Photos by Conal Thomas

“Do you have a light?”

Lugging over an old gas canister, sculptor John Coll fires up the blowtorch, and ignites the cigarette between my fingers.

Suddenly conscious of the toxic, undoubtedly flammable, materials and solutions which litter the studio shelves, I shuffle under the shutter, just in case.

All around Coll’s den are markers of a humorous craftsman. There’s a urinal affixed to the wall with the slogan “WE AIM HIGHER” placed inside. At the other end, a bronze of those famous legs leads to the upper torso of an aquatic mammal. It’s Marlin Monroe, of course.

A Galway native, Coll originally trained as a marine biologist until his creative calling. His early career choice remains a key influence though.

At the centre of his workshop, atop a stripped-back currach, stands a model of a giant basking shark. The “skin”, painted in tar, was stripped off the bottom of the currach, which Coll bought in Dun Laoghaire harbour one day.

It was an impulse purchase. He says he “bought the boat for €150 and hadn’t a clue what [he’d] do with it”.

The workshop is as cluttered as you’d expect. The desk is strewn with print-outs of ideas.

There’s welding paraphernalia, stack upon stack of liquids and chemicals, boxes and fabrics. Unfinished pieces and prototypes.

The shelves store the many Styrofoam moulds Coll has used. Finished busts of dead writers wait patiently for a buyer.

Coll relishes the playful side of things, frequently indulging in what he calls “shit puns”. But when it comes to his trade, he means business.

John Coll in the studio where he works.

Clay Rivals

Coll is best known for his commissioned sculptures of writers Patrick Kavanagh and Brendan Behan.

Placed alongside the Grand Canal and Royal Canal, respectively, the old rivals have entertained all sorts throughout the years. They’ve also seen their fair share of public contributions.

“I’m delighted people interact with them,” says Coll. “That’s what public sculpture should be about, allowing people to feel the material object. I don’t like the idea of putting people up on a pedestal.”

The public get involved in different ways. Kavanagh has been garlanded with daisy-chains, saved from the rain by a Mac in a Sac and had his shoes spray-painted luminous orange. Behan entertains the boozers, with cans and other assorted rubbish often discarded at his feet.

“The council,” Coll says, “are fairly quick to fix any damage done, but I often check in with the two of them myself to give them a spruce-up and make sure they’re intact. If you’re putting your work out there, you want it to remain in good nick.”

Inspired to this day by Irish artists and writers, Coll tells me he once sent a miniature bust he sculpted of writer Samuel Beckett to the man himself, who was living his final years out in Paris.

Coll had only started sculpting and never heard anything back. It emerged years later, though, that Beckett had received Coll’s work and displayed it atop his mantelpiece. It seems Coll was not the only fan of Beckett’s landscaped features.

Post-boom, Post-bust

Working primarily in bronze, Coll makes use of the two foundries left in the city, Bronze Limited off Grand Canal Street and Cast Limited on Brown Street.

Delighted that these two workshops have weathered the recession, he’s aware that buying sculpture isn’t people’s highest priority.

“The public stuff has died, the recession saw to that,” says Coll. “The commissions dried out, but there was also some hideous stuff made during the Celtic Tiger.”

And yet he’s survived.

As have those who work alongside him. To the left of his studio space is an independent coffee roasters, to the right a South African man who produces vinyl records. Across the yard, there’s a motorcycle repair shop and a joinery that turns out furniture.

“Like the others here, I work with my hands, “says Coll. “There’s something primal in that. I was a restless child and so my parents would give me a piece of clay to distract me.”

He hasn’t stopped toying since.

He starts with a silicon mould, which he next sculpts in clay, which is then dipped in colloidal silica using the lost-wax method.

There are two furnaces at the foundry. At 1,200?C, the silica fuses and the wax burns out, while in the second furnace, at 1,500?C, the bronze is melted.

Cast in bronze, the mistakes are minimal. It’s then up to Coll to decide how best to polish or paint the work.

That’s a complicated process with many stages. But the technology is changing.

“Over Christmas, I went to Love & Robots on Dame Lane, “says Coll. “They 3D printed me a map of Dublin so I could mould it onto a bust of Joyce I’m working on. The technology now is amazing, every sculptor should recognise that.”

Will city councils begin to commission 3D sculptures instead of hand-worked bronze? I ask.

He laughs.

“Maybe. I’ve seen a few and they’re not bad,” he says. “But it’s the design process, all the little intricacies of facial angles that cameras might miss but that the human hand can see and emphasise.”

As I take my leave, I ask Coll to fire up his canister again. He has to get back to working on his current commission, a bronze of folk musician Luke Kelly.

He’s also been commissioned by the Áras for a very important bust. It seems President Michael D. Higgins chose Coll as the man to capture his likeness in clay, for posterity’s sake.

Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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