Rowan Gillespie

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Rowan Gillespie
Lazy Lady 2.jpg
Rowan Gillespie, on site in Liechtenstein, June 2008
Born Rowan Fergus Meredith Gillespie
Blackrock, Ireland
Nationality Irish
Education York School of Art
Kingston College of Art
Known for Bronze casting sculpture
Notable work Yeats, Famine, James Joyce, Proclamation

Rowan Fergus Meredith Gillespie (born 1953) is an Irish bronze casting sculptor of international renown. Born in Dublin to Irish parents, Gillespie spent his formative years in Cyprus.[1]

His singular and often exhausting modus operandi involves taking the work through from conception to creation, entirely unassisted in his purpose-built bronze casting foundry at Clonlea, in Blackrock. This is one of the things that make him unique among the bronze casting fraternity.[2]

Influenced by the sculptor Henry Moore and the painter Edvard Munch,[3] Gillespie uses the lost wax casting process to portray the whole gamut of human emotions. Having worked almost exclusively on site specific art since 1996, Gillespie's public works can be found in his native Ireland, Europe, the United States and Canada.


Rowan's father, Jack Gillespie was a medical doctor and his mother, Moira, was the daughter of James Creed Meredith, the translator of Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgement, Supreme Court of Ireland Judge and member of the Irish Volunteers movement. According to Gillespie's official biographer Roger Kohn, the Irish sculptor's latest work, Proclamation, which is situated across the road from the Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, was created in memory of both the Proclamation of the Irish Republic and of his Grandfather's dream of a Utopian society.[4]

Education and career[edit]

"Blackrock Dolmen" (1987)

At age seven he was sent to boarding school in England, although the family remained in Cyprus until he was ten. In 1969 he attended York School of Art where he was first introduced to the lost-wax casting process by the bronze sculptor Sally Arnup.[5] Here he also met his wife to be, Hanne who runs the Clonlea Yoga Studio in Blackrock.[6] In 1970 he attended Kingston College of Art where he was tutored by woodcarver John Robson and through whom he met, and was encouraged by, Henry Moore.[7]

Following his studies at York and Kingston, he completed his studies at the Statens Kunstole in Oslo. He lectured for three years at the Munch Museum, the Norwegian painter having a profound influence on him, both conceptually and manifestly. Munch remains the great artistic influence on him up to the present day.

At the age of 21 he married Hanne, they had their first child Alexander, and he held his first solo exhibition in Norway. In 1977 he returned to Dublin where he set up his foundry/workshop and established himself in the years between 1977 and 1995 with Solo exhibitions at the Solomon Gallery in Dublin,[8] Arts Fairs and numerous group shows throughout Europe and the United States. He then decided to concentrate on Site specific art, notably The Cycle of Life, Colorado (1991); The Famine Series, Dublin (1996/7); and Ripples of Ulysses 2000/1.

In 2007 he was awarded an honorary Doctorate in Fine Art by Regis University in Denver, Colorado.

Recent developments[edit]

Sculpting Life[edit]

In 2007, Shane Brennan and Tom Burke of Moondance Productions released a film biography on the life and work of Rowan Gillespie, called Sculpting Life.[9][10]

Sculpting Life received its premier terrestrial broadcast on the Irish National Broadcaster, RTÉ to much critical acclaim. The film, also aired on the Arts Channel in New Zealand, provides a unique view of the world of a bronze casting sculptor, as he creates a series of famine sculptures from research, through to unveiling in Ireland Park, Toronto.[11] Partly based on his reading of Joseph O'Connor's the Star of the Sea, Gillespie enters the world of its central character, the murderous Pius Mulvey as he haunts the decks of a coffin ship and becomes an emaciated ghost, living among the hundreds of Irish emigrants crammed into steerage. The documentary follows the sculptor as he brings the character to life in bronze.

Looking for Orion[edit]

"Looking for Orion" at Clonlea Studio 2007

More recently an artistic biography Looking for Orion[12] by Gillespie's lifelong friend, the artist and publisher Roger Kohn, provides an insider's view of 'the man behind the metal' with a stunningly photographed catalogue of his work. The biography documents Gillespie's contributions to his art over the last 36 years, and explores the influences of Edvard Munch and Henry Moore on the artist.

