Words by Others
(Paula Meehan, Ann Mulrooney, Frances Ruane, Nicola Gordon Bowe)
Words for Cormac Boydell: Launch of New Ceramics & Drawings, Lavistown House, Kilkenny, on Thursday the 8th of August 2013.
I was privileged and lucky to be present when many of these wonderfully realized pieces were just at a seminal phase on the beautiful eastern Aegean island of Ikaria. Myself and my partner Theo Dorgan have been going there for many years. To work and recuperate. The island is named for the boy, Ikarus, who flew too near the sun, who over reached himself in some blue rapture of flight. Dedalus, his father, was the bronze age master craftsman, who fashioned wings from feathers and wax, a contraption to expedite their escape from a bit of mischief down in Crete. He took his son's body from the sea and buried him on the island.
The myth has resonated through Irish literature: Joyce's Stephen Dedalus comes obviously to mind. Dedalus has been a powerful emblem of the artist's engagement with the limits of craft. The island of Ikaria is a good place to meditate on such matters, on failures of the craft as well as achievements, and there is something about the clear light of that place that is conducive to a cold hard look at the craft elements of the making and to distinguishing them from the elusive and essential mystery at the heart of all art. The mystery of transformation.
I say that much of this body of work started on the island of Ikaria; though, that said, which of us can ever know entirely where a piece of work really begins?
The seed could have been a day when the maker was 17 rambling over the head of Howth, where the teenaged WB Yeats put his ear to the ground to as he said listen to the heartbeat of the Great Mother. A magic place, first referenced in our bronze age warrior cycle tales of the Fianna. Howth - once itself an island before the last ice age laid down an esker of gravel to form a causeway across from the mainland of Ireland, the Howth that formed Cormac's early imagination.
Or maybe a day up mountain from the Arches outside Allihies where Cormac and his beloved Rachel have made their home since the seventies. Another powerful place full of what the Chinese geomancers call Dragon Energy, another important bronze age site, reputed landing zone of the Milesians, the eastern Aegean originated tribe who gave us our first recorded poet in the island's tradition, the litanist, the chant maker, our own beloved Amergin. The old copper mines there at Allihies have evidence of bronze age workings and indeed, that area would have been a cosmopolitan centre of trade for the bronze age ancestors.
And it was in Allihies of course that Cormac's work was brought to fruition: in the studio and in the transforming fires of the kiln, more especially in what Yeats called the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.
The heart that is the crucible for compassion. Can a ceramic have compassion? Can a drawing have compassion? Yes, I believe so.
I live with a Cormac Boydell ceramic. It hangs over the kitchen sink. It references a shard of willow pattern crockery; the cobalt marks on white,remembering the temple and the bridge from the traditional Chinese willow pattern, the golden rim framing the plate, a touch of luxury and light in the kitchen especially on dark winter mornings, the powerful sense I get from it of the actual hands manipulation of the clay, the wochargerk of the body embodied still in its lineaments while I do my own, ordinary kitchen work. What I get from it is a powerful connection to a shard, or fragment of my own childhood, my grandmother's kitchen, her lovely willow pattern platters, themselves scarred and chipped from the work of many hands, from their own endurance through time. At the same moment I experience the presence of Cormac's piece as a really cool contemporary work of fine art that makes my space there aesthetically beautiful. I feel I bask in a compassionate radiance from the work, as if it transmits an actual vibration that I tune into and which makes me feel, quite simply,
I recommend acquiring a piece of Cormac's work: there's a cure for the blues there, and possibly for other ailments as well!
And I know that these new drawings and ceramics will carry the inspiration, the in-breathing of those days on Ikaria last May where this body of work first began to express itself through Cormac's crafty hands. The air was heady with wild oregano and thyme; and so very much of the light and heat and buoyancy of the island are carried through to the walls here. The buzzing of the bees working the sweet honey from the mountain, their crucial transformative work. Intense days of drawing and dreaming, and raising the head to see, sometimes seeming close and sometimes obscured by heat haze, that other island of vision: Patmos, the apocalyptic island of John the Revelator.
Ikaria is a land of hot springs, owls, raptors and wild mountain music. And cats of course, always the village cats. It is the birthplace of Dionysus, the god who embodies our urge to communion with wild nature, another mythic figure who carries a of transcendental union with the godhead. It was an important site of worship for the goddess Artemis, the huntress, protector of the wild, of all nursing creatures and creatures in childbirth.
