Acclaimed light sculptor Niamh Barry was born in Dublin, Ireland where she still lives and works. She graduated from the National College of Art and Design with a major in ceramics but quickly moved towards working with metal and glass. Despite a brief detour into conceptual furniture, Barry has mainly focused on light art and in the last few years her work has concentrated on sinuous bronze forms illuminated by delicate LED lighting behind cut glass. Her work makes physical the juxtaposition between the purity of a drawn line and the suggestion of movement in a weighty yet delicate 3D form, and uses state-of the-art engineering supporting traditional craft metal and glasswork techniques. Here she talks about bringing lines to life with light, future directions in her work and the perfect creative moment.
You have a background in ceramics – what drew you to metal and light?
My degree is in ceramics though I also studied metal and glass. I don’t know why I chose ceramics as my major but the moment I finished my degree it was all about metal, I never worked in clay again! It’s the right material for me – it’s so ‘there’, so tangible and direct, what you see is what you get. Ceramics involve so many stages, unknowns and time delays, and I like to work quickly and intuitively. In every step of the process with metal I know what’s in front of me. It’s very satisfying: labour-intensive but satisfying.
Do you do all the work yourself?
I have the ability to make everything myself: all my early work I made entirely on my own. My very first piece, more than 20 years ago, was an illuminated piece. It was suspended and circular but with candles not electric. Then I made very abstract, very conceptual furniture. My first proper illuminated pieces were in 1995-1996 but they were more conventional and formal table lamps but they were more commercial – I thought they would sell and they did. It was a very informative and important part of my life, learning the technical skills necessary to make an illuminated piece, though creatively it was not the direction I wanted to go in. All my work gives off light – though some, like Counterpoise, give off very little – but they are absolutely sculptures first. What I learned in that period, due to the variation between each piece, were technical skills like the proper, safe suspension of something heavy – you have to know what you are doing. Those practical skills are vital, and I really honed my craft.
And are you still very hands on?
I have a team around me – an assistant and four craftsmen working side by side with me. I couldn’t produce all my work myself as scale is a major issue plus there is such a demand I have to produce continuously. There are so many stages in the process and everything has to be millimeter perfect from a functional and aesthetic perspective – and when you have two different materials, glass and metal, which are both rigid, they have to fit exactly. There’s assembly, wiring, glass filing and so on plus the making of the forms themselves in metal which involves precise and time-consuming welding. Then the finishing is the highest quality that can be achieved in bronze – polishing it is hugely time-consuming. There are eight or nine steps to get the right polish or patination effect, there’s waxing and buffing and so on. The pieces have an aesthetic simplicity and purity that belies the many hours that go into them: to give you some idea, Walking would have taken 40 hours a week for five months with one person. A suspended piece of the scale that might go over a dining table would take somewhere in the region of 6-8 weeks with one craftsperson.
You unveiled your latest piece, Walking, at Salon NYC at the end of 2015. How did that go, and is the fact the piece is earthbound rather than floating a new direction for you?
It was very well received, a hugely positive reaction to the piece, it’s quite different to my usual work in that it’s standing and very large in scale though still recognisable as one of mine. It could be perceived as a more sculptural direction but all my work is sculptural whether it’s hanging, on a plinth or the floor. There’s an ongoing story in my work – it’s all about the line whether it’s rapid sketching or a 3D bronze.
Your ‘vessel’ series like Counterpoise and the works in progress shown on your website also seem to be a departure…
There’s an ideal of landscape in the vessel forms. Their planes might feature solidity rather than a skeletal, linear quality but it’s still all about the line which is referenced in all my work. That’s what it’s all about for me, that’s the creative moment. In the new body of work I’m currently working on I’m moving further into solidity in the work but the silhouette and the edge are key, the quality of line is omnipresent. I’m very excited – there’s that feeling of something special. That’s what it’s all about for me, that’s the creative moment.
What is your creative work process?
My process involves rapid sketching then moving on to modelling it in 3D in the form of a bronze maquette which is where I finalise the finished form. Sketches are about catching the essence and ‘feel’ but my maquettes are a true composition in the round. I am completely 3D in my approach to my work so it’s from the maquette that I realise the finished piece. Therefore I might spend days and days on it – I’ll make a small change, walk away, come back, tweak it again. It’s a process that I relish, truly creative and free.
What are you working on at the moment?
I have a mix of private and public commissions. I have a very exciting, large-scale piece for a top hotel in Waikiki, another building in Dublin and other commissions I can’t talk about. I’m committed to August 2016. And I’ve just had an idea for a new piece which is really exciting – I’m hammering, welding and patinating a simple idea I had for something then drawing and rapid-sketching forms that the piece is going to turn into. It’s challenging to find the time – I travel and I have a family – but it’s the essence of what I do. When I’m working in the studio I’m always thinking, I spend a lot of time visualizing pieces or ideas. It might be there for months before I get a chance to put pen to paper but they have been growing in my mind all that time.
Your works have a mix of descriptive and metaphysical titles, for example His vs Flight, Whale vs Falling, also physical names like Apoapsis and Penumbra. How do you choose them?
It’s when they’re finished when I really see them, absorb them. Sometimes it takes some time to get to know them, sometimes it’s instant – they speak to me. The form dictates the title. I am very instinctive in how I work in general. Walking was one of the few pieces that had a name before it was completely finished, it took a long time to develop and took on many iterations during that process before it was made at full scale. It was walking – not just in drawings but also in the maquettes – and it took over a year to make so I knew it intimately.
What inspires you?
I can’t give an example of any one thing. I’m always looking, absorbing anything from cloud forms in the sky to sitting in my kitchen and seeing bare branches silhouetted against a winter sky. I once made a piece based on a bone the dog was eating, in another piece the inspiration was a venus fly trap plant. I’m constantly looking but it’s hard to predict what might emerge years later. The human form is a recurring inspiration and I would say is in all my pieces, the movement and balance of the human form is always present in my work even if it’s not at the forefront of my mind. My sketches have a figurative quality and I try to capture this quality my work.
What would you like 2016 to bring?
Commissions aside, purely and simply to see realised the new series I’m working on. I really want to see it in the flesh – a new body of work, that’s my creative raison d’etre.