Corkman goes from cooking meals for 2,000 students... to creating beautiful ceramics works

Cork artist Brendan Ryan tells COLETTE SHERIDAN about his distinctive ceramic works - inspired by photos of houses and old buildings
Corkman goes from cooking meals for 2,000 students... to creating beautiful ceramics works

One of the miniature houses artist Brendan Ryan makes out of ceramics

WHILE Brendan Ryan was always drawing and painting as a child, he never took it seriously until a lot later in life, when he got a degree in applied art from the Crawford College of Art and Design.

Now he is in a group exhibition at On the Pigs Back in the former Woollen Mills in Douglas until January 14.

His work is distinctive and attractive. He makes miniature houses and shop fronts out of ceramics, based on photographs.

The pieces are framed and measure about 20cm x 15cm. He gets commissions for people wanting an artistic representation of their properties.

It’s a big change from Brendan’s former job as a chef, although he says that cooking can be creative too.

From Whitechurch, Brendan left school after his Inter Cert at the age of 16. He had been a pupil at Scoil Mhuire Gan Smal in Blarney where he studied technical drawing. However, art wasn’t taught there when he attended.

Brendan did a catering course at the Cork College of Commerce and went on to the then Regional Technical College, where he trained as a chef.

Fifty-four-year-old Brendan looks back on that time and says it was like “going to an army camp”.

He adds: “It was strict. Not a bit like art college. I enjoyed cooking and baking. Having an artistic temperament helps when you’re cooking. With garnishing food, a lot of it has to do with using colour.”

For his first job, Brendan worked in a hotel, The Devon Inn, between Abbeyfeale and Newcastlewest in County Limerick, spending seven years there, excelling at lemon soufflés and crème caramel desserts.

He then worked in a canteen attached to a factory as he had had enough of hotel work.

“Some people are suited to working in a hotel kitchen,” Brendan says “It’s high pressure. It’s grand if you’re a young fellow but as you get a bit older, it’s hard going.”

Artist Brendan Ryan.
Artist Brendan Ryan.

In 1999, he moved back to Cork and built a house in Whitechurch, where he had grown up. He got a job as a chef in the CIT canteen and stayed there for four years. He found it hard work, explaining: “We were doing 2,000 meals a day.”

Eventually, Brendan left and got a job delivering fruit and vegetables with Evergreen Foods.

“We used to deliver a lot to Chinese restaurants and other ethnic restaurants. We imported prawns from South East Asia,” he says.

“I enjoyed that job. It was different but I was still dealing with food, but on a different side of it. Then I worked for Quigley Meats.”

Around 2010, Brendan’s mother became unwell. She had a hereditary genetic disease, Amyloidosis, which is very rare. Similar to Motor Neuron Disease, it causes wasting of the muscles.

“There were five in my mother’s family. Four of them died from the disease,” says Brendan. “We’re being screened for it. My sister tested positive but there’s medication for it now.

“I haven’t been tested yet. I have a 50/50 chance of getting it.

“I looked after my mother for about two years but she got to the stage where she needed someone looking after her full-time. My father wasn’t strong enough to do it.

“There’s six of us in the family. I was the only single one with no kids. I could afford to give up my job. I got the carer’s allowance. So I started looking after my mother around September, 2011.

“She passed away the following March. It was really rewarding looking after her, something I’m proud of.”

Brendan attended weekly painting classes given by a friend, Jo Kiely, in the Blarney Community Centre.

“She suggested that I go to college and study art. I got into the arts, crafts and design course at St John’s College.

“Then I did professional painting and art practice and, after that, I thought I might as well go to the Crawford and get a degree. I wanted to paint so I started doing fine art there.

One of the ceramic buildings made by Brendan.
One of the ceramic buildings made by Brendan.

“After a few months, I decided to change to applied art. I had got a taste for ceramics at St John's. We had done an introduction to ceramics at the Crawford.

“In applied art, you have three materials; textiles, ceramics and glass. You do modules in each of them in first and second year.

“In third year, you narrow things down to one subject. In fourth year, I went deeper into ceramics.”

In 2017, Brendan graduated from the Crawford. His experience of being a mature student “was amazing,” he says, “It was completely different than school. When I was at school, I just wanted to leave. I hated it and loved art college.

"You go in to college with a thirst for knowledge. At lectures, all the mature students would be constantly asking questions.”

Brendan’s degree show was quite a success.

“There were a couple of purchase awards from CIT and the Office of Public Works and I was given an exhibition at Joan Clancy’s gallery in Ring in Waterford.”

Now, Brendan does his art work from a studio in his home. His ceramics are Raku-fired.

He says: “People send me photographs of their houses. I have about six commissions to do before Christmas.”

Also, Brendan works with the Coolmine drugs and alcohol treatment centre in the Glen.

“It’s lovely teaching there,“ he says. “I do Sgraffito (a scratching technique) on ceramics. The teaching is my main source of income. I make a bit from sales of my ceramics. It pays for itself. It’s more substantial than a hobby.”

And a lot more fulfilling than cooking for the masses...

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