It was a treat to spend time with Cormac and Rachel there at Therma. They arrived on the island like a force of nature themselves. Before I knew what was happening I was in a mineshaft with thousands of bats streaming towards me while Cormac took scrapings from the walls to use as a pigment. That was the marvelous thing about hanging out with Cormac and Rachel - their deep knowledge of creatures and understanding of habitat revealed a new layer to an island I've long loved. Cormac with his background as a geologist, read the island as a thrilling story spanning millions and hundreds of million of years and that insight into geologic time and process opens the island in a new and powerful way. The thing about geologists is they give you a sense of perspective!
These images today open the imagination to the forces and energies of that island, capturing and fixing in time the flux and volcanic processes behind their making. This flight of the imagination which transcends the limits of time and place remind me of the profound and creative identification of land with self voiced by the poet Amergin. His song is the first mention of poem or poet we have in our manuscript tradition here. He hailed from the eastern Aegean himself; his is an ancestral voice that connects us, I like to think to our ancient homeland. When he first stepped ashore in Ireland he uttered these lines which continue to enchant us 5,000 years, give or take a few hundred, after they were first sung:
I am a wind of the sea,
I am a wave of the sea,
I am a sound of the sea,
I am a stag of seven tines,
I am a hawk on a cliff,
I am a tear of the sun,
I am fair among flowers,
I am a boar,
I am a salmon in a pool,
I am a lake on a plain,
I am a hill of poetry,
I am a battle-waging spear,
I am a god who forms fire for a head.
Who makes clear the ruggedness of the mountains?
Who but myself knows where the sun shall set?
Who foretells the ages of the moon?
Maybe buried in our genetic memory - as reliable a guide, I believe, though a matter of intuition, as geologic memory itself - maybe buried there is some deep nostalgia for our eastern Aegean home, for the strong honey, and dance, and its wild mountain tunes that something in us answers to.
We speak of living memory - Cormac Boydell's work can open a channel, sink a plumb-line down into the pre Classical, into the bronze age itself, a high culture moment where craft was art and art was craft and the only weapons were tools. And Dedalus himself was the shop steward!
I love that Cormac can hold all this as living memory. I love that he reflects such deep understanding of the earth and her mysteries in these ceramic shards of our own lovely fractured-world right now. I love the alchemist of glazes. I love the prescience, the foresight, that can foretell what the colours will be. I love these exuberant and dancing marks which feel like a musical score to wild Dionysian ecstasy.
Cormac Boydell, as someone with deep associations to the Buddhist traditions, would understand the concept of lineage very well: all of us artists working on the island today work in the tradition of Amergin. We continue our appropriation of all that we apprehend outside ourselves; we internalize it; and in the crucible of our imaginations and through the honest labour of our hands we transform our journeys in our several and various crafts, to bring the work back to the walls of the galleries, to the spaces where we gather to hear song and poem and story.
To share the delight and the transport, to, as the poet Tom McCarthy says, lay art anonymously at earth's altar.
© Paula Meehan 2013
Un Esprit Sauvage: catalogue essay, 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
Un Esprit Sauvage, Irish Arts Review, 2011 Summer Edition.
Although Cormac Boydell’s exhibition of new ceramics at the Centre Culturel Irlandais, Paris, revisits themes that have preoccupied him over the years, there are new twists and turns as the artist connects these ideas with the place where the show is taking place. Many of the wall pieces refer to Irish and French mythology as well as to older art and artefacts from both countries. The image of the bull has often appeared in his wirk but here the myth of Cuchulainn and the Brown Bull of Ulster collides with images inspired by the ancient cave paintings of Lascaux. Boydell expands the animal theme in another piece that depicts King Cormac MacAirt who, according to medieval Irish legend, was carried off and raised by she-wolves. This motif is echoed in La Bête du Gévaudan, the man-eating wolf that was an object of terror in 18th-century France.
