Hammer-in 2017 Design on the Edge. An experiment.

At the beginning of the year Peter Brunner contacted me to invite me to be one of the master blacksmiths involved in creating a master project at Hammer-in 2017, the biennial festival he runs in Sperberslohe, Germany. I jumped at the chance and felt very honoured to be invited. But I wanted to do something a little different to the normal format of the projects created for blacksmith festivals. I told Peter of my idea to come to the event with no tools and no design and instead create a project with anyone willing to work with me. We would use the materials and tools available onsite and co-design the project between members of the team. To my surprise, Peter thought it was a good idea, although after I put the phone down I started to have doubts. I often get myself into trouble like this; letting my enthusiasm for my artform run away with me, but it does take me to some interesting areas and part of being a blacksmith, or artist for that matter, is making an idea work. That said, it didn’t stop me worrying that this time I might have dug a hole I could not climb out of.

On the whole, I was more excited about the idea of pulling a team of strangers together to create and build a project in four days than I was intimidated by it. This idea had been sloshing around in my head since CANIRON X when Grant Haverstock had sprung the news on me that I was Sunday’s “Guest demonstrator” one day before the event started (Grant and his partner, Jessica Klein, thought this was very funny. They are funny people). I didn’t have any tools with me and with no idea what to do I decided to create an improvised sculpture on the day. We had a lot of fun during the demo and there was an end result (although I had to finish it in Grant’s forge) and the sculpture was not too terrible.

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Peter was the first event organiser not to think I was mad and in fact he was as excited as I was. What made this a little more intimidating was the Hammer-in theme which stipulated that all the work had to be park-related. That is, all the work should be something that would be of use in a public park. So, the excuse of “It’s sculpture. It’s meant to do that” was out.

As the event got closer I became a little more nervous. What if no one wanted to work on the project? I hadn’t thought that people might like to see a design and know what they were getting themselves into. When I started to see the wonderful designs the other masters had proposed, the feeling of trepidation deepened, but it was already too late to back out so I tried to keep all thoughts of the project out of my mind. Luckily, I was very busy in my own forge in the lead up and didn’t have time to dwell on it. Not too much anyway. But as my son, George, and I started our journey to Nurnberg I had plenty of time to think about the hole I had dug for myself.

We arrived in Sperberslohe to a warm welcome from Peter and his team and it was a pleasure to watch and try to be of some help in the days leading up to the festival. They were working so hard and it was amazing to see the whole community getting involved. I really wanted to know if anyone had signed up to my project, but no one seemed to know and they all had a lot to worry about. At this point there was a huge temptation to start to pre-design the project and maybe fall back on tried and tested areas of my work. But being the stubborn blacksmith I am, I resisted (I’m very proud of myself for this). I was teaching a course on tong-making on Wednesday, the first day of the Hammer-in, which helped take my mind off the master project. But by the end of the course I still had no idea if anyone wanted to work on my project. Thoughts ran through my head that I could just be that weird Anglo-Irish blacksmith off in the corner making some foolish piece. Again.

One of Peter’s team had the idea of displaying a board listing all the projects with the idea that anyone who wanted to work on them could put their names up and it would work from there. At breakfast on Thursday morning I was very relieved to see plenty of names beside my project on the board. The first hurdle had been cleared and now of course if things went tits-up I could always blame it on my team, which was a relief.

One of the reasons I wanted to work the project in this way was that I often have students ask me about my design process. People tend to worry about concepts. Or rather, not being able to come up with a concept at all. I wanted to share some of ways in which I treat the process. For this project I decided to treat the Hammer-in as our client; there was a parameter for the project which was that it had to be park-related. When you have a set of parameters for a project it often makes the design process a little easier. Form and design follow a function, so it gives the project a pointer from which you can build a design. The first thing we did as a team was to fire out ideas on what you might find in a park. Of these ideas, we focused on three. A litter bin, a fire pit, and one of our team (Penny Strössner) came up with a great concept of a frame in which to take photos for social media. We all set about creating very quick sketches for the three themes. Once the sketches were done, we each presented our ideas. Through this process we could clearly see that the group were inspired most by Penny’s frame concept. We set about using the ideas from each of the frame sketches to create one design. This was actually much easier than it sounds, as by this time everyone was very committed to the project and I felt we had all opened up and gelled together as a team quickly, much quicker than I anticipated. This made it much easier for people to share ideas and problem-solve our design.

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Before finalising our design we took stock of the size of material we had at hand. Luckily, there was plenty of 30mm2 bar for the main frame of our project and 80mm x 8mm for the sub-frame, which made things a little easier. Now that we knew our stock, concept, and rough design, we could finalise the design and focus on the processes needed to bring it together. This is where it is a benefit to have a team in which everyone feels comfortable. We were able to problem-solve the forging process very quickly and effectively. In fact, over the three days of forging we only ran into a couple of minor issues, and they were easily resolved. This really surprised me for a project of this nature. Buy this time I was really enjoying the project, my team seemed to be a great bunch of people and I was very happy with how we worked together. We finished up our work on the first day by putting together a three-day work schedule. This gave us a target to aim for each day and I worked in a little leeway as I knew that most of my team were part-time in the forge and we had a lot of forge work, meaning we would be completely reliant on traditional joinery. All that being done, it was time for beer.

