‘Everything can change in two seconds’ – Eilis O’Connell

Acclaimed sculptor Eilis O’Connell moved to London on foot of a controversial art commission, and then back to Cork when her partner of many years died unexpectedly. Now, she has a new show at Eileen Gray’s iconic E-1027 villa


Artist Eilis O'Connell is displaying her work in the gardens of Eileen Gray's E1027
Artist Eilis O’Connell is displaying her work in the gardens of Eileen Gray’s E1027

‘This came out of the blue. That’s the way I love things to come, because I never plan my life. I just go from job to job.” So says sculptor Eilis O’Connell about her new show in the gardens of E-1027, the intriguingly-named villa created by iconic Irish designer Eileen Gray, in Cap Moderne in the south of France.

“Patrick Murphy, director of the RHA, asked me, and I thought, ‘that would be very interesting…’ We didn’t know if it was going to be the house or the garden at that stage, but I saw immediately that you wouldn’t be putting anything in the house. It’s all her things, and my work wouldn’t look right with her things at all. The house is telling Eileen’s story. It’s a small house. And my work is very big.”

Which is almost an understatement. Eilis’s pieces can be found outside Stormont, the Dundalk Institute of Technology, Gloucester Cathedral, Canary Wharf, the Wapping Arts Trust in London and many other prestigious spots. Wherever they are, they dominate; the smooth, tactile abstraction of their shapes and massive size both enhance and subdue the land and buildings around them. It’s no wonder Eilis, who bought the old Goldenvale Creamery in Cork to live and work in, beguiled by the ease with which trucks can get up and down to it, is “really practical,” as she describes herself. She needs to be.

Clearly, the garden of E-1027 was the place, but even then, “I could see there was no road there. The garden is gorgeous, it’s absolutely amazing, with Mediterranean pine trees, exquisite, but at the back of my head I was thinking, how would you get anything up there?” The answer, when she asked, was “It’s OK, we’ve got helicopters.”

The just-opened show will run until October, with a corresponding exhibition in the local public park in Rocquebrune. “Because the garden is private, the mayor has insisted I show in the park as well, so I have another five big pieces going in there.” What happens to the work afterwards? “Then they all come back to mammy,” she laughs. “I think the organisers thought initially they’d try and raise money by selling my work. I think they’ve realised now it’s not that easy to sell big sculptures.”

Not easy to make, transport or sell in that case (although Eilis’s work can be found in private collections at Lismore Castle, the Cass Sculpture Foundation and Chatsworth – home of the Duke of Devonshire – among others; she has shown at the Guggenheim museum and the Venice, Paris and Sao Paolo Biennales). So does she know where her interest in such a large scale came from? “I do – when I was a child, my father used to build boats made of wood. We lived in Donegal and he was a customs man and his hobby was building things out of wood. He used to buy bits of old wrecked boats too and put them together. I think that really affected me. You’d see these bits of plywood – and as a kid they’d be huge – and you’d see a boat being formed. I remember taking bits of the boats and making a little hut – I was very young – to make a space for myself, because I had five brothers and sisters, and I’m the oldest, so I wanted a space for myself. I even remember the colours, the shapes, of the bits of wood. They were very abstract shapes – abstraction is part of my DNA, and seeing how abstraction can be bent into something. I’d be dragging the wood myself across the garden and leaning it up against the wall.”

She laughing describes hers as “a scavenging family. We used to collect cardboard boxes, cornflake boxes – we’d no stimulation whatsoever, so everything that came into the house was collected for material for children to make things with. There was no TV. My granny lived in Derry and I remember she got one, and I was hearing about this TV and wondering what was it going to be like? When I went to see, I remember thinking ‘oh my God, that is so disappointing!’ In my imagination it was like holograms. I said ‘It’s just like moving photographs. What are you all getting so excited about?'”

As well as being clever with his hands, Eilis’s father was far-sighted. He moved the family from Donegal, where they lived right beside the border, to Cork when Eilis was 10, in the 1960s, because he could see the way the wind was starting to blow. “We got out before the real trouble,” Eilis says. “My dad was very sensible, he would have been very aware of stuff. He knew it was time to go. Around us was just countryside but there was this fascination with the north and the south. We were very aware of the divide. And then of course the excitement of finding cars with bullet holes. Or you’d be going on your Sunday walk with your mammy and the pram, picking blackberries and then suddenly, on the road, you’d find craters with barbed wire in them. That’s my experience of the Troubles, which is pathetic really, but it leaves an impression.”

Visits to her granny in Derry, however, brought politics even closer. “They lived just above the Bogside, in a rented house owned by a doctor, and my grandparents had no vote, because they didn’t own the house… and that was in the 1960s. Later, when we lived in the south, we’d go back to visit my granny, and there’d be a soldier with a gun right in her front garden, all the time, because from her garden you can see down for miles.”

Cork, she says with a laugh, “was like moving to another country. I remember thinking the accent was just awful. I found it so exaggerated. But I slowly picked it up.”

