Sculptor With A Cause

Artist Anto Brennan is carving his way into the history books, finds Lee Henry

Belfast sculptor and painter Anto Brennan is perhaps best known for his hilarious chess piece caricatures of Northern Irish politicians, but his newest project – a life size sculpture of renowned labour leader and left-wing firebrand James Larkin proves that Brennan is an artist with a social conscience as well as a wicked sense of humour.

Commissioned by the Laganside Corporation to create a new piece of public art for Belfast’s up-and-coming Cathedral Quarter, Brennan chose a subject esteemed on both sides of the political divide: the Liverpool born James Larkin, leader of the 1907 Belfast Dock Strike and founder of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union.

Brennan's impression of Gerry AdamsFittingly the sculpture hangs on the gable wall of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions – who also helped fund the project - in Donegall Street Place. Cast in a foundry in Dublin and unveiled to the public on May 8 2006, - one year before the Dock Strike’s centenary - the bronze sculpture captures Larkin in all his spirited glory, arms outstretched and features contorted in mid-oration: the great egalitarian.

‘With the support of the Laganside Corporation, I decided that Larkin was the best person to do,’ says Brennan. ‘The sculpture and its subject aren’t militaristic or religious in any way. It’s a sculpture that everybody can buy into. Everybody’s Da or Granda was a member of the trade unions. It’s a piece of art about the people and for the people.’

Brennan's shop-cum-studio Open Windows Productions is a veritable chocolate factory of visual art on Belfast’s Donegall Street. Paintings of Irish literary legends adorn the walls, statues and figurines clutter every surface. The artists themselves, brothers and business partners Anto and Gerard Brennan, ply their intricate trade for all to see, in full view of the visiting public.

Anto Brennan first began sculpting whilst working on building sites in London in the early 90's, making figures for workmates from basic clay found around and about. But what started out as an inadvertent pastime soon became a vocation, and Brennan returned to Belfast to further hone his craft.

'I started off making a few models for friends in and around the city,' remembers Brennan. 'I really enjoyed it, and after about six months I started thinking about opening a wee shop and making models as a business.

'We got ourselves a stall in Smithfield Market and I started by making original clay sculptures of people from photographs. Those early pieces would have sold for about £40. It was a steady build-up and then we hit upon the idea of the chess board.'

Dr. Ian Paisley Chess PieceIt's safe to assume that Brennan's inspired chess sets have made him what he is today: friend to statesmen and one of Northern Ireland's most well known sculptors. Not many artists can count such illustrious figures as President Mary McAleese, General John De Chastelain and Richard Branson among their customers.

'We started making the chess pieces in 1995, brought out a prototype and initially sold about 25 sets. But after a while it got to the stage where we had to have the various pieces cast, because they got quite popular. McHugh's Bar has a big one on display, there's one in City Hall, and a few have gone to America and even as far away as Russia,' Brennan enthuses.

'They've been mentioned in quite a few books over the years. John Hume mentioned us in his autobiography, and Mo Mowlam also. She introduced me to Richard Branson a few years ago when she was Secretary of State.

'I made a model of him from a photograph in an old type flying jacket. Mo and I flew over to London and met him in his big fancy mansion, and we all had tea and buns. He was well impressed. So that was pretty cool.'

Prime Minister Tony Blair also made good use of one of Brennan's chess sets when US President George W Bush paid a visit to the province in 2003, using the figures to advise Dubya on the Northern Irish attitude toward the war in Iraq. And although Brennan may not be the President's biggest fan, the episode did manage to inspire a new concept.

The 'East vs. West' chessboard'I think I read about that in the newspaper,' Brennan explained, somewhat loath to discuss the matter. 'Apparently Condoleeza Rice was enamoured by the whole situation. That's what sparked me off to do the East vs West board, with Bush and Blair on one side and Bin Laden and Co on the other. We have one of those here in the shop, but we haven't really marketed it yet. These projects take a few months to get going, once you've designed the originals. But at the end of the day I'm an artist and a sculptor. Business comes second.'

Brennan is nothing if not prolific. On display in Open Windows Productions are a host of newly crafted awards commissioned by various organisations as well as a huge collection of chess piece caricatures and paintings. Does the artist himself have any preference?

'My favourite piece at the minute has to be the bronze sculpture of Larkin, because that was such a big job,' he says. 'But the Northern Irish chess sets are my bread and butter. In a strange way, they've become a part of the history of the peace process, if you like. They're very close to my heart.'

Next on the Brennan agenda is a chess set of great Irishmen to complement his recent series of paintings portraying the likes of Brendan Behan and James Joyce. The Brothers Brennan also hold workshops at Open Windows Productions with various community groups.

To commission a work, contact Open Windows Productions at 028 9032 9669