The first day of forging was all about getting the frame forged which meant working with the 2.5m long 30mm2 square bar, lots of sledge-swinging and sweating; we even found time to choreograph a dance to the rhythm of the power hammers on site. By the end of the day we had the main frame forged out and spacers made. We were on schedule, so this meant time for beer, of which there was no shortage. I love Germany.

Day two of forging and I made the only real fuck-up of the project. Really I wanted to test my team’s resilience, of course. I forged one of the tenons on the 30mm bar way over to one side and it could not be saved and we had no more 30mm bar. We would have to cut it off and find 20mm from somewhere while keeping the integrity of the main frame. Some thinking would need to be done and for that you need beer, so we got on with hot punching the holes and started forging out the secondary frame from the 80mm x 8mm strap. This was hot work and living in Ireland I found it a challenge with the German summer heat. For my team it was mother’s milk, but I looked like I was made of butter that had been left out in the sun. That said, we made it to the end of the day, hitting our work schedule. Time for more refreshment.

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Final day. All the other projects where taking shape around us and we had a collection of bars on the grass. That’s how it felt to me looking at it. But we had rain and cooler weather and, living in the Northwest of Ireland, this was my environment. More hot work was in store, forging the strap and then fullering it out. My team were amazing, as they had been from the start. By lunchtime we were ready to start bringing it together. All we had to do was find that 20mm from the 30mm bar. We did this by creating a fullered design in the centre of the bar and lengthening it out. The team then drilled the holes into the two frames so we could rivet them to each other, while I had a paddle in the nearby stream. Rivets were made and then the exciting part of riveting the whole thing together. This went beautifully smoothly thanks to my team, and we were all very excited to see Peter and his team forge the last rivet closed.

For me this was an incredible experience and I’m most proud of the fact that my team wore big smiles throughout the four days. I could not have wished for a better bunch of people to work with, we had so much fun. So, a big thank you to Gunda Seim, Dirk Tietgen, Bernhard (Penny) Strössner, Axel Berges, Ramon DeCandido, Markus Reingruber, and my old friend, Benj Blaser. You made it a joy.

While I was working with my team, George, my son (who is 15 years old) was working on Georg Reinking’s fantastic project. This was my son’s first forge-in and he learnt so much from Georg. It really was a pleasure watching him work in another team and Georg really made a positive impression on him. My son had so much fun and I really want to thank Georg for allowing him to work on his team. What a great way to spend your first forge-in, working with such a fantastic master.

George and I were sad to leave Sperberslohe, even though we were setting off to spend time with my good friend (and German brother), Bill Linke, down in Kunzelsau. Peter and his team put on an amazing event; it was very good fun, full of things to see and do, and packed with amazing people. We were treated so well by everyone and made to feel so very welcome. The other masters – Александр Сушников, Georg Reinking, Steffen Aurin, Christoph Küllinger, and Lorenz Reisenzahn – all produced amazing projects and were each a joy to meet and spend time with.

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I must say a big thank you to Angela and George who took us into their home for the week in Sperberslohe. They made us feel at home, and it was the secret to us looking so refreshed and rested each day.

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Promoting Art and Craft. A bigger picture.

A brief back story

In 2015 I ran a successful Fund It campaign to allow me to travel to Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, Canada. I wanted to see how craft and art practises there dealt with promotion of their businesses, and discover if there was anything we in Ireland could learn from them. I picked Cape Breton because it has many similarities to Ireland. An island based off of a continent, similar sized population, isolated areas, and so on. I learnt a lot in my month there, was invited back in 2016 for the Celtic Colours festival and was able to see more. The only problem was it left me pondering other questions; questions that have taken time for my mind to fully comprehend. I had to ponder the subject and carry out a few experiments of my own to see if I was on the right track. This and a recent trip to teach in Germany have given me a glimpse of a bigger picture and I hope to share some of my pondering with you here.

Where to begin.

I’m going to break with tradition and begin with the negative instead of softening you up with the positives, before sucker punching you. It is important to identify the problems or you don’t have a chance of solving them.

“You are only an artist/craftsperson/blacksmith”. It’s never really verbalised but I can see it in the eyes of politicians or public officials or business leaders whenever I have had meetings with them. It’s the look they get just before their eyes glaze over as I speak. Being brushed aside is our biggest problem; but not just ours, the wider community too. But it’s also, a problem in terms of the aforementioned politicians, public officials, and business leaders. It’s at the root of many problems facing small regions throughout Ireland and I’m guessing many other areas around the world too. The challenge is how to rejuvenate an area when you don’t have the advantages of a major population or large cultural metropolis?

