INTERVIEW Award-winning potter Anthony O’Brien

Living

THROWING SHAPES?Anthony O’Brien throwing a large dish in his studio.


Áine Ryan

IT was clearly more than pot luck, but nobody was more surprised than Anthony O’Brien when he was awarded first prize at the recent RDS National Craft Awards. The Louisburgh resident’s large, square stoneware dish, entitled ‘Four Ravens, Four Raptors’, won the ceramics category for established designers, which attracted over 50 entrants in the prestigious annual awards.   
This was the first time O’Brien had entered the competition since 1990, when he also won first prize for a one-off decorative pot in that competition.
“At that time, my full-time profession was as a violin and viol maker, living in Dublin. I was making pottery on the side, more for therapy and to keep myself sane,” he tells The Mayo News.
The Dublin native, who moved to Louisburgh full-time nine years ago, Anthony trained in Denmark and the US as a modernist potter. This genre of the art and craft espoused a strong Scandinavian influence, where everything was clean-lined and hard-edged.
“It is no wonder Ikea has taken over the world!” Anthony O’Brien quips.
In later years he met an ‘amazing English potter called Michael Cardew’ who completely changed his ideas about pots and thus began his creative journey making domestic tableware for such craft shops as O’Reilly and Turpin, in Westport, and the late Annie Brennan’s at Westport Quay.
But why such a long hiatus? “The reason I didn’t enter the competition for so many years was I simply felt my pottery was completely out-of-fashion. It was traditional and functional, whereas the trend was art ceramics,” O’Brien explains.  
He continues: “That is why I was so surprised I won the [RDS] competition because my piece – ‘Four Ravens, Four Raptors’ – is a big square dish you can use. It turns out, I heard afterwards, the judges felt it was time to ‘notice’ functional ware again. One of the judges, he’s an English potter, Philip Wood, said that pottery had moved from the kitchen to the living room where it has become abstract ornaments.”
Anthony observes that back in the 1970s ‘you could sell anything that was handmade whether it was good, bad or indifferent’. However, as the Celtic Tiger got wind in its sails, ‘an ornamental wall piece would automatically add a couple of zeros to the price, while if it was a piece for the table you could take the zeros off’.  
A ceramicist, potter, painter, poet and meditator, Anthony O’Brien moved full-time to Louisburgh eight years ago with his partner, Diana.
“My earliest, happiest childhood memories were of Louisburgh. My mother was a painter and she had a friend, Pat Wallace, who owned the Old Head Hotel and used to lend her a cottage he owned,” O’Brien recalls.
Last year Covie Publications and Recordings published his ‘36 Views of Croagh Patrick’, a beautiful book of paintings based on original ceramic works, and haiku poems about the artist’s intimate relationship with the holy mountain.
This love affair began in childhood when, his late mother, the acclaimed artist Kitty Wilmer O’Brien, began bringing her children to Old Head on summer holidays. In fact, Wilmer O’Brien was famous for her paintings of Westport and Mayo, and some of her works can be seen in the National Gallery.

RDS awards
ANNOUNCED on July 27 last, the annual RDS (Royal Dublin Society) National Craft Awards and Exhibitions is the only event of its kind in Ireland and is a non-commercial competition judged by a panel of international judges. Its 13 categories range from lace and leatherwork to furniture and ceramics. This year, the International Year of Design, the entrants were judged in two strands: Established Makers and Emerging Makers (of less than five years in business).
An exhibition of winning entries was shown at the RDS Horse Show over the weekend and will be shown at the Christmas Fair next December. The most hotly contested, the ceramics category attracted 54 entrants, 14 of are part of the exhibition.

For more information on Anthony O’Brien and his work, visit www.anthonyobrienart.com.