Liam Flynn
Roger Bennett

Liam Flynn

Roger Bennett
Things men have made with wakened hands and put soft life into
Are awake through years with transferred touch, and go on glowing
For long years

D. H. Lawrence
An encounter with a Liam Flynn vessel can be quite an emotional experience. His pieces are achingly beautiful: they have a brooding presence, a sense of rightness, an air of confidence. We long to touch and caress them, to cup our hands around them and lift them and feel for ourselves their astonishing lack of weight. The shapes are subtle – round but not round, delicately undulating, alive, changing as we move. We are intrigued by the detailing: rhythmic carvings, double rims, shaped feet. His enclosed forms are containers of darkness. They are sculptural pieces, sacred vessels, objects of meditation, timeless artefacts. They exude a sense of calm assurance yet they are also dynamic, restrained yet powerful with latent energy; erotic.
The seeds were sown early. Growing up in a family of craftsmen in Abbeyfeale, County Limerick, he naturally gravitated to the workshop beside the house, watching and absorbing, learning skills from his father and grandfather. As a boy he was already making and selling furniture – mainly tables – which he dismisses as ‘primitive’, but proudly adds that many of them are still in use. He bought hand tools, started carving wood, then around 1985 he had a go on a friend’s lathe. Immediately he was transfixed, delighted by the speed with which he could make a shape. Within months he had his own first lathe, a ‘cheap tinny one’, which he soon traded in for something more substantial.
Thus began his life as a wood artist. There were no classes available then, nobody he knew who could teach him, and so he taught himself. He devoured woodworking magazines and books. John Makepeace’s The Woodwork Book (1980) left a lasting impression: images of turned pieces by Richard Raffan and Bob Stocksdale, and an essay by James Krenov which opened his eyes to the use of grain alignment in design. Gradually he got to meet other turners. He visited Ciarán Forbes in Glenstal, his first experience of a proper woodturning workshop; Ciarán was typically generous, and imparted the news that the size of a piece is not important, stressing that line and form should be paramount.
Chance and circumstance play a huge part in every career. At that time, exotic woods were in vogue, the worth of a piece determined by the intrinsic attractiveness of the wood. Surveying the woodturning world through her ceramist’s eyes, Alison Britton was quite dismissive: ‘The beauty of the wood is the main message; different types of wood, often expensive and exotic imports from dwindling supplies, grains and colours; these speak louder than shapes...’1 As it happened, Flynn did not have ready access to such exotica, and they had little appeal for him anyway. But he could easily and cheaply get plainer, humbler woods – oak, ash, beech. He knew, from the work of Mick O’Donnell, about green turning, the shaping and finishing of a piece from unseasoned wood, turning it thin and allowing it to distort naturally as it dries out. He loved the immediacy of the process, the ability to bring a piece to completion in one go, instead of the more traditional practice of rough-turning and waiting for the wood to season before finishing it. And so, out of a mixture of necessity and personal aesthetic he began as he has continued, using locally-sourced woods, turning them unseasoned.
David Ellsworth is probably the most ground-breaking of contemporary woodturners: in Flynn’s view he ‘changed the language of turning’. Ellsworth’s hollow forms, extraordinarily thin-walled, with all the internal turning done through impossibly narrow openings, are astonishing tours de force and also extremely beautiful objects. They accelerated the development of artistic woodturning, the growing desire for freedom from the constraints of functionality. And this rhymed with Flynn’s own aspirations. He was frustrated by the limitations of open shapes, and wanted to get away from the bowl as a utilitarian object; he could see how hollow forms are considered as objects in their own right. Flynn was also influenced by trends in contemporary ceramics thinking, by what Alison Britton has described as ‘a new self-consciousness or standing back, to describe rather than to be useful’.2
Liam Flynn’s earliest pieces are already unmistakably his, and in each series he has explored the same idiom, considering and adjusting the contours, volumes and surfaces, adding and subtracting, defining and refining his style. He began to blacken his pieces early, partly to change the perception of them. But necessity again played a role: he was turning a lot of oak, and finding it difficult to prevent iron staining. Familiar with Jim Partridge’s scorching of oak and Maria van Kesteren’s use of staining, he started ebonising – applying a solution of iron filings in vinegar to the oak which reacts by turning black. Ebonised oak became part of his signature. And again ceramists were doing something similar: he knew the black pieces of Hans Coper, Magdalena Odundo, Vivienne Foley.
Flynn is ‘still enthralled by the endless circle, a shape with no beginning or end’.3 The circle is his initial shape, but the end product is a gentle deviation from it. As the piece dries, it shrinks across the grain, and becomes oval, and it rises on the end grain arcs like the prow and stern of a canoe. David Ellsworth describes wood as being ‘a perfectly imperfect material’, and talks about how he doesn’t seek to have total control over it, but instead wants ‘a relationship between an idea and a material through a process, (to give it) movement and gesture’.4 Richard Raffan puts it with typical succinctness: ‘I soon realized that… by aligning the grain carefully, it was possible to have bowls warp away from the circular to more interesting but predictable forms.’5 One of Flynn’s great skills is his ability to foresee how a particular piece of wood will move as it dries, studying the log’s ‘road map’, and visualising process and product.6 Sometimes he may not like a piece immediately after completing his part of the conversation, but is delighted in the following days and weeks by the wood’s response: subtly contracting and swelling, symmetry mutating into asymmetry, each piece assuming its individual identity.
