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How metal sculptor Eamonn is forging ahead to revive blacksmithing in Glens of Antrim

By Stephanie Bell

Published 15/07/2015

Craft works: artist Eamonn Higgins with his sculpture Legend of the Lough Eochu’s Horse in his Hot Milk Forge studio
Craft works: artist Eamonn Higgins with his sculpture Legend of the Lough Eochu’s Horse in his Hot Milk Forge studio
Craft works: artist Eamonn Higgins
Blacksmith Eamonn Higgins with a piece of his work
Fired up: Blacksmith Eamonn Higgins in his forge
Fired up: Blacksmith Eamonn Higgins father Oliver

In the simple surrounds of a former milking parlour on a family farm nestled in the heart of the Glens of Antrim, a modern local artist is bringing an ancient rural skill back to life.

People of all ages are flocking to the picturesque spot in Martinstown, Glenravel, where metal sculptor and painter, Eamonn Higgins, has rekindled the art of blacksmithing.

You couldn't imagine a more idyllic spot for the artist's latest venture and if you are familiar with Eamonn's work, it is obvious where his inspiration comes from, as it is here in the spectacular beauty of "Tenth Glen" that he grew up.

The 32-year-old just returned last year to live on the family farm with his new wife, Noelle (33), a contracts manager, and has set up his own artists' studio as well as transforming his grandfather's old milking parlour into a blacksmithing school, Hot Milk Forge.

Eight forges serve his students, which Eamonn built himself from scrap metal and pieces of abandoned old tractors found lying about the farm.

Since he launched his evening and weekend classes in March, every place has been booked up as people of all ages - aged from 16 to 84 years - tackle the traditional craft simply for the fun of it.

The art of blacksmithing is enjoying something of a revival and the skills taught by Eamonn on his farm will also be shared with college students when he starts a new job as a teacher in Northern Regional College in Ballymena in September, where he will be in charge of a City and Guilds course in Blacksmithing - Forge Work Level 2.

Eamonn says people are fascinated by the craft: "Some people like to work with their hands and be creative. The majority of people who come along like the idea of making something like a dagger from Game of Thrones or equipment for their kitchens.

"The concept of what people think of as the village blacksmith is dead. Every farmer has welding equipment and a tractor, so there is little demand for shoeing horses. What has evolved is artisan and craftspeople using blacksmithing skills to create objects.

"The funny thing is that it is all types who are interested. I've had 16-year-old girls and 84-year-old men come along. I would say for every 10 people who come, around half are doing it for the craic, two or three will come back for another four or five weeks and the rest absolutely love it and are addicted to it and come back week after week after week."

While he relies on traditional skills, Eamonn is an innovative metal sculptor who has devised his own unique way of working with metal using contemporary tools, including state-of-the-art plasma cutters to create his works of art.

Eamonn works mainly with steel and uses the plasma cutters to change the shape and nature of the metal, allowing him to add rough and multi-layered textures.

"Deconstructed steel is my base material," he explains.

"Every bit I work on becomes a piece of my jigsaw. I love the textures it creates, its austere, gnarled quality. Steel is a very pliable, diverse and functional material. I destroy it and turn it into something different. It's like bringing it back to life."

As a young boy, Eamonn loved playing with Lego, using his developing imagination to create ever more complex figures and shapes.

He says that same thrill he got as a child building with toys is carried on into the art pieces he sculpts today: "It was the best art class I ever had. I never knew what I was going to make and I still love experimenting and working instinctively.

"There is nothing planned about what I do. Every piece is a one-off. I don't have a conveyor belt of reproductions."

Eamonn trained in hot glass at the University of Lincoln, but switched to metal when commissioned to do a large piece of public art in the town before he graduated.

He stayed in Lincoln for three years after graduating and his public sculptures are now a distinctive part of the city's landscape.

He explains how he went from glass to learning the skills of a blacksmith: "During my third year of university, I realised that to get any work considered, we needed to get ourselves out there and I set up a kind of co-operative of artists.

"The local council had a commission to build a piece of public art for the city and we applied for it as a group of four.

"We secured the contract, even though it was very prestigious and in the end I completed it because the others dropped out.

"I found myself using a local blacksmith to help me to make it and I was fascinated by his techniques, but even more fascinated by the fact that he was getting more money than me. So I realised I needed to be able to do the work myself for my next commission and so I trained in his blacksmith school.

"For my first commission I did two large sculptures which sit at each end of a bridge in the city and over the next couple of years it snowballed and I now have sculptures in every corner of the city."

Eamonn decided to come back to Northern Ireland in 2006 and shortly after his return was appointed artist-in-residence at the South Lough Neagh Wetlands where he continued to make community art while giving blacksmithing workshops.

He famously designed a sculpture of a Lough Neagh fisherman which sits in the town land of Derrytrasna on the lough shore.

During this time he began developing his own techniques.

He says: "As far as I am aware there is no one else creating art using plasma cutters and welding equipment the way I do. My dad was a dairy farmer and we had welding gear at home so I knew how to use it. I love working through the welding mask and seeing how steel changes and deteriorates as you apply extreme heat.

"When people think of metal, they think of solid things like bridges but when you heat it, it can become quite a fluid material.

"It melts like caramel and I try and capture that with my work.

"I've been working recently at getting copper to grow on it like coral and for me it is about the energy of the material and keeping it evolving and growing"

Eamonn secured a place on the Making It programme through Craft NI which involves a two year residency. This he spent based at the sculpture department at the University of Ulster in Belfast.

The aim of the programme is to help designer makers create sustainable businesses.

When his residency finished he decided to return to his home parish of Glenravel in the centre of the Glens last year where he set up a studio and launched his blacksmith forge.

He says: "Back home you look outside the door and the landscape is breathtakingly beautiful. It gives you a tremendous sense of pride to be associated with it. The culture of the Glens is unique with its juxtaposition of the Ulster Scots and traditional Irish."

His childhood years growing up on the family farm surrounded by natural beauty continue to influence his work which often looks primeval, resembling the misshapen bodies of humans and animals miraculously preserved in Irish bogs for thousands of years. "I try to give my work a certain austerity, a 'terrible beauty' that is timeless and that can be associated with Irish art through the millennia. As I come from a rural background, the landscape and its people speak more to me than some of the more conceptual art in vogue. As a child I grew up playing in mud in haystacks and running about the fields. I absorbed all of this subconsciously and it comes out in my work.

"The building blocks of art are formed by the landscape and environment you are brought up in, the texture of the reworked steel looks like grass, dirt and mud."

Yet while distilling this rich heritage, Eamonn uses it to create work that is thrillingly abstract and free.

"That is the beauty of modern art. You don't have to adhere to a certain style. You are not restricted by boundaries. When I played with Lego I used to create spaceships that were going to take over Mars. I still take that childlike approach to my work."

Test your mettle as a blacksmith

  • Eamonn Higgins is offering a Beginners' Weekend Course in blacksmithing at Hot Milk Forge at his family farm in Martinstown on August 22-23 as part of August Craft Month
  • Martinstown is nestled in a beautiful location at Glenravel between Ballymena and Cushendall.
  • Those taking part in the course have been offered special rates at Ballyeamon Barn Hostel, which is run by Eamonn's friend, the internationally renowned story teller Liz Weir
  • On the Saturday night students will be treated to a free Glens of Antrim-style Traditional Music and Story Telling session
  • For more information about Hot Milk Forge go to www.hotmilkforge.com. Eamonn can also be found on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/hotmilkforge?fref=ts

Belfast Telegraph

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