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.

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The Blacksmith

Here is a new short film made in my forge by film maker Pete Killane.

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Erosion of forged mild steel. A theory.

Never being one to accept things I’m told on face value, I’ve often thought about what in the blacksmith’s world is accepted wisdom on erosion of mild steel. For those of you who aren’t into metallurgy here is a short explanation.

You might have noticed old ironwork form anywhere between 100 to 500 years in your area which is rusted but not eroded. The reason for this is twofold. Firstly, it is most likely wrought iron which, while being made of the same ore as the mild steel we mostly use today, goes through an initially different smelting process. This in short means it has a totally different molecular structure to mild steel. The structure of mild steel is crystalline, while wrought iron is fibrous. Adding to this, wrought iron will have inclusions or impurities caused by the smelting process. This fibrous structure, according to conventional wisdom on this subject, lends itself to a greater degree of burnishing through the forging process which gives it a surface that will be more resistant to moisture-penetration. The burnished surface is what we smiths call millscale, it has a dark gray or black colour which is where blacksmiths get their name. Millscale is densely packed iron and carbon along with other trace elements.
Conventional thought on this is that when a rust bloom forms on wrought iron that has been forged correctly to form millscale, it makes it almost impervious to water penetration and, therefore, more resilient to further oxidisation. Oxidisation of iron is what causes erosion. Conventional thought also says that the same is not true for mild steel that has been forged due to its crystalline structure. Because it does not burnish down in the same way as wrought iron, it will not give the same levels of water penetration prevention.
I have thought about this a great deal. Both materials looked the same once forged. To me they both seem to burnish to the same degree. But looks can be deceiving and, as I don’t have a handy electron microscope to check out the molecular differences to surface density, I went looking for studies into the defences in erosion rates of forged mild steel and forged wrought iron. Surprisingly, I could not find any such research. Now, I’ve only got Google at my disposal so that does not mean that such a research does not exist but as I couldn’t find one I decided to create my own limited experiment. I forged a simple BBQ out of mild steel, using only traditional joinery and took care to forge all of the material used, creating an even millscale throughout the BBQ. The BBQ has been left out in the elements ever since, seven years now and used often. It has moved to three different houses with us, not to mention trips to the beach and around the northwest Mayo. 001002004
As you can see, it has formed a rust bloom but there is zero erosion. Seven years is not a conclusive time period and this is not a controlled experiment but it does lead me to question conventional wisdom on this matter. I’ve see fabricated mild steel structures show signs of erosion in that timeframe, so why not this structure? Could conventional thought on this subject be misleading? As yet I feel it is too early and too limited a study to give a conclusive answer. However, it does call into question what we believe to be the truth about the material we use as blacksmiths and the way we treat and finish it. It is my theory that mild steel, when correctly forged using traditional joinery and not welded with modern welders, performs very well compared with wrought iron. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject and if you can point me in the direction of any studies or others experiments in this same field, I’d be glad.

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