Maurice Harron

At his debut exhibition in Derry, the prolific sculptor reveals his creative process, and how he finds inspiration at home and abroad

It seems that few people know who made some of the most visible and popular public sculptures in Ireland. I meet the prolific Maurice Harron at the Gordon Gallery in Derry, where his first exhibition, Reflection in Form, is on display. We talk first about the famous works - 'Reconciliation', 'Let the Dance Begin', 'The Chieftain', 'The Angel' - before Harron reflects on the more intimate pieces on show.

A Derry man, Harron grew up in the Rosemount district, which he describes as a ‘mixed world’. Of the Troubles he says, 'It was a shock when the violence erupted, fracturing a whole society. I left and went to the south of Ireland, where I made a life for myself as a painter and designer. But in 1989, while shots were still being fired, I returned home.'

In November 1989 the Berlin Wall came down; Glasnost and Perestroika thawed the Cold War, and Harron won a competition for a public work in Carlisle Square in Derry, visible to all visiting the Walled City at the foot of the Craigavon Bridge.

Constraints 1For this piece, Harron created two classically formal bronze figures, both male, upright, confident and assured, their faces revealing little emotion. At first he imagined they would shake hands. In the end, however, he decided that their outstretched arms would complete the gesture, and the symbolism. The figures stand on a base the shape of a double spiral, an ancient Celtic symbol.

'In my vanity I thought I could prompt dialogue between the two communities,' Harron confesses. 'The men stand at the end of two separate histories, facing each other, reaching out, almost touching.'

'Reconciliation' was erected in 1991, as the Peace Process got underway. When, in the mid 1990s, the first IRA ceasefire broke down and the Peace Process faltered, a local artist put sticking plasters on the figures to heal the wounds.

Eight years on, a glittering, shimmering group of 18ft stainless steel figures appeared on a roundabout just off the main Omagh to Derry road, halfway between Strabane in the north and Lifford in the Republic of Ireland. Harron’s 'Let the Dance Begin' was conceived as an invitation by two dancers and three musicians to a cross-community ceilidh.

With bronze too expensive for such a large piece, stainless steel proved to be the perfect material. Harron invented an entirely new technique for the piece, which has since been adopted by other artists. Each figure is designed on computer in two-dimensional line patterns incorporating hundreds of separate units. An industrial machine reads the patterns and cuts out the individual steel pieces thereafter, using a laser. These were then soldered together.

'After making a series of maquettes [miniatures], I worked on a 20ft high figure, but there was something wrong and I dismantled it. From that failure I knew how to make it. I am conscious that most people are not interested in art, or even understand. So I work to make it accessible.' 

Appropriately, 'The Tinnies', as they are known locally, have been adopted by football fans who on occasion dress them in mascot scarves and hats.

Five and half metres tall, the 'Chieftain' stands proudly on a hill top in the Curlew Mountains in County Roscommon. In 1999, the bronze-lustred stainless steel horseman took up his position on the summit with a commanding view of the pass below, where exactly 400 years earlier Red Hugh O'Donnell routed the English in a famous battle.

The Laganside 'Angel' near Belfast’s harbour district, another of Harron's more well-known works, wasCat the fifth sailor's mascot to be commissioned by the Seafarer’s Rest Hostel. Harron’s abstract figure swoops earnestly over the waves to calm the storm.

In the Gordon Gallery, the maquettes of the 'Scholars' and the 'Chieftain' are on display as well as some of Harron’s more introspective small scale works. A series of towers bring to mind New York's Twin Towers. Other works on the same theme are variously entitled ‘Entrapment’, ‘Constraints’, ‘Taking a Risk’.

Though Harron claims they are not directly related, he admits that his work responds to global current affairs. There are figures on the top of each tower: anonymous, isolated, couples whose actions reflect their individual angst. 'When we saw the most amazing towers in the world collapse it felt like anything could fall. There was a definite break in confidence in the West.'

A bronze bust of Seamus Heaney was commissioned by St Columb’s school in Derry, where Heaney was a pupil and Harron taught art. When he saw the head of his friend cast in bronze, playwright Brian Friel was reminded of wake houses in Donegal, where mourners look at the corpse and say, 'Doesn’t he look like himself.'

A sinuous cat pouncing delicately into the room is the most beguiling of the works on display. Harron admits it is his favourite piece, though he found it difficult to gauge the tension between action and restraint.

The ultimate tribute to Harron’s skills as a sculptor came from a blind physiotherapist who attended the launch of this exhibition. He was amazed to find, when he ran his fingers across the stainless steel silhouette of a ballet dancer, that he could identify muscles and sinews in exactly the right place. Harron was honoured. '[That piece] is all about feminine beauty and elegance. Life is beautiful, but beauty is ephemeral. I try to catch it.'

Reflection In Form runs in the Gordon Gallery, Derry, until October 31.

Jenny Cathcart