Maeve King Spends Nights on the Tiles

Lee Henry meets Newcastle's maritime mosaic-maker

Two new mosaic murals are set to brighten up the walls of Newcastle Harbour this December as part of Down District Council's rejuvenation of Newcastle Promenade.

Designed by Seaford artist Maeve King, each 10' x 6' mural will be made of Venetian and American glass. The murals commemorate the sometimes tragic maritime history of Newcastle, as well as the infamous running aground of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's SS Great Britain, in Dundrum Bay in November 1846.

Following an approach from the Mourne Heritage Trust to produce a commemorative artwork specific to the harbour area, King's original watercolour designs won over a panel of local representatives including Sharon O'Connor, Director of Cultural and Economic Development with Down District Council.

'We advertised for artists to send in ideas on a range of themes, and Maeve's work jumped out at us,' says O'Connor.

'The designs were colourful and of a very high quality, and we could see from her portfolio that she was a very talented artist and an excellent technician.

'One of Maeve's murals commemorates the fishing disaster of 1843, when Newcastle's entire fishing fleet was wiped out during a storm at sea, leaving many local families bereaved. There are a lot of descendents of that tragedy still resident in Newcastle's Widow's Row.

'We felt that these murals were apt, and we hope that both residents and visitors alike will appreciate them as a fitting tribute to Newcastle's maritime heritage.'

One month prior to her Newcastle deadline, King has half of the fishing mural laid out on the table, the freehand pencil design barely visible beneath a mountain of scattered Venetian tiles and tubs of super-strength apoxy resin.

Against the far wall her SS Great Britain mural stands bare but for a patch of frothing tile waves of green, white and blue.

Coming from a family of artists, King is no stranger to ambitious projects like the Newcastle Harbour commission. Her family-run design firm, Kinney Designs, has installed similar mosaics all over Ireland, including the concert hall mural in Derry's Millennium Forum Theatre.

'My father, Desmond Kinney, started out with a graphics agency in the 1960s, probably the first of its kind in Belfast,' King explained, carefully applying a tile to the swath of colour on the board.

'But he eventually branched out into mosaics, and has been making murals for over forty years now.'

Specialising in fine art print making, King graduated from the University of Ulster York Street Art College in 1985 before following her brother Nick and sister Clare into the family business.

'It was nice that I had an apprenticeship under my own father,' King acknowledges. 'He paints and designs large-scale mosaic walls, but he taught me that if you want to make a living from art you have to be as flexible and adaptable as possible.

'I work at my own private commissions: paintings, hand-painted tiles, small mosaics, as well as contributing to other larger projects as part of the family business. Mosaics are great fun and with public pieces of art you get to see the people enjoying your work, which is always fulfilling.'

Watching King work, it soon becomes obvious that mosaic production is a painstaking, slow process which requires patience and skill.

'As you can see, we cut each stone or tile individually to fit the design, and everything must be cut by hand,' says King.

'Mosaic is a craft that dates right back to the Byzantine era. The Byzantines worked with glass whereas the Romans worked with mosaic stone like granite and marble. For this particular mosaic I'm using Venetian glass tiles and American sheet glass. But the technique remains the same even today.

'It is a highly labour-intensive medium. We lay the mosaics section by section, which can take quite a long time, depending on the size of the design. An adhesive mixture is applied to each tile - hence the latex gloves - and slowly but surely the colours begin to take shape. It can be a very slow process, but a satisfying one in the end.'

The concept for the Newcastle Harbour murals came from King herself, following a little research into the maritime history of south Down's most picturesque town.

'I wanted to show Newcastle as a fishing village, before it became a tourist destination following the introduction of the railway and the Slieve Donard Hotel,' she says.

'The SS Great Britain story is a good one, but in the second panel I wanted to depict the fishermen at work - pulling in their nets with other boats on the horizon and the waves rising ominously in the corner.

'While it shows the men at work, it also recounts the great tragedy of 1843, when these men went to their deaths at sea. It's a celebration and a tribute to those men and their families. I felt that there was an interesting ambiguity there.'