Here’s the big secret. Art and craft businesses have a hugely disproportionate effect on the businesses and general culture around them. The problem is that this effect does not show up on any statistics. How we measure the worth of a business to the community is generally through the volume of employment generated by businesses. But, it’s not the only factor and it does not give you a clear picture of what is going on in the business environment, especially in rural areas.

The simple truth is artists, crafts people, or creative industries in general create an atmosphere that others want to be part of. Most people may not know why they prefer to eat lunch in a particular area or why they are drawn to stay an extra few days in a region when on holiday. Others will be drawn to that area because their friends hang out there. But it is clear that many places around the world were rejuvenated by creative people and businesses, and this has had a disproportionate effect on the businesses around them.

The vast majority of areas have been rejuvenated through fortunate accidents. In many cases, artists and crafts people moved into the areas that nobody else really wanted to base themselves. The rent in such areas was, crucially, cheap. Another vital aspect is that usually these areas are subjected to loose or looser regulations. Often, adaptable industrial spaces allowed for a diverse span of artists and crafts people to exist close to one another. Before long the coffee shops open up, then the bars, the galleries, and soon other businesses want to be part of this vibrant atmosphere. Areas like Shoreditch in London or Temple Bar in Dublin are cases in point. The problem is that the creative individuals and businesses responsible for kick-starting the area on the way to rejuvenation become priced out by the success they helped generate. Inevitably, the area becomes a tourist trap.

Then there are areas where rejuvenation is engineered through craft and art. West Kilbride in Scotland is one of the best examples I could find. There, artists and crafts people took over disused buildings one by one as they generated income for the rehabilitation of the town by providing studios for creative businesses. This in turn attracted other businesses, as with the accidental rejuvenations, but avoided the creative ones being priced out by their own success.

Where much of the engineered rejuvenations fall short (I’m not talking about West Kilbride here, just in wider terms) is that the units provided for the creative businesses tend to be less adaptable and are usually heavily regulated with terms and conditions. Whichever way you look at this issue, the big problem is that artists and crafts people are easily brushed aside on all levels. We even discount ourselves a lot of the time; self-deprecating, almost to the point of extinction. As a result there is a very large turnover of start-up craft and art businesses.

Travels with my hammer.

The areas of which I have knowledge are: of course Ireland, I have lived here for 17 years and have owned and operated my own creative business here for 12 of those; the U.K., where I was born and lived for 30 years; Germany, to which I have been invited for festivals and to teach; and Canada, in particular Cape Breton which I visited several times over the past six years, teaching, and giving demos in my field of forge work.

Each of these countries do things that are both helpful and detrimental to the small creative business. Here in Ireland one of the biggest bonuses is the lack of regulation around creative enterprises. This has allowed me to be flexible, I don’t get bogged down in red tape which has meant I’ve been able to spend more time at the anvil, developing my skill set. The down side is, I have felt invisible and irrelevant, since very few of the organizations set up to promote business have been interested in what I have to offer. There is no formal training in my field and this has hampered my progression in my craft.

The U.K. has great training in my field at least and that helps to generate a built in respect for craft and art. It is possible to gain a formidable skill set in a few short years in a college setting, allowing students to spend more time to promoting any business they set up. This, teamed with flexible study options that include part-time courses and the lack of major regulation, brings about both flexibility and a formal path. The down side is heavier business regulation, leading to red tape. As with Ireland there is an invisibility surrounding craft and art. Yes, you can go to major galleries and see already successful artists and crafts people, but equally you can drive from one end to the other of both countries without knowing that you are passing some of the most talented people in Europe.

Germany offers very good training and apprenticeships, leading to a high level of respect for crafts people and art in general. Culturally, there seems be a built in reverence for people who are skilled with their hands which drives customers towards creative businesses. There is a high level of red tape from what I have seen and a more rigid training system, which comes at a cost of less people finding different paths into a career in crafts, resulting in less diversity.

In Canada I noticed the highest level of visibility for craft businesses. This was true at least in Cape Breton where I was based. Most craft businesses had their own individually made and styled signs on main roads. As well as driving passing trade off the main tracks, these signs gave vibrancy to the areas. In all the other counties, at best, you might see a generic brown sign which does not have the same impact. There did seem to be a lack of major training, at least in my field, and maybe an overreliance on tourism which tended to create a less diverse creative industry.

In saying this, bear in mind that Ireland is the only country in which I have run a business. Everything about the other three counties is what struck me during my travels and through conversations with other creative business owners.

What I decided to do next.