When she was 12, Eilis “demanded” to be allowed to go to art school at night. “I enrolled myself – I just loved art.” Where did the love come from? “We lived with paintings all our lives. Three of my uncles painted. When I was 13 my aunt in London brought me around all the galleries and that was amazing.” Later on, during time off from her summer job in a shop in London – “I always had a job. My parents didn’t have any money; they had six children, all going to school and college at the same time” – Eilis spent all her spare time at the Tate.

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After school, she studied at the Crawford College of Art in Cork, and deepened her learning with time at Massachusetts College of Art and fellowships in Rome and New York. She was one of the winners of the GPA Awards for emerging artists in their inaugural year, 1981, a participant in Rosc 1984, and was elected to Aosdana the same year. She was, as she says herself, “steadily working, building up a reputation,” but she had to “abandon” that quite suddenly and move to London after a 1987 commission to celebrate Kinsale’s achievements in the Tidy Towns competition went horribly wrong for her.

The piece she created, The Great Wall of Kinsale, proved controversial in ways she still doesn’t understand, becoming a focus point for the deep dissatisfaction of some local people. “It was unreal actually. It was crazy, it didn’t make any sense. It was like this noose around my neck. I was really embarrassed about it, and I suppose my self-esteem was in the gutter. It was so personalised… people threw stones at me in Kinsale. I was down, working on the piece, and there were teenagers throwing stones at me. I wasn’t served in shops. It was really, really nasty. I didn’t tell anyone this because I was so mortified. I’m a human being.” There was, she says, a strong vein of ‘Who does she think she is?, adding “In those days, there was an awful lot of that kind of thing…”

The terrible – or wonderful – irony is that, once she moved to London, “I got such credit for it. I got shortlisted on the basis of slides of that piece. That was the best feeling. But it was like I didn’t exist in Ireland any more for years and years and years. Before that, I had been steadily working, building up a reputation, I had to purposely abandon it. But you know,” she says, “so what? I realised in England, there were so many opportunities. It was so open: ‘Can you do the job? If you can do the job, you’ll get the work.’ It was fantastic.” Sometimes, she concludes, “you need the kick as well; the push.”

The move to London was “like starting all over again.” At first, she knew almost no one, and had no studio, or indeed much idea of where to find one. “I was in Brixton, in the bank, and I saw this guy in overalls, covered in plaster – this is embarrassing!” she laughs. “It’s like a bad story – talk about being desperate! I had been looking around Brixton because I had heard there were studios, but I couldn’t find them. So I followed this guy, a total stranger, and he went into this building, and I could see it was a foundry. I went in and said ‘I’m really interested in casting’ – and I was, I wanted to learn about bronze casting – and they said ‘great, there’s this guy from New Zealand and he’s running a casting course.’ I couldn’t believe it! That was it!”

She rented space in the foundry, made friends and “gradually found a network of people”. She stayed in London for 17 years, leaving only when life, once again, forced her hand. Her partner of almost 18 years, Herbie, an American “who was really unusual, he spoke 11 languages and really hated America”, who Eilis met while on a fellowship to Rome, died very suddenly of a heart attack.

“I don’t want to go on and on about it,” she says. “I don’t want to be defined by that. But you change your life. I learned a big lesson then. People say such silly things – ‘oh, you’ll do amazing work’ – you must be joking! You cannot work. You go into complete shock. It’s really visceral. You have to reinvent yourself. You can’t just mope around knowing you’re never going to work in that studio again.”

And so she moved back to Ireland, home to Cork. “I had to make a new life for myself. They say don’t make big decisions after a bereavement. That’s a joke! If you can’t bear where you are, if you can’t get any sustenance… In London, I kept thinking I was seeing him, on the street. Your imagination plays tricks, it does really. I wanted to get away from it. Also, my mother was dying in hospital, so I wanted to be near my parents, because I realised how quickly things can vanish. And I wanted to be near people who could help me through it. I think in some ways you never get over it; you realise everything is very fragile. That everything can change in two seconds.”

“And funnily enough,” she adds, “you start to look back at who you were before you met that person. Because you do change in a relationship, so you have to go back to that starting point again. For me, anyway.” It was her father who persuaded her to get back to work. “I was completely adrift. I couldn’t work. I remember my father saying to me ‘you’re going to have to go back to work’. That was after about nine months of doing absolutely nothing. I was supposed to do commissions, so I had to finish them, I was under contract. You could just wallow in self-pity, get totally lost. You have to rely on what you did before. You have to continue.”

She is quick to point out that now, 16 years later, “I love life, I absolutely adore life. Inspiration is everywhere. You can get ideas from the tiniest thing. I experiment a lot with materials, although I work mainly with metal because it’s so resilient. I love messing and experimenting. I want to make things – I’m driven to make them.” She also plans to open a sculpture garden at her home in Cork.

And even though she says candidly, “I don’t make any money out of it,” she also concludes “but this is all I know how to do! It’s what I love doing.”

Eilis O’Connell’s sculptures will be on display at E-1027 until October 14. To book, email [email protected] The Rocquebrune Park show runs from September 11 until October 14. www.eilisoconnell.com

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