Art in Public Places

Darran Anderson appreciates the work of Northern Irish artists

Perhaps the most important development in the visual art of Ulster in the last fifty years has been the Arts Council’s sponsorship of public art installations.

For countless decades the countryside has motivated artists and now the finest contemporary talents are repaying the debt with the creation of sculptures, paintings and mosaics for public display all over rural Ulster. Roads, hospitals and town centres are being enlivened by an array of commissioned works. The best of these have become iconographic symbols of where and how we live.

'Let The Dance Begin' (2000) is a remarkable set of sculptures, each one an epic 18-foot high, located at a busy junction in Strabane, County Tyrone. Designed and built by Derry-based sculptor Maurice Harron, the bronze and stainless steel figures (a fiddler, a flautist, a drummer and two dancers) have come to signify the proud and vibrant musical traditions of the area and have been affectionately rechristened 'The Tinnies' by the people of Strabane.

In addition to this, Harron has amassed a magnificent body of work, creating the iconic 'Hands Across The Divide' statue, the truly stunning 'Our Lady of Lourdes' in Derry, 'The Workers' in Letterkenny and 'The Flying Angel' in Belfast docks.

Being an island, the sea has always been an integral part of Irish life, providing sustenance through food and employment and claiming countless lives in the process, and its allure is felt deeply in the north. Overlooking the Portrush harbour is the impressive 'Shades Of My Father' by Brian Connelly. Created from ceramic tiles and concrete, the sundial feature reflects the sculptors recurring fascination with time, while the intricately carved shells on the piece reflect the importance of the sea in this coastal town.

Similarly in nearby Portstewart, 'Fishing Boat' (1996) by Wicklow based artist Niall O’ Neill, has pride of place on the promenade. Built to commemorate the life of local songwriter Jimmy Kennedy, who wrote 'Red Sails In The Sunset' looking out on the same view, it combines Celtic and Viking decorative touches. Upon further inspection the boat reveals itself to be a giant swooping fish with a shell in its mouth, adding an element of the surreal to the seafront.

Several centuries ago, most of Ulster was covered in deciduous forests and what remains are rural sanctuaries that have enthused the artist and visitor alike.

Winding its way through the lakes and woodlands of counties Fermanagh, Leitrim and Cavan, the Lough MacNean Sculpture Trail is home to the works of eleven commissioned artists. Along the 40-mile long circular trail are dispersed 14 works of art including 'Homage to the Lough' by Newtownards artist Ned Jackson Smyth. A work steeped in history, it consists of abstract steel shapes based on ancient arrowheads, encapsulating the moods of the nearby lough from peaceful to tempestuous.

At the centre is an oak-carved boat in tribute to the early settlers of the region, surrounded by a limestone path - a memorial to the roads built by local victims of the famine. Other works include 'Salmon Leap' by Betty Newman-Maguire, a riverside wood sculpture made with local children capturing the kinetic energy of leaping salmon, and 'Monument' by Niall Walsh, an obelisk constructed from local trees.

The work that perhaps best sums up the cross-community reconciliation ethos of the Sculpture Trail is 'Imagine' by Louise Walsh. Designed with the help of schoolchildren from both sides of the religious divide, the work consists of three standing stones, each one with a carved circular hole. The holes line up to give a framed view of an island out in the lake and during mid-summer the sun sets directly within the circle, symbolising harmony and voicing hope for the future. All together the sculptures enhance the experience of an already stunning natural setting for those who walk and fish along the lakes and woodland.

Another forest trail that benefits from art along its path is the Glen Park in Crossmaglen, county Armagh, which features art dedicated to, and inspired by, the 18th century local poets buried in Creggan Churchyard - Seamus Mor MacMurchaidh, Padraig Mac A Liondain, Peadar O’Doirnin, Seamus Dall Mac Cuarta and Art McCumhaigh.

