When I first attended art school I thought figurative clay and bronze was what I wanted to do. Realistic figure modeling was it; I wanted to be like Rodin. But the art school had a stone carving area…. It did not take long to find my way there. The older students, equipped with hammers and chisels, were a frenzy of dust and noise. Their forms emerging from rocks. I was hooked. I remember my tutor asking, “Do you know Eric Gill’s work?” I said no and his eyes lit up, “you’re in for a treat.” He brought me straight to the library and found a book about Gill, then Jacob Epstein. It was an awakening. Gill, Epstein, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska are still the strongest influence on the form and style of my sculpture. I have also found inspiration in my contemporaries, even the ones that don’t carve! In terms of themes and motif, I can find inspiration in anything from a Mother with a child, drunks fighting in the street and our species’ insistence on being at war. Swimmers and Icarus figures are currently holding my interest, they defy gravity. To make a stone look weightless is a wonderful challenge.
I think our life experience pushes and pulls us from one place to another; it doesn’t immediately influence my work. I think life’s influence is more subconscious. Ideas take time to filter through. Mostly my inspiration comes from a chance encounter or a glimpse of the unusual in the everyday. There are, however, two things that clearly stand out as a push in a certain direction. Firstly, an exhibition, in my 3rd year of art school. Michael Quane a well-known Irish sculptor had a solo exhibition in a gallery beside the art school. He works in stone. He also went to the same art school as I did 15 years previous. I was amazed by the sculpture. I visited the exhibition several times. More importantly, he was a living Irish figure sculptor, working in my local area. Becoming a professional artist went from dream to a real possibility. A more recent influence inspired a full exhibition in 2015. In fact, I am still making pieces inspired by two books I read in 2014. The first book was “Shake Hands With the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Uganda,” by Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire. The second was “Whistleblower, Soldier, Spy: A Journey into the Dark Heart of the Global War on Terror,” by Tom Clonan. These books had a common theme: war. One book highlighted the specific horrors of war, the other that we as a species were constantly at war, conflict, rebellion, etc. This will be a recurring theme.
I make expressive, figurative, sculpture. I exaggerate the proportion of the figure, large hands and feet usually. This started almost by accident but grew into a style and useful compositional tool. Adding weight to an area or focusing the attention on a certain section. I use negative space, to ensure a sculpture inhabits rather than invades the space it’s in. To be able to see through the stone helps make the stone feel malleable. I have heard my sculptures described as sketches in marble. I want the work to have potential energy, not be too refined. As a result I think my work borders on an unfinished look sometimes. I don’t like to high polish everything and refine it to infinity. When I decide a piece is finished, it can feel arbitrary, but I tell myself it’s a subconscious experience. I see a block of stone as 100% potential, each time the chisel hits the stone I remove some of the potential, I go further down a path to a specific destination. Eventually I pass the point of no return, where the form is there, but very rough. After this point I am refining the shape. Too little work and the piece looks unfinished. Too much and it can look flat and even lifeless. I want to express myself with every sculpture. I am not sure I have an overall expressive goal, at least not a permanent one. The most consistent aim I have is honesty. To be making sculpture for me, because I love to do it. I think this is at the core of all art, the art I admire and aspire to, at least.
I make sculpture that is purely about aesthetics too. Taking a block of stone and transforming it into a figure that is compositionally balanced. This balance comes at the expense of realism through distortions of proportion and exaggerated movement. Every few years I get focused on a more serious theme. Usually a social commentary idea, often dark humored. These narrative ideas overwhelm my practice for six to twelve months, culminating in an exhibition. Afterwards, I usually make a few very simple compositional pieces again. It seems to be cyclical. The same happens with scale. I will long to make a big sculpture, once I do, I relish making smaller work again. For now I have abandoned very small work. I am curating a sculpture exhibition due to open at the end of May and also currently designing for a large private commission for a garden which I hope will take up most of the summer.
Direct carving is my method, and this certainly influences the final form. With direct carving, the ideas grow or change in a very organic manner. Some direct cavers let the stone dictate the design or start point but I mostly use cut stone, which means shape is rarely suggested unless through strong veining. I feel I need to know my design, fully in the round before I start, I then need to set about re-producing the idea exactly. Most importantly I must be willing to change the design at any moment. I use air hammers and tungsten tip chisels, and an array of small hand hammers for delicate work. Occasionally I have access to softer limestones, alabaster or soapstone but I prefer the medium hardness of marble and Irish limestone. They are very versatile, having the hardness to take great detail and be sited outdoors and the softness to carve by hand with hammer and chisel. I work on two or three pieces at a time. One being finished while the next is half way and the next just starting. Each of these stages requires a different energy level. Heavy physical work at the beginning gives way to delicate decision making and finally almost meditative surface finishing.
The Icarus legend has inspired several of my sculptures since around 2006, I think. The most recent one was simply called “Icarus,” an Irish limestone piece I completed in Dec 2018. This piece really shows the variety of finish available in the stone. Polished, the stone turns almost black. Rough tooling shows a great texture and lighter color. It is very satisfying to create a sculpture with minimal contact with the base/ground. Aiming to achieve weightlessness and movement takes a little planning. I drilled the holes for the dowel pins before starting to carve the sculpture. I felt the piece would be too delicate to drill once completed. “Icarus” required a lot of drilling to get the negative spaces right (It’s hard to know if the drill or the chisel is best sometimes). I also began to add extra elements to sculpture. I first did this after returning from Pilgrim Firs with some jade!
I made a sculpture called “The Mighty Oak” from Kilkenny marble (a darker variant of Irish limestone). This piece was a female figure holding a jade acorn. I left the stone honed in this case, suitable for outdoors. I also used a round base which helped with the circular flow of movement. Both “Icarus” and “The Mighty Oak” are based around compositional challenges and simple beauty. In contrast, an ongoing theme of warfare (anti-war,) has preoccupied me since 2014. “Game Over, Generation Alpha” is an Italian marble sculpture of a male figure sitting on a predator drone flying it via games console. This was one of six pieces in an exhibition called “Behold Man: Apes with Guns.” Each piece dealt with a different aspect of modern warfare. Spending seven or eight months thinking about war and its effect on society was a real drain. Although I designed a couple more pieces after the exhibition in late 2015 it is only now I am starting to make them.
I organize sculpture exhibitions to promote 3-D art in Ireland, in doing so I have exhibited with many people who inspired and encouraged me early in my career. I have also managed to swap art works with some exceptional artists too! The social aspect of these exhibitions is important to me. I joined NWSSA at the first Camp Pilgrim Firs. Surrounded by stone, and enthusiastic carvers, I had the time of my life and met some great carvers and new friends; also new carvers and great friends. The experience helped me remember that stone is fun. That the joy of stone carving is why I use stone over any other medium. To continuously learn as I work is part of what drives me. Joining NWSSA at Pilgrim Firs reminded me there are many techniques to be learned from the honed masters or the beginner with vigorous energy and fresh eyes. I felt the welcome of the group. I felt at home, united by a passion for stone sculpting. I look forward to seeing my NWSSA friends again soon!
James Horan www.jameshoransculpture.com