So, what did I have after my travels? A load of experiences, observations, stories, and ideas. I also had no money (which, technically speaking, is a lack of something), a struggling business, and my skill set. So naturally I put together an experiment, with my business as the guinea pig. I’m lucky to have my forge on the N4, the main Dublin to Sligo road. I decided my shop front would be the canvas, but as I’ve already said, I had no money. Firstly, I painted the building black, which put paid to what little spare cash I had. Then, I had to wait six months until I had enough spare cash in the kitty to start the next stage. This is where Friz, aka Marian Noone comes in. She had already done several murals around Sligo Town and I loved her work. I contacted her, gave her my meager budget, and asked if it was possible for her to do something on that budget. Luckily for me, Marian thought she could but with a small budget, it would mean only one day of her time. So, we set about coming up with a minimal design that Marian could execute in one day. This consisted in me sending ideas and styles and Marian making those ideas realistic to come up with a great eye-catching design.

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Before renivations

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A black canvas

Michael Budd

Finished mural

Marian arrived on the appointed day, worked very hard and, true to her word, finished that same day. The results really did exceed my expectations and the effect on my business was immediate. Within two weeks the new look forge front had paid for itself twice over. People were stopping just to take photos of the outside of my forge. In no time at all people were talking about my forge as a Sligo Landmark. So in the short term at least, the experiment had been a success.

There was an immediate increase in turnover, not huge on most people’s scale maybe, but for me and my business it made a huge difference. I was not struggling to pay the bills each month for the first time in three years. The most common comment I received were people telling me they had to turn around and come back just to come in and see what it was all about. I expected to get a larger amount of tourists into the forge, which I have, but not as many as I had hoped. The unexpected part was the amount of existing customers and those who were already aware of my work who came in for a visit. It seemed to tip the scales for a lot of people. I don’t know whether it gave them more confidence in my business or if the vibe it set attracted them but the big thing is it caught people’s attention. Since the mural was painted, the three major parts of my business have increased. That’s incidental sales in the forge of pre-made hand forged work, commission work, and courses. I expected the first two, but not the uptake in the courses I offer. The vast majority of my courses are taken by people from outside of County Sligo and more often than not they have rarely been to Sligo before. The only major change in terms of how I promote my business has been the shop front, so I don’t have any other reason for the increased interest in my courses in the past nine months.

Other effects.

In the previous three years to the revamping of my forge, three major businesses had closed around the area where my forge is located: a very good restraint, the largest hotel in this part of Sligo, and the gas station directly across from the forge. In the past four weeks a major revamp of the gas station across from me has begun. I can’t say that its reopening is a direct result of my actions; most likely it is a combination of many different factors, as are most business investments of this nature. But I do think other businesses look at what is happening in an area before investing. They want to see others striving to create something. Having a disused derelict building opposite your potential venture would not instil confidence in your investment. That gas station had been closed for a year before I revamped the forge. Its closure had had a dramatic effect on my business and the wider community since it was the only shop for some miles around. This illustrates the effects creative businesses can have on an area and how it is not really documented. We tend to be the tipping of the scales, but everyone is looking at and measuring the scales. McDermott’s Pub, just down from my forge, does not measure the 30 to 50 extra lunches my business gives it and register these to me, neither does Tower Hill B&B just down the road and I’m sure it’s only a drop in their overall customer base and profit margin. But these are the extra little things that keep restaurants and B&Bs profitable. If I was one of six creative businesses locally, how much could we boost the profits of those two businesses? Maybe it would have made the difference to the local restaurant that closed down? Maybe it would be the deciding factor to other businesses looking for the right location?

Conclusion

What this project has taught me is that visibility is a key factor to businesses like mine. Not just visibility but your own brand of visibility. Note I said brand of visibility, not Brand visibility. I used my personal ideas and interests to guide the design of my forge frontage. I think that is a crucial part of promoting a creative business. Don’t get bogged down in marketing advice and trends. People will buy into your passion, that’s our biggest asset. Being quirky and standing out is a huge bonus to us. Our clients are looking for the different, the quirky, the very things that can’t be defined by trend culture. There are lots of people who just want homogenised products and there’s plenty of choice for them. I’ve noticed that all the marketing advice I have seen for creative business has tried to push it in that direction. But it’s already well served by companies that are very well funded and can outspend, market, and promote the smaller art and craft business (you). That said, we have individuality, creativity, passion, and a flexibility that gives us access to a clientele of our own. We can take risks because we are creative, passionate people. In fact, for me being bold does not feel like a risk, I just get excited by it and other people tend to respond to that.

What’s the answer?

