows for my father in the evening, being taken in by what I encountered and saw on the hedgerows and ditches. I was absolutely fascinated to see the ivy plant and how it twisted, contorted and hugged the trees. The natural world excited me then and still does to this day. I had a burning desire to do something in this area when I would grow up.
When in a boy’s boarding school in the mid 1960’s, it wasn’t always the coolest thing to express an interest in art.Life was very black and white back then,and it was brave and daunting to deviate away from the conventional way of thinking or choice of career. Fortunately for me and many others a well-known painter Paul Funge was our arts teacher at this stage in our education. He influenced and encouraged his students to follow their hearts desire and be true to yourself.He greatly inspired and influenced my life to follow my dream into the world of art and creativity.
Visiting museums, art galleries and an interest in pre historical sites and buildings became a way of life, which led me inevitablility into the realm of art. I took landscape painting classes for a number of years, which I really did enjoy, and whetted my artistic appetite further, but I also felt that I needed to do something with my hands in a different way.
I came across bog oak for the first time, when Stephen my brother in law in the west of Ireland was ploughing some ground .Little did I know as I propped myself on the handle of a fork, lazily watching him do his work. As he turned the sod in the Well Field, the steel blade of his plough unearthed some pitch black timber. When I realised that this material had been hidden and preserved for thousands of years, I immediately got interested. I can still see that field in my mind s eye to this day. As I said it was called the Well Field because it had a well in one corner. Farmers in Ireland still refer to certain fields by name i.e. Sheeps Walk were sheep would walk in line to a nearby field. Another name might refer to the 1840s Famine in Ireland. The Gorta Field, where famine victims were burried.
The Well Field was indeed a very befitting name for the location where my life long passion for bog oak began. To that mashy, bleek, windy acre I will always be eternally grateful.
Beginning my career as a self-taught sculptor working with bog oak in the 1980’s, I was presented with many challenges as there was no one else, as far as I knew, working in this medium at that stage. It was a totally new venture as regards what was involved, i.e. the drying, treatment processes and the general working with this ancient wood. Acquiring the proper tools and equipment presented a great challenge as bog oak is a hard and dense material to manage, cut and sculpt. However over time and visiting many carpentry and DIY stores and through experimentation, determination and much soul searching and financial cost, tools were found to do the job.
In brief, Bog oak is unearthed from the ground in a very rough state with dirt, clay and debris ingrained in every nook and cranny. It must be allowed to dry for 2 – 3 years before work is commenced. The skin or bark is first re moved and a clearer outline is now visible. When all the rotten and decayed parts are sculpted away, another form is apparent. Being led by the wood is a commonly used expression by wood sculptors. With thoughtful and creative imagination, the possibilities and potentials in the piece are sought, though in its embryonic stage at this point. This is a painstaking, time consuming procedure however with further extensive working to accentuate the greatest latent energy of the piece, the end product begins to begin to emerge, until its final revelation is liberated. While all my working material is now sourced from different locations in Ireland, the site or place of each consignment is logged, and recorded for future reference to give my sculptures background interest, context and povenance.
An incalculable amount of time is now spent to ensure that the surface on the final product is top quality by hand sanding to a very smooth finish. The viewer is now invariable enticed to touch and experience this magical wood from the far distant past.
About ten thousand years saw the end of the Ice Age retreating from Ireland. It left behind a land in which birch, lichen and willow grew. After a further few thousand years, the countryside was gradually covered in oak, pine and yew. These eventually fell, despite their great longevity, and were subsequently covered in the ground by layers of vegetation. This period signaled the beginnings of the Irish Bogs. They have evolved and developed to a dept of several meters since. Bog oak is timber and the special acidic conditions of the bog has ensured the preservation of these trees for ever. These mighty forests have been miraculously preserved in the self-preserving conditions of the bog and are now awakened from their long sleep and brought to life once again. Bog oak is now a finite material as most of the bogs in Ireland have been closed for environmental reasons. Into the near future this ancient wood will be a prised coveted possession due to its dearth.
The image of the oak is buried deep in the hearts and psyche of the Irish people. Indeed, the rituals of the Iron Age Druids were performed under the oak, as recorded by contemporary Roman writers. In Ireland, many of these sacred Iron Age trees and symbols were taken over and adopted for Christian worship. For example, St. Brigid’s church at Kildare (my adopted county) derives it’s name from the Gaelic (Cill Dara) or the ‘Church of the Oak Tree’ and this ancient tree was still venerated for many centuries after Christianity was well established on this island. The oak then offers us a connection with and a portal to our past before the first ever settlers arrived in Ireland about 8,000 B.C. This material that I am now working on is older than the Pyramids of Egypt. They once grew from tiny acorn to mighty oak, nurtured by the ancient rays of sunshine that shone over this fair land over five thousand years ago.
