HAPPY accidents — a series of unexpected opportunities as you traverse along life’s path with only a rough idea of where you’re heading.
That’s possibly the best explanation for the seemingly random sequence of events that has taken Andrew Collins from graduating at the Rhode Island School of Design in the US to a 250-year-old farm in West Cork.
Andrew graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2007. A large form painter and sculptor, it wasn’t until 2013, when he and his wife Miriam, a Cork native, returned to Ireland, that he started to experiment with ceramics.
“All the things that have proved to be the most important in my life seem to be those that end up happening by accident and work out to be just really good,” said Andrew.
“We had been looking for a while when we found the property in West Cork. Just the way it happened it was like it was meant to be. I remember heading down the driveway and thinking, ‘This is the place’.”
The dwellings on the property are about 250 years old with dry stone walls. Whilst Andrew was working in the barns and little outbuildings with his sculptural and painting work, he was also carrying out renovations. He kept finding clay deposits in pockets all over the land, so started to dig it.
“At the time I was trying to do something with painting and sculpture, to figure out a way to have what I was doing in both mediums to exist together. That’s where clay came into it — it just seemed to fit perfectly right in the middle ground. I was also researching for a sculptural project based on primitive cultures.
“I began to recognise clay as this binding material that so many ancient cultures had used across the globe, without any knowledge of each other, all making things with it.
“I got into pit firing and African ceramics when I started making my Vessels collection. I was fascinated by it, playing with clay from the earth and doing these pit firings in the earth — it really started to take hold — it was all that I was thinking about and doing.
“I started developing a conceptual idea of what it was to make these pit-fired vessels and what they could be used for.”
Richard Milne is the chef-proprietor of Dillon’s Restaurant in Timoleague, a village in West Cork peppered with culinary gems.
He and his partner Antje have always championed the best of what is local in their bijoux restaurant. They completely understand the concept and importance of terroir: their daily loaf of sourdough bread that sits majestically upon the countertop; the kitchen garden producing vegetables and salads, and the connection of local makers of all kinds — artists included.
Andrew said: “When Richard asked me to make some functional pieces for the restaurant, I was really interested. He reached out to me on Instagram, said he really liked my work and wanted to talk about doing something together. He came to the studio, looked at all the stuff I had been making and was really keen to do something.
“Richard wanted me to create a range of pieces (small bowls, plates and ramekins) for a small plates tasting menu. He wanted the pieces to push his boundaries of how he could present his food and how this could create a reaction with his diners.
“We discussed what he was after, but Richard was really open — literally ‘can you just make me stuff?’ The size and shape of the pieces were immaterial to him. He just really liked what I was doing and wanted me to make him these pieces that were in this primitive, hand-formed aesthetic I had developed.”
At first glance, you could be mistaken for not recognising the plates Andrew created for Dillon’s as plates; just as easily displayed as a hanging wall sculpture as something to serve food upon. The unfinished, rugged edges; the glistening black glaze and the undulating textures of the clay are reminiscent of Ireland’s peat bogs. Is it a piece of bog oak? Is a stone lifted from peaty depths? It evokes a sense of the primitive, sufficiently to stir that ancient part of us.
Every item Andrew creates is hand raised, formed and textured; each one completely unique, finished as he feels it wants to be finished. No formulaic process, just naturally random. A series of happy accidents, maybe?
“That was my trick: to make something functional but, most importantly for me, still accomplished what I wanted something to look like: to make something that is a similar shape and size to another piece in the collection, but is its own thing; truly one of a kind.
“It comes from my impatience. I don’t like to noodle over and force things; that was what really hooked me into ceramics — the material itself. Clay is such its own thing, so versatile and adaptable to convey different textures and colours. I prefer to let the material be itself and do its own thing, not to regiment it.
“My mode of operation has always been to go physically bigger and more complex but this isn’t possible with pit firing, so I think I’ve hit a limit on what I can achieve with it: I got it, I did it and I understood it and now it’s in my repertoire — a baseline that I could move on from and extend.
“When I did the commission for Richard, it gave me the push I needed to explore firing my ceramics in kilns, making the clay watertight and creating the kind of glazes that suit my aesthetic and functional needs.”
Learning from the ground up is literally what Andrew has done with his journey in ceramics: digging the clay, making the clay, firing it in the earth and now firing in kilns.
“I’m just trying to explore everything, not only just making functional things in the sense of only making plates and cups, but knowing that I can make those forms and having developed an individual aesthetic of my own.”
Collaborations between chefs and artists to create truly unique pieces for their restaurant is a philosophy Andrew would like to see more consideration of.
“The food in Ireland — it’s just fabulous. When I’m in New York City, we go out to restaurants and the food is good, people do crazy things with it, but honestly it’s just better in Ireland. The origin of food is so much closer to the diner and its better for it.”
Chefs are aligning to sustainable food trends such as farm to fork, kitchen gardens, urban growing, hyperlocalism; drawing from and reconnecting with the earth. The possibility of working with the kind of chef that gets that philosophy and recognises it as one mirrored in Andrew’s own work is where the focus now rests.
A new collection will be unveiled in the Spring. Visit www.fead.ie for more information.
Next week, Kate Ryan talks with Ger O’Callaghan, one of Ireland’s youngest Master Butchers keen to revive a skill that has been on the decline for decades.