For a long time I’ve asked the same question. For many, the answer is uncomfortable. In general terms the creative sector is full of very hard working people. One of our major problems is the lack of investment. By that I mean it’s hard to get the sort of investment capital you need to really set up a business and give it the best start possible. But our biggest problem is ourselves. We defer our worth and potential to others. As an industry we look to others to fix a problem. We don’t want to rock the boat and get too noticed. I’m aware that other business people have no problem being pushy, bigging up their business and getting the maximum investment in terms of promotion or anything else on offer. The solution is that we need to see our true worth and trust in our own passion. We need to step forward and be bold in pushing our businesses. Polite just gets you squeezed to the back of the room. Too many times I’ve been to meetings of creative businesses and the first thing we decide is to get a “marketing expert” in to solve our problems. I’ve had help from marketing experts and some of it has been good advice, I’m not knocking them. But think about it for a minute. A room full of creative people and the first thing they do is look for funding to hire a marketing expert to tell them how to solve their problems. Why aren’t we looking to our own abilities to solve our problems? We are inventive, passionate business people with a wealth of knowledge. Most of the time I get the feeling that we know what the problem is: we are invisible. But to truly solve this issue we would have to crack some eggs, rock the boat, and as an industry we are scared to do this. So, we get funding for someone who does not truly understand our sector and ask them to come up with a plan that would allow us to tackle the problem. If we really want to move forward we can’t be afraid to step forward.

The problems and answers do not lie solely in the court of creative businesses. We have areas all over the country that need rejuvenation, with empty business premises across the country. I’ve been to meetings with business people and local authorities at which they too are trying to solve their problems by hiring someone who does not understand the real issue. They want to solve the problem of reduced investment and falling footfall by leaving premises empty at a very high rental and very high business rates. The result is no-one paying rent or business rates and fewer people visiting the area because a large percentage of the premises are empty.

What could be done is to create a nonprofit organisation that purchases a percentage of those empty premises and rents them out at a low rate, with low business rates, to creative businesses. After an initial period of time, the rent and business rates will increase to a percentage rate of the net profits of the businesses involved. In this way, an environment is created that allows creative people to work to their strengths, innovate, and take risks. The result is stable, vibrant businesses in properties that were previously empty and/or derelict. These businesses will grow and increase their profit margin to contribute more to the nonprofit over time. That added contribution can then be reinvested in the nonprofit and go on to help other creative businesses. Those that take longer to establish have a secure framework in which to do that. The other businesses in the area, will benefit from greater footfall and a more vibrant environment that is attractive to customers. Most importantly, it fosters diversity and a business community that is stable and attractive to visitors and investors.

But to do this it takes everyone, on all sides, to be bold and unafraid to shake things up a little. To stop trying to make a business model designed to work in a metropolis function in a regional setting. To take a small risk in stepping forward, rather than fading into the background

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Nochtadh A visual arts award for Ireland

Some time ago I was asked to put down my ideas of a dedicated visual art award for Ireland. This was after a long conversation, with me shooting my mouth off. After not hearing any feed back I talked to a friend of mine about it who told me my ideas would never work in Ireland. I don’t see why.

The idea behind this award is to give a platform for outstanding visual art in Ireland today by highlighting the extraordinary work of artists based in Ireland.

Criteria for artists

The criteria for artists eligible for this award should be kept simple. They should be alive for a start. In addition they should be living and working in Ireland today and be visual artists. The reason for such simple criteria is to celebrate those artists who need it most; those who are trying to make a living from their art today. The reasoning behind limiting it to artists currently living and working in Ireland is that we need to promote and support art being created here in Ireland. While it is fantastic that we have Irish artists all around the world flying the flag for the country, we must enable artists to stay and work within their communities if they so choose. The best way to do this is to promote and exhibit their work, and give them a chance to become established without moving to London or New York. What the Irish culture gains from this approach is art and artists embedded in the contemporary Irish way of life; reflecting, commenting on, and invigorating Irish culture and giving the outside world a more rounded view of modern Ireland.

Selection and selection panel criteria

This is not a competition. It is an award. It is an important point to highlight. Artists will not be entering their work; they will be selected for a short list by a diverse artist-led panel. The concept being that this is awarded by peers and eminent people in the field of art is more prestigious than a competition to be entered which can become, or be seen as, a popularity contest. Prestige is important if we want this award to boost the winning artist’s career. The overriding consideration should always be on promoting Irish visual art in Ireland and abroad.

  • This award is open to all visual art mediums. It is important that it is perceived as a diverse representation of contemporary visual art in Ireland.
  • There should be four shortlisted artists each year, with one winner selected.
  • The four selected artists should submit work to form an exhibition.
  • A cash prize should be awarded to each shortlist artist if possible with an additional award for the winner.
  • The selection panel should be between six and eight people, the majority always being visual artists. The reason for this is to keep the focus on the art over other considerations.
  • At least one panel member should represent each Irish province, and be defined as living and working within that province. This is to promote diversity and find those artists who are not currently being exhibited, as well as those more established.
  • One member of the panel should be from outside Ireland.
  • Each year at least one member of the panel must resign and a new member or members selected. This will prevent the award from stagnating.
  • Each panel member will offer four artists for consideration. From these, the panel will select the final four and from that four, the winner. The original long list must be kept secret; mostly to prevent artists from feeling disappointed at not being selected.
  • This award should be for individual artists and not groups or collaborations. This is to ensure that the vision and tenacity of single artists be celebrated.
  • Artists put forward for consideration must be living and working in Ireland.

