Meet the Cork woman who is carving out an international reputation for herself

The studio of sculptor Eilís O’Connell is perched on a hillside near Inniscarra, Co Cork.

Meet the Cork woman who is carving out an international reputation for herself

Work by Cork-based artist Eilís O’Connell will go on display at the famed modernist house E1027 in the south of France, writes Ellie O’Byrne.

The studio of sculptor Eilís O’Connell is perched on a hillside near Inniscarra, Co Cork. In the distance, the wind

turbines of Kilgarvan can be glimpsed beyond the farms and undulating hills. But in the foreground, several of O’Connell’s vast stand-alone abstract sculptures dominate the view.

O’Connell’s work is normally seen in an urban setting; she has pieces at Canary Wharf in London and is currently working on a commission for Molesworth St in Dublin. Against a rural backdrop, her pieces become timeless, reminiscent of dolmens and standing stones.

The artist flits from piece to piece, pointing out scratches and flaws and improvements that could be made; the finish of one gigantic blue form is too iridescent, another piece had its surface damaged in transit. A forklift is parked nearby. O’Connell is excited by producing sculptures to a vast scale, but the result is, in practical terms, unwieldy.

“My dream was to have a sculpture garden here, but the reality is difficult,” she says, surveying the hillside. “As you get old, you sometimes wonder what’s going to happen to it all.”

Now 65, Derry-born O’Connell has been working as a sculptor since her graduation from Cork’s Crawford College of Art and Design in the 1970s. Achieving commercial success mostly in the UK, she ran a busy

studio in London producing large-scale outdoor commissions for public spaces, until the early 2000s, when she made the decision to return to Ireland following the death of her long-term partner.

“They say not to make any decisions when you’re grieving,” she says, “but it felt like the right thing to do. I needed the support of family and friends.”

On her return, O’Connell purchased the former Goldenvale creamery in Iniscarra, and converted it to a studio and workspace.

Inside her airy studio, there’s an astonishing array of different objects and materials, evidence of her experimental approach.

O’Connell’s abstract work is informed by an interest in geometry but also by intuitive, organic forms inspired by the body. She has worked in materials including woven steel cable, stitched canvas, bronze and epoxy resin.

Many sculptors now use computer-assisted design (CAD) programmes to produce drawings of their designs which are then sent to foundries and fabricators, but O’Connell still makes 3-D scale models of her work.

“I love experimenting, but metal is my first love,” she says. “To me, sculpture is playing on a big scale. As a child, my father used to make boats and I used to watch him. With the scraps left over, I’d build things, these little lean-to houses up against the wall, and they’d be my little places. It comes from the very basic concept of making a space for yourself.”

O’Connell is preparing to install a selection of sculptures at E1027, the modernist villa designed by iconic Irish designer Eileen Gray in the French village of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin on the Côte d’Azur in 1926.

The story of E1027 is one of romance: the name of the house is a codified amalgamation of Gray’s initials with those of her lover, journalist Jean Badovici. But it’s also a tale of one woman’s struggle for creative fulfilment and recognition: for decades, modernist architect Le Corbusier, who took over the site after Gray, was considered its creator. Now, however, long after her death in 1976, the original genius of Gray’s design is recognised.

O’Connell has been for a recent visit to E1027 to choose locations for her sculptures. It’s an exciting project, she says: due to the lack of road access, her sculptures will be airlifted into position by helicopter. The pieces she’s selected include a new casting of Sacrificial Anode, the original of which is in situ in Canary Wharf.

“E1027 is just gorgeous,” she says. “I think she was actually making a space for herself too, to show the things that she made. She had this lovely sense of geometry and minimalism way before anyone else. E1027 is incredibly sculptural. She even uses corrugated iron, which I love.”

O’Connell’s E1027 exhibition and an accompanying exhibition in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin’s public park are being supported by Culture Ireland.

It’s easy to see that parallels are being drawn between the two Irish women, the intuitive elegance and modernism of their work and their quiet insistence in carving out a creative space in the world for themselves.Does O’Connell feel an affinity to Gray?

“It’s more the place that’s inspiring me than her necessarily,” she says. She smiles, looks around her and pats one of her pieces: “I do wonder what she would think of them, though.”

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