Engineer, Joiner, Sculptor, Artist

Ned Jackson Smyth's artwork is all around us, finds Emma O'Neill

The image of the tranquil and relaxed life of an artist is not one that appears when it comes to Newtownards artist and sculptor Ned Jackson Smyth, who balances his demanding schedule of public art commissions, exhibitions, private displays and art lecturing throughout Northern Ireland.

Smyth was born and educated in Belfast and has been a professional artist for almost 15 years. Following his university studies with a BA (Hons) in Fine and Applied Art from Belfast Arts College, he took an unconventional path to becoming an artist and sculptor by completing an apprenticeship in light engineering and then moved on to joinery.

‘I wanted to try and combine the practical element of being able to physically make something with the artistic element of design and so being a sculptor was the natural next step.’

Since completing his university education, Smyth has presented numerous art exhibitions throughout Ireland as well as overseas in England, Europe, Russia and South America.

He has completed a number of public commissions, which have been a mixture of community-based projects and public authority projects. Ard’s Bells is a three-metre tribute to celebrate the millennium formed from lime wood, steel, and bronze.

Public sculpture Cuan, created from sandstone, overlooks Strangford Lough. Cuan, which means harbour or safe place, was the pre-Viking name for Strangford Lough.

Further examples of Smyth's work are the Bronze Vessel in the courtyard of the Ulster hospital, and The Ladder and the Fire at the Clonmel Fire Training Centre in Co Tipperary.

Smyth has an accomplished career with an impressive portfolio of work. He was appointed artist for Artscare, the arts in health charity, in 1998, promoting the development of arts provision in healthcare settings throughout NI.

He was a founder member and director of Co-operation Arts, the cross-cultural arts charity which works with communities to revive and regenerate their local environments. He is also keen to share his knowledge and skills and has accumulated varied teaching experience as visiting lecturer at a range of academic institutes including Strangford Integrated College, North Down College of Further and Higher Education and at Purdysburn Hospital.

For his latest project, Smyth fought off tough competition to win a prestigious large-scale commission for Smirnoff, which will be located in Custom House Square in Belfast. The sculpture will focus on the Smirnoff’s edgy brand: history, imperialism, Russian dolls, the sabre and Faberge’s priceless eggs.

The public art piece will add interest to this busy area of Belfast and will also celebrate the ongoing regeneration of the city with the theme of ‘renewed life and hope’. On winning the commission, Smyth commented:

‘I wanted the sculpture to be fresh and dynamic and add an extra dimension to Custom House Square. I hope the finished piece to be thought provoking and interesting to passers-by. The sculpture is being donated to the people of Belfast and so will make a major contribution to the aesthetic impact of the square.’

Smyth's talents have not gone unrecognised. In 1994 he won the Northern Ireland Tourist Board Bursary Award and in 1999 his achievements were again acknowledged through the Arts Council of Northern Ireland Visual Arts Bursary Award and the Tyrone Guthrie Centre Bursary.

He applies a variety of materials and theories to his projects and works with two and three-dimensional models. He embarks on his commissioned work with an open mind and endeavours to work closely to integrate the client’s needs and concepts while dedicating substantial time working on the design aspect of the project ensuring that it meets the clients' brief.

He works with a mixture of materials but prefers traditional resources including stone, bronze, wood, and steel and employs them in a contemporary way. His public commissions are interpretations designed from the clients' brief, which is often dictated by the geographical location or historical background of the area.

When working on his personal artwork his approach is more given to impulse and inspired by the everyday.

‘It's more hands on and tends to evolve depending on my mood, experiences and personal interests at the time. I can be generally inspired by the spiritual, social, the everyday, the usual, light, space and time.’

With the Irish art scene becoming more progressive and proactive thanks to support organisations such as the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL), the Arts Council and Visual Arts Ireland, he believes that public art can have a very positive effect on the environment. ‘I think it is critical that we give consideration to the visuals in our environment to make public spaces as interesting and impressionable as possible.’

One of his favourite sculptures is Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North in Gateshead.

‘I love it for a number of reasons - its monumental scale within its landscape and the engineering behind it. I also like its social history. Initially it was received with much controversy and objections however it has evolved into an iconic piece of work’

With today’s culture focused more and more on the visual environment, artists are continually challenged to capture and inspire the imagination, but with the work of innovative artists like Smyth emerging on the Northern Ireland art scene we are sure to be left with a lasting legacy.