 

As already mentioned, the overriding consideration should be the promotion of contemporary visual art in all its forms being created in Ireland. The best way to achieve this would be to organise a televised award ceremony that also gives a short biography or over view of each shortlisted artist. Alongside this, longer films for each artist for online and social media content could be created. I think it would be fun to allow each artist be in control of their biography. This would give it a more natural and interesting edge. By utilising and embedding social media from the outset we would be opening up to what is now the largest art consumer market in the world: Instagram, YouTube, Vimeo, Twitter and the like are the world’s biggest galleries and as such offer us a unique way to promote Ireland-based art like never before.

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Trickle-down Culture

What is trickle-down culture? It works in the same way as trickle-down economics in that you give all the money resources and promotion/exposure to those at the top and it will trickle down to benefit everyone. It works about as well at its economic stable mate.

The best way to explain how it works is through an analogy based on sport. In this case the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association): imagine the GAA have established training grounds, floodlit pitches and centres of excellence all around the country. As it has. Now imagine it refuses to let anyone train or play at its facilities until they had played in an All Ireland senior match at Croke Park. Not only that, but none of the sports media outlets would publicise players until that time either. What effect do you think that would have on the sport? How long before people stopped going to the grounds to watch matches? How low would attendance drop until someone in the GAA did something?

This is what’s happening in our cultural world today; particularly in the visual arts sector. Visitor numbers to the majority of public galleries are down year on year. Arts publications are noting a decrease in readership numbers. Yes, you can point to social media and I’m sure that is a factor but, I think, a relatively small one.

Recently I read an article by an art critic whom I respect, lamenting that critics don’t have the public recognition they once had, that we don’t see them on TV in the way we once did. My response to this being that you need to present to the public new and exciting work from unknown artists from a diverse background, alongside established work in order to foster excitement in the public.

For instance, and I’m going to go off track here a bit, bear with me, John Peel was respected as a DJ and music talent spotter. Not because he had a golden touch and every band he played went on to great success. It was because he presented new and interesting work, often by unsigned bands. It was exciting listening to his show because he was so enthusiastic about music, but also because you didn’t know what you might discover next. This made his show popular among listeners and the music industry alike. Maybe only as little as 1% of the musicians he gave exposure to went on to some form of success. But that 1% is like a who’s who of influential music of the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. Since his untimely death, music feels as if it has flatlined a little, maybe you could say this is a coincidence.

This leads me back to culture in general, and especially visual art. It feels as if art critics and curators have stopped being interested in any artist not already represented and no-one wants to represent you unless you are being talked about, exhibited or “on trend” in some way. In a lot of ways that has always been the case. But there were always those brave few who wanted to push the undiscovered, explore the unfashionable or new. Instead, we have turned the path less travelled into an eight lane motorway that is almost imposable to traverse without being obliterated.

Now you could just dismiss this as the ranting of a bitter artist crying because no one finds his art interesting, and I have to admit there is an element of truth in that. But, if you really stop and think for one moment: when was the last time you went to a gallery or opened an art publication and found yourself truly engaged with what you saw?

 

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Nothing and everything to do with my work.

Scrolling around social media this morning, tea in hand, I came across more posts and articles that blame the “uneducated” for electing Trump, labelling them as bigoted into the bargain. This saddened, infuriated, depressed and inspired me all in the same instance. It immediately spurred me to sit down and write this blog. Not something of a natural response for me, as you will find out.

When I can force myself to write, I try to keep it relevant to my work as an artist and blacksmith and this made me hesitate as it’s nothing to do with my work. But conversely, I have realised that this is everything to do with my work.

I’m one of the uneducated people who the media always seems to mention in conjunction with anything negative these days. I left school at 15 with no qualification to my name and nothing has changed since. Not only that but I was not even close to literate when I left school. I found it hard to read even simple information in shops and could not even write a whole sentence. Being dyslexic in 70s/80s Britain, along with being working class, was not a recipe for a successful school career. I believed I was thick, as was the term back then, or remedial as my teachers liked to class it. So I didn’t question my lack of opportunity when leaving school, I accepted it. Looking back now it appears to me that my school just gave up on the likes of me. Maybe I’m looking at it with a certain amount of prejudice and that could be very true. But 30 years later I still feel I was considered educational collateral damage.

With hindsight I can see that from educational point of view, and as an artist, this was one of the key moments in my education. In fact, my education only started at this point. My only options when leaving school were manual jobs with no hope of training. I worked all manner of jobs, finding out that I was easily hired and fired. Eventually I found a steady job in the building trade, for a while at least, and met a steady stream of colourful, intelligent and funny people. I always put this down to my boss, Johnny (the lip). Johnny was not the stereotypical builder by any means. I don’t think there were many openly gay builders in late 80s Britain (although I hope I’m wrong about this).