I feel very privileged and honoured, as an artist, to be expressing my childhood dreams with this most revered and ancient wood. My work is always original, authentic, naturally organic and different. Every sculpture is a revelation of the spirit of the bog. This wood speaks to me in a very profound way. I take my inspiration and passion for my art from the shapes, patterns and contours already in this special wood, from the countryside around me and from fables and stories in Irish Mythology. They touch and relate to my very being and soul. On the completion of each sculpture, I am always eternally grateful.
I greatly appreciate and respect the material that I work with. My end product is deliberately not shamrockery but an attempt to forge a link from the past to the present and beyound. My approach is to intrude little, to respect the integrity of the wood knowing it to be an amber that retains the essence of once a living tree. My style of working is more impressionistic rather than representational. My work suggests rather than demands. Its vision is expansive rather than limiting. In touching the wood I am touched by it. I see this mysticial wood as a living legacy not mearly a thing to be worked or shaped.
In my commission work, I strive to make a real personal connection between purchaser and the piece of sculpture. I look for clues or stories from my client which will inform, enlighten and guide me to give the commission more meaning and significence. I further link the title of the sculpture with a possible event, time, or relevent happening pertaining to the request.This preamble gives an enriched context to the commission and relevance to their purchased piece of art.
A recent commission comes to mind, when a lady commissioned me to create a work for a senior person in the World Bank. She wanted a piece which would be personal, bespoke and uniquely Irish. I spoke with the lady at length. In my conversation I unearthed an significent event which had occured in this family s history . Three members of one family had died in a house fire in 1937 in which they commerated every year since.
I sculpted an appropriate piece tilted Deora 1937 [Irish for tears ]
I believe that my work is infused with ceremory, harks back to a time when there was a pagan relationship with nature. A relationship based on awe interconnectedness of nature and a belief in magic. In working, I try to chanel the essence of times past in a way that makes my artistic work relevant to the present but suble enough to anticipate future trends. I strive to have my art timeless. Above all else I strive to produce authentic, visually stimulating, avant-garde art which sets my body of work apart.
My work is never about producing an obvious image I strive for something that changes in degrees of light and shade. That changes depending upon the angle or distance it is viewed from. My work is enigmatic, evocative, boundless and bold, but will always come alive in the eye of the beholder. My work can appear incomplete, it points in directions but resists destinations. It deliberately leaves hints and blank spaces for the imagation to fill.
I carve and sculpt as the seeker seeks with chisel and mallet. I seek to reveal the hidden shapes of the wood, to explore the place where the stable, the static and the enduring meets eleqant movement.
My work is about hope, renewal, and new beginnings through endeavour and effort. The resurrection and rebirth which has occurred in my pieces, through my work, is an incredible feeling and a special and a unique moment to behold. This is a wonderful and rewarding juncture as I feel I have aligned my being with the essence of this ancient country. I know that I am leaving a legacy through my art for future generations to appreciate the unbroken link with the past i.e. before the first person set foot in Ireland. I feel I am making a small contribution to enhance the human condition through my art form, as it provides a visual and tactile experience and connection to a former age.
It is clear to me that every episode of Irish natural history is ingrained in the very core of this magical wood. I am passionate about my calling, because I am allowing the beauty of these ancient remnants of Irish natural history to tell us their story in a new and unique way. I like to think that I simply lend a helping hand to the natural shapes inherent in the wood to acquire a higher artistic beauty. My art is meticulous, lengthy, and every sculpture is worked on for countless hours until its bespoke character is borne out.
All my sculptures are once of pieces. They have the natural shapes that speak to me in a very real way. I can feel the presence, the spirit, the essence of this mystical, incredible wood and I want to tell the world about it.
This current time of covid 19 is calling us to a time of solitude and silence and to awaken within us dreams and possibilities of creativity and imagination lost to a very hurried world. Bog oak has been quarantined in the ground for a long period and now through my endeavours and imagination emerge into a renewed state to enrich the consciousness of the viewer with joy and inspiration. Post Covid 19, the world will also see many changes,challenges, and possibilities through peoples creativity and inspiration to a renewed global situation.
My art is all consuming and furnishes me with a deep Well of fulfillment. It provides an absorbing fire which brings a wide and wonderful depth of satisfaction and enjoyment to my life. My art is a great companion. My work is a walk towards the past and into myself. It is ever evolving, seldom perfect or flawless, but a work in progress which can invariable be improved or enhanced but without exception it will always be my heart and soul at one moment in time. My art is always in front of me.