The Arts Interview: Colm O’Brien

Limerick artist Colm O'Brien
Born and raised in Kilmallock, I am glad to be back living, here, once again.

Born and raised in Kilmallock, I am glad to be back living, here, once again.

I went to National and Secondary School locally. My father was a Blacksmith, and I remember as a child, being fascinated watching him making a scroll and a hand curled bar for a gate. My brother painted and went to Art College which influenced me to appreciate art from an early age. However, I felt that I had no artistic ability as a child and school only helped to reinforce this fallacy.

I worked and travelled for six years in the 1980s.

During this period I spent time in Israel, Germany and London. At that time, I felt that there was an almost mystical element to being an artist that would always be beyond me. Then, I decided to start learning, by trial and error, step by step, and so far this has worked well for me.

Today, my specialisation is in stone sculpture.

Direct stone sculpture is one of the most difficult disciplines of all sculpture. However, it, also, has the most to offer. I decided to jump in at the deep-end and learn direct Figurative Sculpture because Portraiture interests me the most. The face is a complex system of convex and concave curves. Any change in one can directly affect the area around it. Countless times, in the carving of a portrait, the piece will go from being a good likeness to looking like another person (and back again!). It can be a very frustrating journey. There is, also, the constant risk of making a mistake or finding a flaw in the stone which causes an irreversible disaster. In this way, you can instantly lose weeks or even months of painstaking work.

As with all art the biggest problem is knowing when to stop.

You have to learn to be fearless. You must accept the risk of loosing it all in order to attain the next level of skill and experience. I have carved in a lot of different types of stone, including Granite, Limestone, and Sandstone. However, a lot of my work is in Kilkenny Limestone. Ironically, it is quarried, here, in Limerick, mostly for aggregate production. The quarries around Kilkenny and Carlow produce Dimensional Stone, which is mostly slabbed for use as cladding, in buildings and grave monuments. This dimensional stone is the best quality for carving and Kilkenny Limestone is one of the hardest Limestones for use in sculpture. It is exported all over the world, but is very 

There is a constant divide in the stone carving world between those who favour the use of traditional tools rather than power tools.

The traditionalists work with hand tools only, and look disapprovingly, at those using non-traditional tools. I use pneumatic tools, air hammers and chisels, for carving. It makes the work faster and easier on the body. The end result is the same, either way. A power tool, whether it be electric or air, is only a tool, it will not carve on its own. Michelangelo would have used an air hammer if it had been available in his day! Recently, I am expanding my skills into working with clay and plaster. I found my inability to draw a hindrance and have dived into the world of drawing using charcoal and pastels. I have, also, attended a class given by the accomplished Limerick Artist Robert Ryan.

My open submission exhibitions, to date, have been numerous.

I have had pieces in exhibitions at the Wexford Opera Festival for the past few years. Last year, I had a granite bust called The Rugby Youth accepted into the annual The Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) exhibition, in Dublin. I, also, had a figurative sculpture of a Dinosaur in Granite and Schist, called Predators, accepted into the annual Irish Sculpture Awards, in West Cork.

There is an undeniable urge to create in all of us.

Most people, however, never get the opportunity to explore their potential. Fear of failure is the biggest single obstacle. Once you get over that it becomes a stepping stone and the possibilities become endless. I have that chance now. All I want to do is to explore the possibilities of creating whatever comes into my head. There is no doubt that anyone can create art. However, the problem is to find a creative process that interests you.

Making a living by creating art has always been difficult.

The notion of the penniless artist has always been with us. In the end it comes down to doing whatever you love, regardless. We are all influenced by countless ideas in our lives. My own art is based, in turn, on what interests me. However, there are so many possibilities, out there, competing for our limited time and resources. I would find it too restrictive to have a particular style.

Being a sculptor is, by its nature, a solitary existence.

Everyone appreciates art to a different degree. This depends on personal experiences, memories of what art has moved you in the past, or what art you see in your everyday life. Art has to move you in some way, make you think of ideas that challenge you, rethink the familiar or explore the unknown.

The first solo exhibition of my work is called Stone To Paper. It will take place at the Friars’ Gate Arts Centre, Kilmallock.

It reflects my journey in the world of art, thus far. It includes most of my stone sculptures, some plaster casts, charcoal and pastel drawings. A first solo exhibition is very important for any artist. It was certainly time for me to come out of the shadows!

Colm O’Brien’s debut exhibition Stone To Paper opens at Friars’ Gate Theatre, in Kilmallock, on February 7th (at 7.30pm) and runs until March 7th (9am to 5pm). For more information please see the websites: and

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