The works range from meditative pieces like Mike Hogg’s riverside ruminating stone 'Ag Smaoineamh', to the commemorative 'Clay Of Creggan' by Patrick Ward and Aine Ivers, which places copper panels etched with extracts from the Creggan poets’ verse around a reconstructed ancient mound, to works raising hopes for the future like David and Catherine Wilson’s circular mosaic 'Peace and Reconciliation'.

All of the artists, however varied in style, are united by their willingness to incorporate elements of the environment around them and in doing so they’ve created a fitting tribute not just to the poets but also to the Glen itself.

These ventures were no doubt inspired by the Castlewellan Forest Park Sculpture Trail, which was established in 1992. Along the trail are located eight sculptures composed from materials collected from the park, highlighting the innate beauty of the setting.

'Dreams and Stones' by Michael Bulfin provides a focal point for contemplation of the lake and landscape, while 'Piece for a Maple Tree' by Kathy Herbert consists of a sequence of carved stones beneath a maple tree, with a recurring leaf design interrupted by a hand symbolizing the splendor of nature but also the threat of man’s interference therein.

Boosted by the Arts Symposium of 1999, wherein works by eight artists were temporarily erected around the borough, public art has lately flourished in the Ards Peninsula region of county Down. Permanent sculptures have since been commissioned by many artists including Raymond Watson’s 'Sculpture of a Dryad', in which a mythical Greek wood nymph peers out of a tree stump in Portaferry, and local artist Gavin Weston’s 'Look Out' in Ballyhabert, incorporating a figure emerging out of a gable wall and gazing out to sea through binoculars.

An area of natural beauty, the variety and multiplicity of wildlife in the area has been at the core of artistic endeavours here. Inspired by the thousands of geese that migrate to Strangford Lough, county Down artist Owen Crawford has produced several memorable works for civic display.

Carved from local wood, the light-hearted 'Flight of Geese' in Donaghadee creates a seat in the shape of two birds, contrasting with the more weathered and rustic 'Goose Bench' in Portaferry, created from wood and granite from the mountains of Mourne, both of which offer a place for rest and reflection.

Another work capturing the theme of migratory birds, but much more movingly is 'Swans' by Derry-Born Eamonn O’ Doherty, also responsible for 'The Emigrants' in his native city. Erected in the grounds of Antrim Area Hospital, it is comprised of four swans in mid-flight and is constructed from stainless steel. The swans echo the myth of the Children of Lir, the tragic Irish tale of children cursed and turned into swans (and who are eventually turned back into humans providing the hope of renewal) but also imply the abundant life of the colonies of swans in nearby Lough Neagh.

Also in the hospital’s grounds is 'The Healing Tree' by Brian Connelly, a bronze sculpture of four hollow figures, wounded or stricken, who support each other to stand. Each holds the other in a circle before a Norwegian Maple tree, which symbolizes life. Both works are coupled together with their hints of melancholy but more importantly their extraordinary sense of compassion. Fittingly, they are contemplative works that remind us that we cannot exist without aiding each other and their promises of rebirth and solidarity may bring comfort in a place associated not just with grief and sickness but also recuperation and healing.

It is often assumed that art is naturally a visual medium. We accept something pleasing to the eye, and occasionally something we hear, as art, but what of the other senses?

The Garden of Senses is set in the majestic grounds of the Georgian Palace Demesne, formerly the home of the Church of Ireland Primate. Containing works that can be appreciated by able-bodied and disabled visitors, the Gardens offer a variety of sensory experiences.

'Kinetic Blooms', a collaborative effort by Barry Callaghan and Joanne Risley, is an interactive plant sculpture that has incorporated various shapes and textures with pulleys and levers for moving dragonflies and flowers as well as water features. It is linked by a waterway to 'Sensory Form' by Ned Jackson Smyth, a sculpture that utilizes the textures of water, granite and bronze and which is carved into undulating shapes and decorated with leaf patterns.

These are pioneering works marking out new territory for an inclusive art that can be experienced by all.