However, the majority of pieces in this show take their inspiration in various ways from predecessors in the visual arts rather than from myth. In one series Boydell reworks the blue and white Chinese-inspired porcelain that is so pervasive in the history of ceramic art: the Chinese imitated by the Dutch, who eventually were imitated by everyone else. Like many of hisIrish contemporaries, Boydell grew up surrounded by the ubiquitous Arklow Willow pattern. By drawing on this tradition, his blue and white pieces, often edged with gold, feel both familiar and new. The subject for these pieces are ‘landmark’ places in Paris and Ireland, the latter focussing on the dramatic coastline near his studio on the Cork/Kerry border. These recall another outdated convention: the commemorative plates of historic and scenic places that were frequently aimed at the tourist market. His images of places like Notre Dame and the Skelligs bring that tired, familiar and sometimes kitsch tradition back into the realm of art; the strength and fluidity of his drawing brings energy and freshness into each piece.
Other works in the exhibition are overtly connected to French art - the ‘après Matisse’ series borrows compositions from paintings by the great master and reinterprets them in ceramics. While in France a few years ago, Boydell was bowled over by an exhibition of paintings by Derain and Matisse, particularly the looseness of the early Matisse pictures done in Collioure around 1905. The invitation for him to exhibit his own work in Paris triggered a renewed interest in these paintings, their linear quality having a natural connection to Boydell’s own style.
With the current emphasis on originality, the tradition of appropriating motifs from past artists is often overlooked. More prevalent in Eastern art and in older Western art, it occasionally surfaces in more modern painting. Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe overtly paraphrased a classical composition by Giorione. Manet’s unashamed appropriation of Titian’s Venus of Urbino in his own painting, Olympia, had such an impact on Cézanne and Picasso that they both did their own parodies of Manet’s painting. Similarly amused by the idea of borrowing from the borrowed, the American artist Larry Rivers more recently did his own take-off of Manet’s painting. And van Gogh also embraced the idea of an interpretive copy. One just ha to look at his Hiroshige-inspired Flowering Plum Tree to how another artist’s work can be the starting point for improvisation. Boydell used the Matisse paintings as a starting point, simplifying each composition and adapting it to the tricky demands of ceramic glaze application. Gradually he improvised more freely around the original motif to create an homage to the master with its own distinct character.
His robust handling of clay, with its irregular edges and handmodelled surfaces, enhances the work’s expressiveness. None of Boydell’s source material for his show is so richly tactile: the handling of clay and glazes is central to his art. Although the themes running through the exhibition have their origins in the past, the finished objects are shaped by Boydell’s distinctive contemporary style, which is fluid, quirky and full of humour.
©Frances Ruane HRHA, 2011.
Nicola Gordon Bowe
“Representing Art in Ireland”, publ.The Fenton Gallery, 2008, (ISBN 978-0-9544843-8-5).
Regardless of sculpted form, inscribed image, or possible function, each of Cormac Boydell's hand-built clay pieces seems to have emerged from the very core of the Earth, their lustrous or cratered surfaces layered with molten enamelled colour. Boydell's profound knowledge of the potential interaction of selected minerals and silicates when applied to fired earth enables him to orchestrate the rich fusions of the elements which have become unmistakeably recognizable as intrinsic to his art. By galvanizing air, fire, earth and water with a wealth of mineralogical components, he conjures up timeless forms whose treatment is intensely primitivist, smouldering colour, yet lyrical and joyful. His cumulative skills and singular vision of subtle connectedness with nature allow him to be the instrument of this material transformation.
Like the mediaeval painter who selected, gathered and mixed all the materials of his craft, Boydell has consistently kept as close to every stage of the material essence of his work as he did when he first practised as a young geologist. In his wellseasoned hands, chromium, copper, iron, lead, manganese, and cobalt offer sumptuous, unsullied possibilities undreamt of by those who know colours only in tubes. He has written of crocoite as "the most beautiful mineral I know" and gold as "one of the 'Noble Metals' - pure and immutable': Like the Japanese Zen raku tea-bowl masters, he relishes the raw, pitted flux of the vitreous glazes exuded by his pieces in the course of their creation. This he captures in exuberant forms whose cold solidity defies belief. For the thirty or so years that he has been working he has never ceased to maintain an uncompromising closeness to the rugged West Cork landscape which is integral part of every aspect of his life.
Although he admires neolithic vessels, vernacular slipware, prehistoric rock painting, the art of Van Gogh, Matisse, Tapies, Beuys and that of his older Ireland-based contemporaries John ffrench, Oisin Kelly and Grattan Freyer, Boydell's own work appears timeless in its evocative, earth-rooted spontaneity.
© Nicola Gordon Bowe 2005