Gillespie is unique among the bronze casting fraternity in being able to claim that all moulding, casting and finishing is done entirely by himself in his Dublin studio/foundry. In addition, all installations are either carried out or supervised by him. Indeed, this is central to the understanding and vision of his art.


The Irish Famine and subsequent catastrophic migration has motivated two major works by Gillespie, and so it must be said that the portrayal of Famine, is a major theme of the artist's work. In several of his site specific pieces, such as Famine (1997) on the Custom House Quay in Dublin,[13] his life-sized human figures are emaciated and haunting. In June 2007, a series of statues by Gillespie was unveiled by President Mary McAleese on the quayside in Toronto's Ireland Park.[11] The work commemorates the arrival of refugees from the Great Famine. The Hamilton Spectator described the work as follows:

"Famine" (1997)

"The early immigrants are now honoured at the Toronto waterfront park by five haunting bronze statues created by Irish sculptor Rowan Gillespie.

One figure depicts a man lying on the ground, emaciated; another shows a pregnant woman clutching her bulging stomach, while behind her a meek child stands wide-eyed. One frail figure is bent over with hands clasped in prayer, contrasted by a man whose arms are extended to the sky in salvation."[14]

But it would be a mistake to categorise the artist entirely by his most well-known pieces. In lesser known, archived works such as Ambition and Aspiration,[15] which climbs the wall of the Dublin Treasury Building, the artist reveals his sense of humour and somewhat different preoccupations. In his recent biography, an altogether different picture emerges. In his portrayals of James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, Samuel Beckett, Gerard Manley Hopkins and indeed Jesus Christ, Gillespie has undertaken his own spiritual and literary journey. His more conceptual and abstract pieces such as Looking at the Moon, The Kiss and the more recent, Proclamation, span the whole gamut of human emotions, from love and awe, to hate and self-destruction. As his biographer writes:

"Rowan's passionate and often draining encounters with his subjects, and his willingness to undergo personal transformation and rebirth in light of them, takes shape in the gnarled and volcanic textures of his later pieces. They stand before us as a mature, fully fledged portrait of an essentially rough-hewn and raw witness to the emotional turmoil of our time."[16]


The original model for Proclamation was called Imagine and according to Gillespie’s biographer:

“it alluded not only to the John Lennon peace anthem, but also to the dreams for a utopian society in Ireland espoused by Rowan’s grandfather, James Creed Meredith (1874-1942)”.[4]

Meredith, a Kantian scholar[17] and an inspired lawyer, appointed by the First Dáil (1919–21) as its Supreme Court Judge and nominated by Éamon de Valera to chair the committee to provide a Constitution for the Irish Republic, was judged a pacifist and his life was spared by the British authorities. In 1939, the multi-talented Supreme Court Judge, wrote a novel entitled “Rainbow in the Valley”[18] (a work of utopian science fiction). One of the themes of this allegorical work is the imagination required to avoid war and to forge a bond with an intelligent creature from another world: a party of scientists in Western China establish communication with the inhabitants of Mars.

Proclamation group (before installation)

Proclamation has, as its backdrop, the courthouse in which James Creed Meredith presided when he was a Circuit Court Judge.[19] Fourteen figures stand in a megalithic circle, at the centre of which is a plaque containing a copy of the Proclamation of Independence, engraved in bronze. Each figure has at its base a small plaque, engraved with the name and the British military tribunal’s verdict and sentence of death. The figures are perforated with bullet holes. Since the original commission was for the seven signatories of the Proclamation, Gillespie has donated the other seven martyrs to the site himself.

The figures are limbless, but far from lifeless. Fourteen martyrs stand united in a circle, blindfolded, as they would be for execution. The disturbing nature of these figures recalls the influence of Edvard Munch on the artist; and the desire to strip away the inessential differences of face and form and depict the essential nature of a raw emotion. Unlike the Migrants and the figures of Famine, the bronze of the martyrs is not left in its raw state, nor is their portrayal ‘realistic’. Almost alien, these figures are smooth and reflective, as if to suggest that they are essentially ‘more spirit than flesh’. The light reflecting off the multi-faceted surfaces of each figure ‘bouncing off one another’ (as they did in spirit) - is like a metaphor for imagination itself. In the spirit of James Creed Meredith’s Rainbow in the Valley – their voices curl and twist through space and a new light is formed, shining its rays like all the colours of the rainbow.

