In 1993 I graduated from Edinburgh College of Art with a degree in Architectural Glass, and a week after graduating I moved to to Belfast. At that time there was very little happening in studio glass in Northern Ireland. My thinking was: 1) There is very little happening in Northern Ireland in studio glass, but there could be a good reason for this. And: 2)There is very little happening in Northern Ireland in studio glass, which means plenty of room for things to happen. It turned out to be an interesting time to move to Northern Ireland.
Shortly after my move to Belfast, the Northern Ireland peace process began to bring about significant changes. There was an injection of investment in healthcare infrastructure which instigated a series of new builds, replacing or updating old facilities and providing new centres to accommodate the changing face of healthcare. Outmoded victorian facilities were replaced with modern architecture encompassing large expanses of curtain wall glazing and presenting possibilities for architectural glass commissions. Considering the relatively small size of the glass community at that time, I was uniquely placed to take advantage of these changing circumstances.
Ten years later I was awarded my first public art commission and for the past twelve years I have consistently worked on one or more commissions per year. To date I have completed over twenty commissions, all within Northern Ireland and comprising a variety of approaches, including large scale suspended sculpture, curtain wall glazing and mixed media artworks.
The field of public art commissions is a competitive process which starts with an open call for expressions of interest. From there it goes to short-listing and then usually interview, where a scale model, samples of the proposed artwork and supporting materials can be presented to an interview panel. The presentation is a valuable opportunity to demonstrate your personality, communication skills and also draw attention to the unique aspects of your proposal. The whole application stage can be a lengthy process which requires a significant time commitment and emotional investment, sometimes with no return.
To me, commissioned public artworks are never to be confused with autonomous artworks. Being given a defined brief, allocated budget and a permanent location provides a framework within which to design an artwork that must be a considered response within a specific context. Public art commissions are an opportunity to execute projects that ordinarily I would not be able to consider. They offer the opportunity to work on a large scale, tailor work to a specific environment and provide staged payments at intervals throughout the fabrication process. In response, I believe it is the duty of the artist to create an artwork that is sympathetic to the specific needs and requirements of the building.
All of the commissions I have designed and fabricated feature glass as the primary material. I use blown, cast, fused and flame worked glass, depending on what the project requires. I design the work so I can produce the glass in my own studio. Over the years, when possible I have reinvested any profit back into the studio to purchase equipment that will expand the range of work I can fabricate.
I often work alongside fabricators to manufacture armatures or components in other materials to support or contain the glass. Once I find a fabricator that I can work with I tend to stick with them. Working closely with a fabricator requires building a relationship of trust and understanding. Good communication is key to the success of every aspect of the project. Engaging a fabricator is different from a collaboration. I expect a fabricator to be able to translate my drawings as closely as possible to the original artwork where required. It is important that it is the line of my hand that describes the artwork rather than an interpretation.
My work is inspired by the natural world and uses imagery drawn from nature, mostly in abstracted form. I believe this is an accessible theme for the broad audience that encounter public artworks. This is also a theme which carries through in my autonomous work. To generate themes in response to a brief I spend a lot of time considering the role of the artwork in the specific location and the audience for the work. I usually create a narrative or a concept which supports the design and that I feel is in keeping with the function of the location.
Last year I completed two large scale commissions, Synthesis, a freestanding outdoor sculpture for The Garden of Reflection in Derry/Londonderry and Ebb and Flow an entrance foyer glazing artwork for the Northern Ireland Hospice new build. Both of these projects pushed the boundaries of my practise and presented very different and new challenges.
Synthesis was quite a departure for me. The commissioning application was through a European tendering process, which was very involved and complicated, more geared towards the construction worker than the artist’s practise and would eliminate you at the pre-tendering stage if you filled in that form incorrectly. The application in itself was a significant piece of work and more daunting than craning the final two ton artwork in over a three storey building. In this instance there was no opportunity to present the submission materials to the selection panel, therefore no opportunity to give a personal delivery of the concept and my experience. The models and samples were sent off by courier in an anonymous, sealed envelope; along with the written description of the concept, planned schedule of works, proposed programme of works and the proposed budget.
The advertised timeline for completion was fifteen weeks from award of contract, very tight for something of this scale. However the reality was more like five months from award to completion. Having the advantage of a generous budget for this project, I was able to design a substantial artwork featuring steel, cast stone and internal lighting to enhance a glass focal point. Working with materials that were new to me and outside of my skill set gave me a whole new experience of overseeing fabrication and installation processes, but it required more commitment to project management and relied heavily on the professionalism of the other fabricators.
Ebb and Flow installed in early December 2015. The glazing units were the largest size to date that I have handled in my studio, pushing my practise to it’s limits but also allowed me to demonstrate I am capable of working on this scale, whilst learning more about how better to design and execute jobs of this scale for the future.
I was informed by the commissioner that my proposal was selected over other competitors specifically for the characteristics of the techniques I use in my glazing artworks. Over the past ten years I have been developing a technique that allows me to incorporate kiln formed components within large areas of glazing. I combine this with a contemporary take on traditional methods of acid etching and sandblasting to create site specific, complex and nuanced artworks within standard double glazed units.
The brief specified an uplifting and welcoming feature for Out patients with a requirement to provide privacy for Inpatient rooms beyond the curtain wall glazing. My proposal was developed in response to a Creative Consultation document generated through discussions between artists and patients, carers, staff and local residents. The design of Ebb and Flow incorporated text from creative writing sessions held with service users facilitated by a writer. I was also required to engage with the NI Hospice community prior to installation, this comprised of a series of presentations and practical workshops.
With hindsight I realise that the execution of my proposalfor Ebb and Flow was too complex within the budget allocated for a work of this scale. However, once engaged, my only concerns are to do the best job possible, deliver an artwork that I believe true to the proposal made and to be creatively challenged by the work.
I have found that details and information not always available at proposal stage can materialise at a later stage in commissioning process, and this can impact the original proposal. Despite having accumulated experience, this can still be difficult to anticipate with each new job; it is always a different set of circumstances and my proposals are always bespoke. The reality of taking a proposal from paper through to completion requires flexibility, resourcefulness and stamina.
In conclusion, working on public art commissions has been an important component of my multi-faceted approach as a professional artist: one that has allowed me to fulfil my role as a practitioner in the wider community; to stimulate technical innovation and explore new materials; to expand my facilities; and to help financially support other strands of my practise.