Eoin Turner: Raising a glass to success

Cork Sculptor and former fisherman Eoin Turner tells Ellie O’Byrne why glass is his preferred, but by no means only, medium.

Eoin Turner is standing in front of a breathtaking kiln-formed glass sculpture, a towering monolith of gleaming red and gold glass which seems almost to teeter on its base: it’s a top-heavy design which, Turner says, is purposefully designed to create suspense in the viewer.

“Monumentality and sculpture go hand in hand for me,” the sculptor and designer says, gazing at his new creation. “There has to be that visual connection, a visceral sense of presence.”

Turner has produced a series of entirely new sculptures for this show, entitled ‘Earth, Wind & Fire: Made in Cork Contemporary’ at The Crawford Art Gallery. A dream-team of contemporary Cork craftspeople are on display here, demonstrating virtuosity across a range of materials including porcelain, indigenous woods and textiles.

Turner’s glass is right at home with work of this astonishing calibre, and it’s the medium for which he’s best known. But he’s adamant that the title of glass artist is not for him.

“It drives me crazy to be called that,” he says. “I do work predominantly with glass, but I’m not a glass artist. I’m a sculptor who works with glass and other materials.”

He gestures to the vast piece he’s standing beside. “There’s a bit of engineering trickery going on here because this is self-supporting. You may see the glass, but there’s more to it than that, believe me.” But he still waxes lyrical about glass’ unique and contradictory properties; fluid yet brittle, delicate and yet a durable construction material.

I do enjoy playing with and undermining people’s perceptions of it,” he says. “It probably goes back to my college days; I enjoyed defying logic, making it into something it shouldn’t be.

College is where Turner’s vitreous love affair first began. As a teen in the Crawford College of Art and Design in the ‘80s, he took an elective in stained glass taught by artist and sculptor Maud Cotter: “Maud said, ‘do you know you can bend glass?’ That was the defining moment.” Graduating at just 20, though, Turner’s path lay in a different direction: he took to the sea, working on fishing trawlers and yachts for a decade before establishing his own glass studio.

The sea is a presence in his sculptural work. Not always consciously so, he says, but he’s standing next to another large piece in the exhibition, with a distinctly nautical feel, hewn from rough wooden sleepers and fitted with triangular panels of what looks very like sea-glass.

Turner, 51, runs a studio in Glanmire, Co Cork, alongside his wife, Lorraine Mullins. The couple have three children and run what has become a thriving business: they employ three people at their 5,000 sq metre workshop and produce bespoke decorative architectural glassworks to commission, often for luxury yachts, for clients including motorsports magnate Eddie Jordan.

Maintaining the balance between the studio’s all-important commercial work and ambitions for his art practice hasn’t always been plain sailing, Turner says, especially during the economic downturn.

There was a stage where we were putting in double-glazed windows to make ends meet,” he says.

“We were heavily exposed to building and construction: it hit us like it hit the rest of the country. But you compromise. On simple terms, that’s what you do to get yourself where you need to go.”

Nowadays, job satisfaction is high as the studio takes on work with a creative element and as Turner has more time to pursue personal sculptural projects as well as the bread-and-butter of commissions.

“As we’ve developed and established ourselves, the percentage balance in favour of me goes up,” he says, looking around. “But this is the first time in many years that I’ve stood back and gone, this is my work. This exhibition gave me the facility to make things that have hovered around in my sketchbooks and in my head for years.”

‘Earth, Wind & Fire’ is a sort of sequel, The Crawford’s contemporary follow-on from last year’s ‘Made In Cork’ exhibition, which celebrated the much-overlooked arts and crafts movement in Cork from the 1880s to the 1920s.

Making space in a gallery for art forms once considered the poor relations to fine art, ‘Earth, Wind & Fire’ highlights the nonsense this division has become: if Turner and his peers are artists working to the highest standards in their respective media, they are also commercially successful tradespeople.

“In the last 20 years, those lines have blurred,” Turner says. “When I came out of college, if you put a light into a sculpture, it dropped off the fine art charts. Fine art was separate to decorative work, but now there’s an ebb and flow.

“What’s art and what’s craft? You can get yourself in knots and twists trying to figure that one out. I do consider it, because it’s at the forefront of what I do: am I an artist, a designer, a sculptor? But then I push it to one side. I’m an artist by trade.”

The craftspeople of Earth, Wind & Fire

Alex Pentek: It may come as no surprise that Pentek, as well as being a sculptor of incredible versatility, is a jazz drummer: much of his work contains repetitive, mathematical, almost rhythm-like motifs. Pentek produces large-scale public art commissions in steel, cast iron and bronze, like his Kindred Spirits, the Choctaw memorial unveiled in Midleton, Co Cork last year. Here, he exhibits his origami work, incorporating a star-shaped pattern of his own devising, inspired by the Fibonacci sequence.

Nuala O’Donovan: A sculptor who works primarily in porcelain, O’Donovan is inspired in her delicate creations by fractal forms and repetitive patterns found in nature: seed pods, corals and pine cones.

It’s the imperfections in these patterns that prove they’re the product of a living organism, O’Donovan believes: in her own work, firing the sculptural pieces, which are made up of thousands of individual pieces, helps inject a sense of the unknown, and therefore life.

Joseph Walsh: As one of Ireland’s most sought-after furniture designers, the self-taught Walsh, whose studio is near Kinsale, needs no introduction.

His creations seem to transcend the physical realities of his raw materials, which include native Irish ash. At ‘Earth, Wind & Fire’, fans of Walsh’s work have a chance to get up close and personal with pieces like his famous Enignum canopy bed, an ethereal wisp of romantic fantasy with a rather weighty price-tag. Best not ask.

Anne Kiely/Mary Palmer: Collaborative quilters Kiely and Palmer use locally sourced linens, meticulously bleached and dyed, before techniques including screen printing and appliqué, are used to create their distinctive artworks.

Kiely studied fashion and design, which developed into a screen-printing practice, while Palmer, a founder of the Quilters Guild of Ireland, has a background in industrial design. But their collaboration is, naturally, seamless.

- ‘Earth, Wind & Fire: Made in Cork Contemporary’ runs until February 17, 2019 at The Crawford Art Gallery, Emmet Place, Cork.


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