MAG: What led you down this career path? Was there a recognizable ' aha' moment in your life?
Very definitely. It came when I first travelled back to Ireland - my father's native land. When Dad came to Canada, after the 2nd world war it was not a place friendly to the Irish. People forget how much prejudice there was. Lots of job listings had a codicil "Irish need not apply". So he worked hard to get rid of his Irish accent and culture in order to be able to get better jobs. So I didn't grow up with any sense of my heritage - and when I discovered it, in my late teens, it was a revelation. I began investigating the music, literature, theatre and art of this great culture and was smitten. But it was in 1984 when I travelled to Ireland for the first time that I saw the enamel-work that was done there in the early Iron Age and it was a real Eureka moment! I still remember it very vividly. It was like all of my passions had been distilled into one point and I saw a clear path ahead of me
MAG: Is that why have you chosen to focus on Celtic Mythology?
Yes. I didn't go to art school. I have a degree in philosophy and history and I have always been preoccupied with meaning. I have always also been an ideological 'digger'. I dig into ideas and want to know where they come from. So in the course of investigating the culture of Ireland I came up against it's mythological history - which really informed the external history in so many ways. I believe it informs people's personal lives as well, even if it's on a subconscious level. Also my archaeological investigation led me to an understanding that all art in the past was related in some way to mythology - not in a conceptual way, but in a very concrete way. Ancient artifacts had what I would call existential weight. It has always been a goal of mine to re-create that sense. I am aware that it is very out of step with 'modern' or 'contemporary' art in a post-modern world - but the conceptual approach really doesn't speak to me. I want my work to speak to the heart - and at the heart of most of us are myths. The myths of Ireland are my myths - but they are also universal - and I find that people respond to them that way. I have recently branched out a bit into Greek myth - but that is because there is a specific historical connection between Greek and Celtic mythology. I am careful about what specific myths I tap into as I am very conscious of the evils of cultural appropriation.
MAG: What is it about enamel that fascinates you?
: At first it was just the colour. In ancient Celtic culture colour was significant. The classes of society were denoted by the number of colours they could wear. And of course I was enamoured of the specific historical connection. In the beginning my goal was simply historical reproductions. Once I felt I ha d a grip on the basic 'grammar' of ornament I branched out into creating designs of my own - but I was still focusing mainly on design and meaning. Originality is not particularly important to a traditional artist. The real fascination with the material came later - when I took a class with Fay Rooke. I guess all of the years (15) I had already spent with enamel I had sort of brought myself to a certain precipice - and I just needed her inspiration to make me jump! After that class I saw everything in terms of enamel. It was as if I had been absorbing information subliminally for years - and now if had become conscious. I also was able to see in in mythological terms: enamelling is the experience of transformation by fire. It is very powerful.
MAG: You have been creating work in Grisaille recently, how have these pieces been received by the public?
Yes - the process with grisaille has been a lot of fun. I first saw 15th c grisaille pieces in the Taft Museum in Cincinnati about 8 years ago and it literally took my breath away and made my heart beat faster. I knew I had to learn how to do it. It took me about 6 years to figure out how to do it in a way I was happy with.
In terms of public response: it is of great interest to me, too - to watch how people respond. I find that if I introduce something really new (and this was very
different than my champlevé) it takes my regular customers a year or two to warm up to it. But generally the response has been very good, though these pieces are in a slightly higher price range. I had been commissioning custom bezels from other jewellers (I don't have any soldering skills) and that had put the price up which, of course, affects sales. Recently I have been making pieces to fit pre-made bezels that I can sell for a little less - and that has helped. But I still make the custom pieces also.
Finding a balance between what people will buy and what I want to make is always challenging - but I don't think of it as a compromise - but of a sort of collaboration between me and my customers. Having done shows for 25 years gives you good insight into what people respond to.
MAG: You have embraced the Internet and social networking as a way of communicating with clients both current and potential, why do you feel this is important to do as an artist?
I remember the very first time I had a business card with a website on it I noticed that it changed the way potential customers thought about buying. Previously there had been a real urgency - a fear that they might never get a chance to buy this again that encouraged immediate sales. I saw clearly that the website gave them an 'out'. They didn't need to get it now - they could go to my website later. I immediately stopped telling people I had a website - but over the next few years it became clear to me that the Internet was changing the way people bought. It didn't change their response to the work - which was always good - but it changed the frequency of sales. Those connections were not always followed up on the Internet - in fact most often they weren't. So I have seen the writing on the wall for some time: shows will never be the same again. Over the last 10 years my income from shows has gone steadily down. So I needed to change in response.
I really struggled with how to present myself on the Internet. I craved the personal connection with people. My experience interacting with people at shows was where I got most of my inspiration! And the contact was intensely personal. Because of my mythological themes people often shared deeply personal things about themselves that my images evoked. So the relationships were important. I included all of my stories on my website - but there wasn't the same possibility of interaction. And a written story is never like a story told face to face. Facebook turned out to be something that worked really well for me - because it created an easy interaction that mirrored what happened at shows. It took a lot of time and effort - but I am starting to fall into a stride and it is starting to pay off. Facebook was the beginning - and it's still my favorite since there is so much interaction, but I also have a blog, Twitter, LinkedIn, MySpace and an Etsy
store as well as my website. All of these are inter-related. For me the Facebook page is the hub where I point to the other activities. Posts to Facebook are automatically sent to MySpace, LinkedIn and Twitter. The website serves as a catalog of designs while Etsy is what I have currently in stock. The blog is like a visit to my studio. Lately I have opened a separate Twitter account for the enamel supply /teaching side, where I tweet enameling tips.
MAG: What advice would you give someone just starting their "wired" journey?
Don't expect people to come to you! You have to work it. But be real. Don't try to be a salesperson. Don't try to 'sell' your work - just talk about the way you truly feel about it. Open a door so that people can see into your mind and heart as you work. This fascinates them. Establishing the boundaries between what you are willing to share and what is private is the hardest part. You have to develop a different kind of awareness.
MAG: You are extremely busy as a teacher, maker, blogger, supplier of enamels and volunteer. How do you cope with all the demands on your time? What do you do to re-charge?
I don't know ... I think I would say that doing all of these things is what charges me! I love teaching and interacting with the public. I have really enjoyed the social aspect of all the projects that I have done with MAG - and learned so much from them! That is balanced by the time I spend working in the studio completely alone. I would say that I don't need to re-charge - but sometimes I need to chill. I love having dinner parties and just relaxing, playing music or travelling with good friends.
MAG: What do you wish you had more time for?
: Singing and reading. Those are two of my passions that seem to be falling by the wayside. I used to have time to pursue independent academic studies in archaeology and anthropology - even giving papers at conferences sometimes - but I am very tied up with administrative work as I try to grow my enamel supply business. I still sing occasionally - sometimes with an improvisational choir and sometimes impromptu at an Irish session - but not as often as I'd like! Still, enamelling is a very rewarding career and I wouldn't trade it for anything!