Life on the factory floor

Set up 24 years ago as a haven for artists, the NSF is integral to Cork culture, says Tina O’Sullivan

Life on the factory floor

It’s very loyal to its original principles — supporting artists making work. That’s primarily what it is.

THE National Sculpture Factory (NSF) is a long, red-brick building on Albert Road in Cork. Built in the late 19th century, it was a tram depot, and was known as the Albert Road Power House.

It changed hands in 1931, and served as the ESB headquarters until the mid-1980s. In 1989, four local artists, Vivienne Roche, Maud Cotter, Danny McCarthy and Éilis O’Connell, established the NSF to provide artists with large studio spaces, complemented with ancillary supports, such as equipment, technicians, training, lectures, residencies and consultancy.

Mary McCarthy has been the director of the NSF since 2009, having previously worked as cultural manager with Dublin Docklands Development Authority, and as deputy director/programme director on Cork 2005, European Capital of Culture.

McCarthy is on the boards of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Culture Ireland, and Corona Cork Film Festival. “The Sculpture Factory is a very important part of Cork’s cultural landscape, in that it’s now 24 years old,” says McCarthy. “I think it’s remained very loyal to its original principles — supporting artists making work. That’s primarily what it is.

“It’s an artists’ resource facility to enable artists to make work in all the different sculptural mediums, from glass to stone to metal to performance, film, and sound art. We take a very expanded definition of sculpture. The Sculpture Factory is an organisation that’s established itself as significant, nationally and internationally, and we think it’s very important for Cork to have that. We bring artists in from abroad and that’s important for the artists that are based here. We also create opportunities to enable artists to travel outwards to residencies and exchanges.”

The NSF organises art projects throughout the year, collaborating with galleries, festivals or educational establishments.

“We annually collaborate with the School of Art, and, last year, we did a big exploration of cast iron as a way of working,” says McCarthy. “It’s a very old process and we wanted to re-look at it. How can artists start to make use of that process again? So we built a furnace, here, with James L Hayes, who’s a lecturer up in the Crawford [College of Art and Design]. It was open to students of the Crawford, practising artists in Ireland, and the students from Wales, to apply. It was a very dynamic, week-long, intense workshop. The factory floor really accommodates that energy and commitment to practice.

“We also collaborate with two Cork festivals; the Cork Midsummer Festival and the Corona Cork Film Festival. We do that because it takes our work into a bigger public domain, and it advocates for visual artists to be included in more programmes. It also, on a very practical level, maximises resources, as we can pool monies from our own budgets and the festivals.”

Drift was one such project, and saw the NSF partner with Cork Midsummer Festival and the West Cork Art Centre to stage an experimental music/theatre performance developed by artist, Mark Garry, off Sherkin Island, in West Cork.

Jesse Jones and Phil Collins are two of the film artists the NSF has programmed in association with Corona Cork Film Festival, and whose work they have screened for the public on the factory floor.

There is a full complement of artists working at the NSF. Founder member Maud Cotter is preparing for her upcoming exhibitions in Waterford, and at the MAC in Belfast.

Another founder member, Éilis O’Connell, is finishing her large-scale resin sculpture for her spring exhibition in London. Joe Neeson is working on a public art piece for Dingle Pier, and also fabricating work for Germany-based British artist, Tony Cragg, who has worked with the NSF since 1990s.

Alex Pentek is undertaking a public commission for a school in Galway.

The NSF is one of the few places in Ireland where one can work safely on stone. Mick Wilkins carves his stone sculptures in-house. A group of emerging ceramic artists shares a space on the factory floor. Among them are two graduates of the Crawford College of Art and Design who won NSF bursaries: Gwenda Ford, and Rory Mullen, who has received attention for his cardboard dwelling installations.

The NSF sponsors graduate awards for artists from Limerick, Waterford and Cork. Frankie Sheir, a recent graduate of Cork Centre of Architecture Studies, is the architect-in-residence.

The focus for the NSF this year is training and development. “In 2013, we’re going to be putting quite a focus on providing mentoring and training supports for artists,” says McCarthy. “What are the short-term skills that you need to make yourself more visible these days? We’re finding a lot of demand for social-media training, for example; how do you promote yourself online? We’re also doing short-burst training in some of the newer technologies, such as 3D printing or plastic welding.”

The NSF will bring a touring exhibition, The United States of Europe to Cork, this March, in association with Cork Vision Centre and Crawford Art Gallery. This will mark the Irish presidency of the EU.

McCarthy credits the controversial Cork 2005 Year of Culture with prompting the confidence and maturity in Cork arts. She says the loss of the Fenton Gallery — a dedicated, high-end, market-driven gallery — means that buyers are looking abroad and our artists are losing out.

“I think we’ve moved a long way from when people thought the arts were elite and not for them. Open days, like Culture Night, are really important. The joy that is around Cork City and County on Culture Night is palpable.”

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