My first instinct on seeing the the smooth stone donut shape creation of sculptor Helen O’Connell in Bray’s Mermaid Arts Centre is to embrace the Kilkenny limestone and feel it’s silky strength beneath my hands. I look up suddenly and ask, ‘Is it ok to touch the pieces?’. Helen grins, ‘That’s the biggest compliment I can get, that people want to touch them’. It moves too, on a pivot, specially sourced from Italy, a country Helen is closely connected to having lived there for a time and where she returns regularly.
So of all the mediums to work with, why has Helen chosen such an unyielding material? ‘I think stone holds an energy and the more that I work with it, it feels like I’m working with time, like when these stones were being formed, Ireland, for example, was still attached to mainland Europe.
They’re made up of compressed marine life and you’re just working through time, working through the fossils. It’s very meditative.
A lot of the time I ask myself why am I working with this material? It’s very problematic, it’s expensive, it’s very awkward to move around and it poses a lot of logistical problems. I often think, why didn’t I work with another material? I just keep getting drawn back to it. There’s something about the energy it holds that keeps me coming back’.
Diamonds really are a girl’s best friend for this stone carver, as most of the tools used to cut and shape the stone are diamond plated. This exhibition signifies a new departure for Helen as the pieces are so paired back and minimalist. ‘In a way it is a lot more unforgiving – you know circles, if they’re not perfect, scream their imperfections’.
If you’ve ever wondered why they call Kilkenny the Marble City, all you need do is look at this creation (above) by Helen, which looks and feels strikingly like marble. Again, this is a creation made to be touched. ‘This piece is also made from Kilkenny limestone but it’s from a particular quarry where unfortunately you can’t get sizeable blocks, but you can get this very glassy, deep black, polish on it. It’s funny, when I started doing stone, I mostly would have been using Kilkenny limestone and working in Ireland where things tend to be grey. Your eye then gets caught by all the exotic marbles from around the world.
Now I’m very much back in love with our native Kilkenny limestone because there’s actually very few stones around the world that are dark and they just seem to work with the light here better and they take an amazing texture.
You can go from a pale white to a jet black. You can see the way the fossils in this are very different, like down here you can see an oyster shell’.
Helen’s stone carver ambitions were only realised after leaving Trinity College Dublin with a first class honours in Literature and Art History in 1996. ‘I was working with Lilliput Press and I just had this thing about stone. I wanted to learn how to carve it, so I was going around the stone yards of Dublin to see if there was anywhere I could learn but they only really do sandblasting and gravestones.
So in a very fortuitous moment, I was DJing in the City Arts Centre, a place that used to exist a long time ago, and there was a tiny little A4 up on the wall saying Leitrim Sculpture Centre course in stone carving and bronze casting.
It was a FÁS course and I managed to get on it. It was great, no theory and I was coming from the whole post colonialism, post feminism, post modernism theory coming out my ears and it was just hands on. Here are chisels, 13 of us on a chain gang all working away. It was brilliant’
Helen may have fallen back in love with Ireland’s native stone but you’ll still find the exotic in this exhibition: ‘This is a beautiful block of stone from Iran, Iranian Travertine. I bought it from an Iranian man in Italy, he had all these beautiful stones. This Travertine range goes from a really earthy, kind of sandy colour to a really rich terracotta red and I just really fell in love with it.
There’s so much going on in the stone itself, I wanted to keep it as simple as possible, to draw attention to how beautiful it is more than anything.
In this one you have this amazing channel where the water has carved this passageway the whole way down. The colours are evocative of a very different landscape to Ireland, sandy, dusty, dry kind of place. Heaven knows what was going on in ancient Persia when this was being formed.’
Helen has dedicated this body of work to a dear friend who died a few years ago, Debbie O’Hare. ‘She was a really amazing artist and great mentor to me.
In the ink drawings in particular, I was in Italy, away from the stone, I was thinking about energy, dissolution, fragmentation and where do we go once we pass on?
Where does all that energy from these huge, larger than life figures go to? As she was dying I was reading a lot of poetry to her and I was focusing on different words or lines that meant a lot to her and to me too at the time, trying to get into a very meditative space. I’d like to do more with the Japanese ink. It’s a different way of working.’
Helen would love to see a dedicated space for sculptures in Ireland to accomodate artists and designers who work with heavy material. You can find out more about Helen’s work on her website www.oconnellsculpture.com