Denis O’Connor: sculptor

Denis O’Connor is no stranger to Wirksworth Festival. He has lived in the town for 28 years and exhibited his sculptures many times.

But this year he has been given the honour of curating the main exhibition for the arts event which he has titled Made In Wirksworth as a celebration of the diverse range of artists who, like him, call the town home.

That’s probably more poignant than it first seems as Irish-born Denis has always felt torn between the coast of West Cork, where he has a second home, and England where he came to study for a Masters in Sculpture in the 1980s.

He spends up to four months a year living and working in West Cork, close to the village of Ballydehob.

The instability that creates, and his feelings of displacement, have been revealed in some of his sculptures. One of them called The Crossing features a small chair perched precariously in the middle of the line that represents the journey he makes across the sea each time. He exhibited that piece at the festival in 2015.

He says in the past he has often asked himself: ‘Where is my home?’, but as we stand chatting in his workshop-cum-studio he shrugs his shoulders, grins and says: “This is where my heart is. Wirksworth is a town that nurtures many rich creatives and there is a diverse range of arts practices. Made In Wirksworth sets out to critically highlight them and explore the crossover between them.”

Denis and his partner Bernadine Rutter, a printmaker and arts education worker, set up Sculpture Works a company that designs, fabricates, manages and installs steel landmark sculptures for sites in the UK and Ireland. Many artsbeat readers will have seen at least one of them, probably not realising the artist was local.

The steel and bronze chairs on the walk through Castleward Boulevard from Derby Station to the city centre are his work, and every day thousands of people drive past Privilege, a  nine metre high sculpture on the A53, which reflects the industrial heritage of Stoke-on-Trent. 

Residents at Ashgate in Chesterfield have one of his pieces called Summer Fruits and the pedestrian bridge over St Alkmund’s Way in Derby has also been enhanced with his work.

“The central feature of my public art practice is the inter-relationship between me, the location and the people who will be viewing the work. 

“It is all about the nature of the place – its identity, heritage and the community living there. I want my work to be able to resonate and connect in many different ways – sometimes outside the original brief.

‘Bernie and I always begin a new project with lots of research into the history of a site, and then involve members of the local community, schools and other interested parties in workshops and extensive consultation. The aim is to give them ownership of the sculpture.”

One thing is certain and that is a sculpture by Denis will have been made by him. He questions some contemporary artists who don’t make the work themselves and although he works in collaboration with Andy McCallum  a fabricator and blacksmith for some of the more outsized work (it would be impossible for one person to manoeuvre the huge pieces of metal) he will always be the one one in control of the making process from welding to finishing the final final surface finish on the artpiece.

“I believe that it’s only possible to express a narrative through sculpture by being engaged with the entire process of making. I have been interested in making since I was a child. I was inspired by watching my father at work – he was a shoemaker.”

Although Denis admits that the thought of spending his life working in his father’s shoe shop was what encouraged him to study for a degree in sculpture at Limerick School of Art and Design before travelling to Belfast and to Birmingham to study sculpture further. 

He is presently working on making new work for the Skibbereen Arts Festival 2020, titled Along the Western Shore alongside two commissions for both Charnwood and Chesterfield Borough Councils.  

Denis will be giving a talk on his practice at the Northern Light Cinema in Wirksworth on September 13, and leading a discussions with other artists on the Made in Wirksworth Exhibition on September 14.

For more about his work go to http://www.sculptureworks.org.uk