He tends to work in series, the theme of each one usually defined by his focus on one particular element. How a vessel sits or stands is vital to its success: for example, some of his pieces are elevated on finely carved feet. Much of his most fascinating work has been done on rims. He has explored different ways of shaping and carving the rims themselves, and also carving patterns around the openings to highlight them. This has evolved into his renowned ‘inner rim’, a rim inside a rim like two collars, which creates the illusion that a second smaller vessel is hidden inside the outer one, or ‘suggests the nesting of concentric vessels such as baskets’.7 Flynn sees these rims as creating a sense of balance: the inner rim is essentially structural, and this allows him to play different shapes off it and to be more extravagant with the outer one. Many of his pieces have a front and a back, with the front determined largely by the profile of the rim, by how much of the interior we are allowed to glimpse.
Flynn has long been interested in carving, without power tools, using a v-tool and a deep gouge. He began with tentative bands around the rims, then becoming more confident he carved down the sides. David Pye, Al Stirt, and Garth May were early influences; also fluted patterning in ceramics. He listens a lot to music in his studio – Päart, Górecki, jazz – which he says frequently translates into the rhythms and patterns of the carving. His fluted pieces are particularly strong, with bold channels flowing from rim to base counterpointing the vessels’ lateral roundness. He has pushed these to the absolute limit in his recent spined vessels: the fluting is pared right back to two flowing ridges like finely pinched clay, which he describes as being ‘like fluted pieces without the flutes, or fluted pieces with two flutes’; they follow and define the outswelling lines of prow and stern, heightening the vessels’ austere poise.
Throughout his career, he has been preoccupied with the vertical profiles of his pieces. He has a deep interest in sculpture, especially that of Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore; he has constantly explored shapes and curves, from the ‘line as volume’8 of his enclosed vessels, some pregnantly bellied, some sedately rotund, to others with sterner more cylindrical bodies. His recent barrel forms are a brave development, apparently counterintuitive. In most of his vessels the walls flare out gracefully from narrow bases, but in these the bottoms are the widest part, and they seem to sit down, squatly and defiantly. In theory, he says, they shouldn’t work, but the movement in the wood imparts life and dynamism, and what could have become lumpenness is wonderfully counteracted by their surprising lightness.
Flynn is best known for his ebonised oak; one of its attractions is that the viewer is not distracted by anything dramatic, ‘so you can see the subtleties in the piece almost immediately’. But it is never uniform black: different areas of the wood’s surface react differently to the ebonising process. He is fascinated by Rothko’s black paintings, the building up of colour, layer on layer, all the unseen work. The external blackness adds to the spiritual quality of Flynn’s pieces, the silent mystery of the contained darkness. In some recent pieces he has added small areas of red, to help define the inner rim, or in short gashes down the sides – influenced to a degree by the black and red combinations used by such as Seán Scully and Angela O’Kelly. They are minimalist interventions, yet in the overall context of his work’s quietness they can seem very dramatic, almost shocking. When not ebonising, Flynn fumes a lot of his oak pieces, a process in which the tannins in the wood are oxidised through exposure to the fumes of ammonia gas, giving a rich depth to the brown.
And from black to white: with a nod to the bone-like effects in Joseph Walsh’s furniture, his dark oaks are complemented by bleached ash, oak and holly, and by whitewashed ash and holly. Nowhere does his colouring obliterate the tactility of the pieces, nor hide the waves and whorls of the grain; if there is a natural contrast between light and dark in the wood, he will often accentuate that. Black and white are combined in an ongoing still life series, with pairs of small white pieces displayed on black bases. Then black and silver: the light-dark opposition is exploited in his collaboration with silversmith Kevin O’Dwyer, in which undulating silver fronds appear to grow magically out of a black pot. A couple of these pots have been cast in bronze, and more of this is planned – a fascinating development which may well lead Flynn down a new path in the next phase of his career.

Notes

(1)  Alison Britton, Introduction to exhibition catalogue Jim Partridge: Woodworker (Crafts Council Gallery 1989).
(2)  Ibid.
(3)  Introduction to catalogue of Tracing the Line, an exhibition exploring the formative influences on Irish woodturning, curated by Liam Flynn (The National Craft Gallery in 2006).
(4)  David Ellsworth, Ellsworth on Woodturning (Fox Chapel Publishing 2008).
(5)  Richard Raffan, catalogue of Tracing the Line .
(6) David Ellsworth, op. cit.
(7) http://www.cmoa.org  (Carnegie Museum of Art website, accessed April 2011).
(8) David Ellsworth, op. cit.

Unattributed quotes are from a conversation between Liam Flynn and Roger Bennett in Liam’s studio, in January 2011.
First published in Liam Flynn retrospective (The Hunt Museum, 2011), the catalogue of Liam Flynn's exhibition at the museum, curated  by Eleanor Flegg

 

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