Nuala O’Donovan: Sculpture inspired by nature’s irregularities

Colette Sheridan speaks to Cork artist Nuala O’Donovan about her intricate ceramic pieces.

Cork-born artist Nuala O’Donovan’s intricate ceramic sculptures are inspired by nature and in particular, the irregularities that manifest themselves in everything from shells to flowers. O’Donovan, shortlisted for the Golden Fleece Award 2017, uses porcelain for her fossil-like works, employing thousands of small pieces of the material.

“My pieces are based on natural forms and are built using the same kind of process that natural forms use to grow. I make hundreds or thousands of small elements and then build the structure slowly.

"Each individual piece is made separately and is then assembled using liquid clay. It’s a slow process that uses a lot of the rules taken from building because my background is in building,” says the former architectural technician who worked in design offices in the US before returning to Cork in 1997 where she studied ceramics at the Crawford College, graduating with an MA in 2008. (She completed a BA degree in three- dimensional design at Middlesex University in the UK.)

O’Donovan compares her method as being similar to what a 3-D printer does. “I start with small elements. Then I build up the surface. If you think of the way shells grow or stalagmites and stalactites, it’s just layer on layer.

Nuala O’Donovan: Sculpture inspired by nature’s irregularities

“The principle behind this is fractal geometry which was defined in the 1980s by a mathematician called Benoit Mandelbrot. He was looking at forms like clouds, trees and broccoli. They are forms in nature that don’t conform to what would be called regular geometry. They’re irregular. But the thing is if you look at a cloud, you know it’s a cloud even though clouds all have different shapes. It’s the repetition of the same thing, over and over again.”

Patterns taken from regular geometric forms also interest O’Donovan, harking back to Greek symmetry and the idea of perfection and beauty. “I became interested in that, having always had an interest in ornament and the idea of harmonious form.”

But O’Donovan is focused on the principals of fractal form which is how living forms respond to random events. “An event happens and it’s recorded in the pattern. But it kind of rebuilds and goes on. There’s something in the DNA that drives it on so that when you look at a pattern from nature, you can see irregularities. I always thought they are more interesting because they make you wonder what happened. Your eye is always drawn to the irregular. That’s how my pieces came about. There’s the idea of a narrative within a pattern. The narrative is always open to interpretation. I think if you identify with an art work, there’s something in it that responds to something you’ve experienced.”

Each one of O’Donovan’s pieces takes months to make. “But I would build a number of pieces at the same time because I have to wait for them to dry. It’s like any art work. You get absorbed in it. It’s kind of meditative. I love the idea of just repeating an action and then at the end of it, you don’t quite know what’s going to happen. You haven’t seen it before. I can never make repeats.”

O’Donovan has a piece called the Teasel Series which is based on the teasel thistle. She has used the pattern from this thistle and applied geometry. “In form, it actually relates to coral. A lot of people think it’s coral. But it’s actually based on a plant.”

O’Donovan says she just decided to do something she loved. “I was quite shocked when people liked my pieces. I was interested in the work of [sculptor and photographer] Andy Goldsworthy who was making things from reeds and twigs, using natural forms in the landscape. I really love that idea.

“Most of my work goes to people who collect sculptural work. They’re not really concerned about the medium. So it doesn’t get slotted into the ceramics medium much.”

The winner of the Golden Fleece award, the most valuable prize available to Irish artists and crafts makers, will be announced on February 21


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