In particular, fashion designer Don O’Neill, furniture designer Joseph Walsh, and director of the Anni and Josef Albers Foundation, and Glucksman Gallery board member, Nicholas Fox Weber.
All three, it seems, were genuinely surprised when the invitations landed on the mat — for New York-based, Don O’Neill, it prompted a rare pause for a man who produces 14 dress collections a year.
“My first reaction was ‘oh my God, is this for real? The hair on my arms stood on end. It was like Christmas morning.
"I work like a mad man, running head-long from one collection to the next at a pace that only seems to be accelerating. There is precious little time for laurels.”
The modesty is sincere even though O’Neill has a strong pedigree, he worked for Christian Lacroix in Paris, and later, thanks to a Green Card lottery win, for Carmen Marc Valvo and Badgley Mischka in New York, a relocation prompted by advice, he says smilingly, from Lacroix’s psychic.
Now, through his own label THEIA he dresses the likes of Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood and Oprah Winfrey.
Brought up in Ballyheigue, Co Kerry, he speaks of the location’s influence on his work, especially the play of light on the water, which he wanted to transform into a dress as a 10-year-old and eventually did years later. But he also speaks of another Irish influence which has a touch of coincidental magic about it.
A whole dress collection was inspired after seeing an exhibition of furniture in New York by Joseph Walsh, one of his fellow doctorate recipients.
Joseph’s reaction to UCC’s invitation echoes Don’s.
“Surprised and honoured,” says the Riverstick, Kinsale-based designer.
“To receive this recognition in such an early stage of my career is a significant achievement which I’m still grasping. This honour is unique in that it’s coming from the academic world which I didn’t fully participate in.”
While his contemporaries were attending college at Letterfrack, Joseph was developing his studio, which led to commissions from some of the world’s major institutional and private collectors, attracted to his practice by the complexity and beauty of his work, involving painstaking craftsmanship and innovation that takes his pieces into the realms of functional art, and more recently art installation.
Most of it now leaves Ireland, but he reveals new plans close to home.
“I take great interest and pride in the working environment and the practice of making. I’m enjoying the next phase of my studio which will involve purpose-designed architectural buildings.”
The only non-Irish citizen of the three honourees is American Nicholas Fox Weber.
Described as a cultural historian and philanthropist, his work enjoys a wider remit, directing the Anni and Josef Albers Foundation — once described as the cream of artists’ foundations — as a journalist, as a prolific writer of artists’ biographies and running a charity for the poor in Senegal.
“I’m thrilled by the generous spirit of UCC — to get a Doctor of Literature in the country of Joyce, Wilde and Yeats!” he says. “Although I actually have no Irish blood.”
But while listening to Fox speak, the expression ‘more Irish than the Irish themselves’ comes to mind.
He readily admits that when he arrives at Cork Airport, he’s home, a feeling which started when his parents rented a house in West Cork in the ‘70s, when he was a student.
Later he purchased an ex-county council cottage near Glandore after he and his wife honeymooned here, and now his family has acquired family connections to the area with the addition of an Irish son-in-law and a half- Irish grandson.
Currently working on a biography of Piet Mondrian, and with his books on the Bauhaus movement being considered for a film, he’s also making sure everything will continue with his work in Senegal when he’s gone.
Mindful of so much talent and achievement between all three doctoral graduates, I pose the irresistible question: what do you want to be when you grow up?
Joseph replies, “In some ways I don’t want to. I want to be always growing, learning, and developing and maintain my curiosity, yet achieve greater resolve and beauty in the final work.”
Don says: “When I eventually grow up I want to be a cosmic couturier and fly at warp speed through space and visit distant fantastical galaxies, bringing back fabrics and jewels and embroideries for my dresses unlike anything we have ever seen here on earth.”
For Nicholas, the childhood ambition to be a fireman has in some ways been realised when he says:
“I spend my time running around trying to be effective.”
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