Anyway, Johnny was an old school grammar boy and tended to take people under his wing. I think that’s how I got the job, that and the fact I was incredibly good-looking, of course. Johnny was one of the first people who treated me as an equal, and when it surfaced that I couldn’t read or write to any great degree, his response astounded me. “But you’re so fucking intelligent, Mike. How can you not have learnt to read?” This stopped me in my tracks. I’d never thought of myself as intelligent, it shocked me to my core. I guess this and his tendency to ask my opinion, along with his way of explaining his ideas, began a fundamental change in the way I viewed the world.

As I said, Johnny collected colourful people around him and oddly enough a lot of them were called Bob. There was Bob the plumber, a hard drinking fella, from Galway originally. Bob was a bare knuckle fighter in his younger days. He would always send me home, with a cuff around the head, when I’d had enough to drink: “You don’t want to end up like me, you little prick!”, would be his parting comment. Then there was Bob the bricky. He was on his 5th wife and had served his apprenticeship in London’s Soho in the 1960s and was now working through his doctorate in English lit. I could literally listen to him for days. Also, there was Bob the painter. I think he was on his 6th wife at the time. “My problem is: I’m irresistible to women and I find women irresistible” was his response when I asked him why he had been married so often.

Apart from the Bobs, I was lucky to spend time with a mix of punks, anarchists, Marxists, capitalists, world war two veterans, human rights activists and down on their luck adventurers. Now, you could say I was lucky or unlucky depending on your view, but my further misadventures at the bottom of the working world suggest to me that the uneducated sector of the western world is a lot more diverse, open, and understanding than the mainstream cares to recognise. History, or in this case media columns, really are written by the victors.

I was twenty before I tackled my lack of literacy and it wasn’t for the idea of bettering myself that forced me into it. I met someone. Only problem was she lived on the other side of the country and neither of us had a phone. (Hard to imagine twenty-five years later) “Don’t worry. We’ll just write to each other” she suggested. You can imagine … the blood drained from me so quickly I’m surprised I didn’t faint. I was presented with a problem, lose this wonderful woman or admit my lack of literacy skills. Passion won out, not surprisingly. Again I found I wasn’t being judged or written off. I was met with understanding and with her help over the next year or so, I developed a love of reading and of books. I even found I could eke out a few single page letters, which Lisa would lovingly help me correct whenever we travelled to see one another. It was an odd courtship I guess but it was fun and exciting. Love, passion, books and new ideas, what wasn’t to enjoy? Although the relationship did not last, it left a lasting positive impression on me. I still have dreadful grammar and spelling, which people love to point out on social media; I just don’t give a shit. I have my wonderful proofreader Sandra, who kindly works in exchange for forged dinner bells and door handles. So I really don’t care, and why it should make a difference to anyone reading this blog?

As I moved through the lower rungs of the working world I did come across closed minds but they were the exception rather than the norm. Most people were open and accepting of others. It didn’t seem to really register with most people where you were from or what you were into. As one of my work colleagues put it when one of our number came out: “That’s your fucking problem. What has it got to do with moving this bloody pallet?”

‘Live and let live’ always seemed to be the order of business. Of course, I’m not suggesting this was the case for everyone and I’m sure lots of people have had bad experiences. I can only speak of mine and they were largely indifferent or good.

I didn’t have to deal with any major discrimination until I started developing my sculptural work. Since then it has been a hard slog. It is perfectly acceptable in the art world to only exhibit graduate work. Or to only give bursaries to artists who fit a certain criteria. One of the usual ones being: must have an art degree. We learn to deal with rejection as artists, and someone just not being enthused by my work is fine. But here are some of the other reasons which I have never appreciated.

“We don’t exhibit Ironmongers”.

“We can’t take your work seriously if you don’t have an art degree”.

“We only exhibit Irish artists”.

“We only exhibit British artists”.

“We only exhibit commercial artists”.

“We only exhibit non-commercial artists”.

“Your work is not visually interesting”.

“Your work is too well-crafted”.

“Your work is not well-crafted enough”.

The list goes on and on and even bores me, so I’ll stop there. I didn’t really understand what discrimination was until I tried to make it in the art world. What’s more it’s fully accepted. Not seen as a problem anywhere. Most of the people I meet are very well educated in that they went to college or university. But very few seem to be bothered by this discrimination. Blatant, unabashed discrimination. It’s not even remotely hidden. Yet the educated masses don’t appear to be able or willing to identify it.

So, it comes as less of a surprise and more of a sad fact when I see what appears to be the entire intelligentsia label the “uneducated” as bigoted and uninformed. The reverse feels more of a fit for me. Bigotry exists in all sections of society. No-one has the monopoly on it. But neither do any of us have a monopoly on understanding, and from what I’ve read since the Brexit vote it’s in short supply in all areas of the media.

Education is a great thing and I would always encourage others to seek it out. But there are many paths to education and knowledge. It is multi-strand and diverse, and we need it to be. The sure way to stunt growth is through a lack of diversity; and any barrier to debate, sharing of knowledge and understanding will stunt us all.