The Blackrock Dolmen,[20] binds its figures with a great rock, which they overcome with a united strength. The martyrs of Proclamation are united only by a shared light, suggesting perhaps, that they overcome not with brute force, so much as their vision of the future. It is their willingness to die for that vision, that unites them. In the words of George Bernard Shaw,

"Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will”[21]

Gillespie’s departure from the hyper-realistic Famine and the all to close for comfort Migrants; and his use of this abstract, twisting, reflective, flame-like form, to capture the spirit and passion of the men who attempted to create ‘a rainbow in the valley’, makes the sculpture kindred in spirit, with Dublin’s other smooth, shimmering, symbolic work of light, the Spire of Dublin.

Proclamation is a monument to those who gave their lives to change the course of Irish history and release the dreams of the Irish people: and it is a reminder, of those whose light burns so strongly, it awakens the imagination of us all.

No man has a right to fix the boundary of the march of a nation; no man has a right to say to his country, Thus far shalt thou go and no further…' [22]

Solo exhibitions[edit]

The Jubilant Man Famine Series 2007, Ireland Park, Toronto
  • 1974 Moss Kunst Foreningen, Norway
  • 1975 Galleri Cassandra, Norway
  • 1976 Galleri Cassandra, Norway
  • Lad Lane Gallery, Dublin
  • 1977 Galleri 71 Tromso, Norway
  • Bodo Kunst Foreningen, Norway
  • Austin Hayes Gallery, York
  • Lad Lane Gallery, Dublin
  • 1978 Galleri Cassandra, Norway
  • 1979 Alwin Gallery, London
  • 1980 Lad Lane Gallery, Dublin
  • 1981 Galerie Hüsstege, 's-Hertogenbosch
  • 1982 The Solomon Gallery, Dublin
  • Galleri Cassandra, Norway
  • 1983 Puck Inaugural Exhibition, New York
  • 1983 Poole Wills Gallery, New York
  • 1984 The Solomon Gallery, Dublin
  • 1986-88 Solomon Gallery, Dublin
  • Galerie Hüsstege, 's-Hertogenbosch
  • Jonathan Poole Gallery, London
  • 1989 - 1994 Concentrated on site specific work
  • 1994 - 95 Solomon Gallery, Dublin
  • Galerie Hüsstege, 's-Hertogenbosch
  • 1996 Decision to stop exhibition work in order to concentrate on site specific work.

References and sources[edit]

  1. ^ Kohn (2007), p. 9
  2. ^ Kohn (2007), p. 29
  3. ^ Kohn (2007), pp. 13 and 95
  4. ^ a b Kohn (2007), p. 152
  5. ^ Kohn (2007), p. 12
  6. ^ Clonlea Yoga Studio
  7. ^ Kohn (2007), p. 13
  8. ^ "Rowan Gillespie". Solomon Gallery. Archived from the original on 8 January 2008. Retrieved 23 January 2008. 
  9. ^ Archived 19 March 2011 at the Wayback Machine.
  10. ^ "Reviews: Sculpting Life Documentary". Moondance in the Media. Retrieved 23 January 2008. [dead link]
  11. ^ a b "The Making of Ireland Park, Toronto". Toronto Irish Famine Memorial. Ireland Park Foundation. 21 June 2007. Archived from the original on 26 January 2013. Retrieved 23 January 2008. 
  12. ^ "Rowan Gillespie - Looking for Orion". O'Brien Press. Retrieved 23 January 2008. 
  13. ^ "Rowan Gillespie (Irish sculptor)". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 23 January 2008. 
  14. ^ Sullivan, Sean Patrick (21 June 2007). "Irish-Canadians celebrated at launch of Toronto park honouring immigrants". The Hamilton Spectator. Retrieved 23 January 2008. [permanent dead link]
  15. ^ Photographic images of these pieces are on official website
  16. ^ Kohn (2007), pp. 158-9
  17. ^ James Creed Meredith is the translator the Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgement
  18. ^ James Creed Meredith, Rainbow in the Valley, 1939
  19. ^ Kohn (2007), p 155
  20. ^ see image above
  21. ^ Shaw, B. The Perfect Wagnerite, words of the Serpent to Eve, 5:348
  22. ^ Charles Stewart Parnell…

External links[edit]