Going with the flow to make art from molten lava

Having his shoes catch fire is just one of the occupational hazards West Cork-based artist Danny Osborne faces when working on the side of live volcanoes, writes Ellie O’Byrne

THE Greek God Hephaestus was said to inhabit Mount Etna. With his servants, the Cyclopes, the ancient god of blacksmiths, sculptors and metallurgy toiled in his forge, harnessing the hellish conditions near the volcano’s core to make armour for the gods.

Danny Osborne would probably object to being called a modern-day Hephaestus, but watching footage of the sculptor at work casting artworks in actively erupting volcanoes certainly brings the comparison to mind.

During a three-month trip to Volcan Pacaya in 2010, and in further outings to Chile and Hawaii, Osborne, who lives part of each year on the Beara Peninsula in West Cork, devised a technique for forging sculptures of molten rock. He was, he says, driven by the primordial nature of lava as a medium.

“The whole world was covered in lava when it was first formed, and everything in it is made of those same elements and molecules, and they metamorphised into different minerals and then all life evolved from that.”

The resulting sculptures poignantly evoke artefacts from Pompeii, but there are other commentaries present here too; casts of conquistadores’ helmets, in juxtaposition with native Guatemalan wide-brimmed hats and Pith helmets are making an obvious reference to colonialism.

Other objects — baby bottles, caskets — have less obvious meanings. For Osborne, the art is in the process, in the trial-and-error journey of discovery that this cycle of work has taken him on. “Sculptors are very interested in process and the physical aspects of doing things, so it’s a kind of performance in a way, going through the whole process of climbing the mountain and working with a difficult material,” he says. “It’s a bit theatrical.”

“Difficult material” seems a vast understatement. The conditions he describes are fraught with danger; he matter-of-factly describes his shoes “occasionally catching fire,” and the sulphur dioxide gas and heat were overwhelming to work in. “You get very faint and lethargic. You feel like falling down sometimes, but you know that if you fall down, your face will get burnt, so that’s a pretty good incentive to stay on your feet.”

There can’t be a less hospitable environment for the fragile human body on the planet, surely?

Osborne disagrees; he’s based for part of each year in Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, where temperatures reach as low as -22°C in the winter. He says that working there is even more perilous than working on a volcano.

“That kind of landscape is quite carved by glaciers and has quite a destructive force,” he says.

Yet underlining the perils of Osborne’s lava-sculpting, just ten days after he departed from Volcan Pacaya, planning a return to keep working, it erupted, sending a plume of ash and debris 1.5km into the air, closing Guatemala’s airports and causing several fatalities, including that of the first reporter to arrive on the scene to cover the eruption.

Originally from the rather more hospitable environs of gentle Dorset, Osborne first came to Beara in the 1970s. Volcanoes first became a subject in his painting, when he travelled with his wife along a ridge of Andean volcanoes in the 1980s, but as a sculptor, his interest evolved from experimenting with his own home-made lava recipes.

“I was casting porcelain, glass and bronze and I started melting rocks in my furnace,” he says. “A friend of mine was coming back from the Canaries with big bags of lava for me, which I’d melt. I was experimenting, but like anything new, there’s a lot of technical problems. One of my problems was that it was cooling too fast when I was pouring it from the crucible; I just didn’t have the volume of material, so I decided I needed to go to a living volcano.”

For Landmarks and Lifeforms in the Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre, Osborne’s sculptures, as well as other works such as whale ribs etched with depictions of the West Cork coastline, are accompanied by the work of fellow Beara inhabitant, Frieda Meaney. Meaney’s work is based on themes of extinction and biology. “Frieda’s work is very much the ‘Lifeforms’ side of the exhibition, while mine is the ‘Landmarks’,” he says.

  • Landmarks and Lifeforms is at Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre until April 20; and at Limerick City Gallery of Art from Sept 7 to Oct 22

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