What I’m feeling now is everything to do with my work.

It will channel through my work.

It is my work.

The work of an uneducated blacksmith.

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My approaches to work

Last year I was asked by a client how I approach my work, and unusually for me, I didn’t have an answer. So, I’ve been examining just how I do approach it and these are the answers I’ve discovered for myself.

Firstly, I tend to divide my work up into different categories with different slants for each. Pure functional (Tools and such items), Commissioned functional, Commissioned Sculpture and Personal Sculpture.

Pure Functional:
With tools and other pure functional work, form must follow function. There is no point making a tool that does not perform. While to some this might seem to be a limitation on creativity, I have found it very liberating. Having set rules to work within can help to focus you mind, which frees you up in so many ways. This has become so true to me that I often use tool making as a way loosen up or clear my mind in-between other projects.
Rounding Hammer
As you can see with this 3lb rounding hammer I made, there is still plenty of scope to create sculptural forms. In fact I often feel that tools are the purest form of sculpture. Just look at the stone axes of early human endeavour. Those tools were, in my eyes, our first ventures into the sculptural world.

Commissioned Functional:
Here there are several things at play, all vying for attention. You have, as with the tools, a function that must be respected. Your client, who is paying you, wants the piece to work for them in a set way. If it’s a gate, for instance, it must span the gap, it must open. These are a given. Then, you are responding to the environment which also leads you to your client. They have put this space together so it is a good indicator as to their own vision. I want this type of work to work for my clients. Mostly, I find people approach me because of my portfolio so they are already open to my style of work, I don’t tend to get many conflicts here. Then I have my own reaction to the space. Usually when I see a space, I want to fill it. (Don’t know what that says about me. No puns intended). The combination of all these things helps to form my approach, not necessarily meaning the creation of something that will blend in with its surroundings. If I feel the space needs something that will create contrast, that is what I will design and I have occasionally turned work away as I felt the customer was asking for something that would not work in the space.
Above all I want to produce work I’m happy with, otherwise I might as well work for someone else and not have the headaches that go hand-in-hand with having you own art practice. I love this type of work because you are developing a relationship between yourself, the client and the space. It can lead you into unexpected areas and push you in ways other types of work don’t. Also it is a great moment when your client sees the work for the first time and you have exceeded their expectations.

Commissioned Sculpture:
Mostly this for me has meant public pieces of sculpture. Here you are responding to a particular brief and, surprisingly, it can be where you find yourself being asked to compromise your work the most. I try to find an area of the brief that interests me and focus on that; if the brief is really uninteresting there is very little point in getting involved in the project. I get a lot of my inspiration from a deep-set belief in my work and if I don’t believe in the project I won’t produce the work to do it justice. Obviously as with commissioned functional work, I am also responding to the environment in which the piece will be set. I want above all to create a conversation between the brief, the environment and the work, getting a good feel for the space is crucial. The biggest difference in my approach to this type of work is I have to fully design it on paper. This is something to which I’m a little resistant. My medium is hot forged steel, mostly, and drawing my work out has always felt like I am working to another medium. Now I know it has huge advantages, and working in this way has pushed me and my work which is a very good thing. But I still have to be dragged to the drawing table every time.

Personal Sculpture:
What I define as personal sculpture is work that I’m only creating to satisfy my own feelings and needs without a view to the reaction it will provoke in others. My first approach here is where I have a fully conceptualised idea in my head. I don’t sketch it and I don’t change it. It tends to just flow out of me in a frenzy of compulsive forging. Sometimes I will see something in the making of the piece and will have to decide whether to adapt the piece or store the idea for future work but on the whole I’m trying to bring my vision of the piece into fruition in its entirety as I conceptualised it as with this sculpture: A war crime by any other name.
A war crime by any other name

I also have this method where I have a concept which in itself is fully formed in such a way that I have a framework and maybe a series of way points and a loose idea of how to hit those points. This sculpture, The gift that keeps on oppressing, illustrates my point.
Gift 5

Gift 8

Gift 2

I knew I wanted a cube frame for it and a void at its centre that was under stress. But I didn’t know exactly what that would look like. So I created the frame and made the first inset spike, then each subsequent inset responded to the pieces before. This also helped me overcome one of the other problems I foresaw, which was how to create a randomness to the spikes at the same time as framing the void. Sometimes with this type of approach it can feel like the sculpture is working you rather than the other way around. This can feel a little unnerving, even terrifying, and can be almost all consuming at times. At the end of making this piece I felt exhausted and drained, so much so my wife called it “the black hole” for the two months I worked on it.
The thing that stays constant throughout these differing approaches is the pure joy it is to light a fire and manipulate hot steel. You can’t beat it! (Pun intended)

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New short film shot in my forge.

This is a short film entitled The Blacksmith. Shot in my forge by film maker Pete Killane. http://youtu.be/_iqwErA5Te0

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