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An artist’s lifelong obsession with a death-defying carnival attraction brings him into contact and conflict with a couple of hometown heroes from Granard, Co. Longford, in Maurice O’Brien’s documentary of obsession and determination, The Artist and the Wall of Death

We first meet Stephen Skrynka on the streets of Glasgow. He casually prises open a recycling bin with a spanner and surveys the contents. Stephen is hunting for glass bottles. He moves from bin to bin like a particularly determined racoon, gathering up choice materials. One man’s recycling is another man’s artwork.

In his studio he works to make a rough-and-ready stained glass window with the recyclables. Stephen explains that his art takes inspiration from other crafts and professions: he tries new things and from this process works out his shows, performances and installations.

Samples of Stephen’s previous work include driving a cab for his piece The Bartered Ride, working as a chef for the Moveable Feast and hauling a tanning bed across Europe in a hearse for My Idea of Heaven. “I’ve never made much money from my art,” he tells us.

Camcorder footage of The Bartered Ride shows a younger Stephen taxiing passengers around Glasgow in exchange for a song, joke, or, in one case, a lap dance. Footage, from a work called Joyriders, shows Stephen and others racing around tunnels in shopping trolleys; it’s unclear what craft or profession served as the inspiration here. 

What the trolley clip does show explicitly though, is Stephen’s capacity for punishment. Scene after scene of Stephen tumbling out of the overturned trolley come moments after he tells us that he failed the professional cab driver’s assessment twice during the course of The Bartered Ride

Stephen says that money has never been an issue to him, but his lack of financial stability has pushed his loved ones out of his orbit. Shots of a leaking ceiling and a comically large collection of buckets and basins filled with water accompany this passage. These scenes aren’t from an installation, however, they’re from Stephen’s home-movie collection. 

A fairground attraction known as the Wall of Death has been a pervasive presence in Stephen’s life and art for many years. O’Brien has visions of the wall intrude on the film as well. We snap from digital to ciné film shots of Stephen in a misty fairground dwarfed by the lit-up, all caps lettering that announces his greatest challenge. 

The ciné film puts Stephen in the position of a child with big dreams. But as Stephen attempts to incorporate the wall into his artwork, the literal, crushing reality of his undertaking becomes painfully apparent. 

Stephen’s first attempt at a Wall of Death piece drew on the experience of the Ken Fox Troupe of motorcycle riders. We watch as Stephen tries and fails to ride the wall. Ken Fox is a tough tutor. When Stephen, slowing down where he should have sped up, comes off the bike in a heap Fox berates him. 

The footage that we see gives us the impression of utter failure. Neil Murray, of the National Theatre of Scotland, quips that Stephen “isn’t quite dying for his art but he’s not far from it”. It’s true enough, O’Brien’s footage is squirmy viewing and really puts the skill that Fox and his family have on the wall into perspective. 

Stephen manages to get a show out of his attempts at riding the wall. Chronicling the process through a series of rotating artworks with the Foxes performing as the centrepiece of the exhibition. It’s a compromised vision and a humbling experience for Stephen. Ken Fox tells us that for him and his family the Wall of Death is an “obsession” whereas for Stephen it’s still a “fantasy”. 

Still, the Wall of Death fills Stephen’s head. On the recommendation of a friend he watches the Irish film Eat the Peach from 1986. Successful here in Ireland, it dramatises the true story of a couple of friends, called Vinnie and Arthur in the film, who, inspired by an Elvis movie, built and learned to ride their own DIY Wall of Death. Stephen travels to Ireland to meet the men that inspired the movie, who he hopes will be kindred spirits. 

Forty years on, Connie Kiernan and Michael Donohue, who Vinnie and Arthur were based on, seem contented with their lives. The original wall is long gone, blown away in a storm many years ago. In the film, the wall was burned to the ground by Vinnie. The reality is less deliberate but just as dramatic an end to the men’s daredevil dreams. 

Initially, there doesn’t appear to be much of a desire to share in Stephen’s scheme. Connie and Michael had their 15 minutes and then some, but Stephen has a way of impressing his own desires onto others. As loath as he’d be to admit it, there’s something of a salesman in Stephen. Perhaps he’s cut out for the carnival lifestyle after all.

As the three men set about rebuilding and relieving their dreams everything appears to go well. What’s striking is Connie and Michael’s muscle memory: wall riding comes back very quickly. Connie refashions his hair into a mohawk. But, ultimately, the men want different things from the endeavour. Stephen, still determined to make art of his dreams, brings consultants and performers to help build a show. 

Michael in particular, gives little mind to the creative process. He turns away from a rehearsal, eyes rolling to the heavens. Later, a sequence of him fixing a pole on the outside of the structure is synced to him complaining “artists, most of them have never worked a day in their life”.

The last straw comes when the group cannot agree on the financial direction of the show. Michael and Connie are all for a suggested sponsorship to help with touring the wall as a fairground style attraction, but Stephen protests, saying that it wouldn’t feel right to take big money for his art. 

A few scenes later hurt feelings bubble up as Michael and Connie confront Stephen.  Michael explains that the project has gone far enough. The two men from Granard have put their retirement money into something that they’ve lost control of. Something they probably never really had control over in the first place. 

“My son, when I told him about you, ‘Stephen the artist’, he said ‘Yeah, he’s an artist. A con artist.” Michael stammers out these words clearly very hurt. Connie sits next to his friend wearing sunglasses to hide his own emotions. Stephen appears to be shaken. He has no words that can make the situation right.

Throughout the film O’Brien employs shots of Stephen standing alone within the confines of the wall. Lit by spotlight, a man alone in his dreams and ambition. Even in collaboration it’s ultimately Stephen’s will and desires that push people away, friends and collaborators alike. Stephen’s sense of artistic integrity sits in opposition to the Wall of Death, a carnival attraction, the cheapest of thrills.

Stephen leaves Ireland, and the wall he built with Connie and Michael is dismantled. 

In Glasgow, Stephen tries once more with feeling to build his own Wall of Death. The process here is meticulous and beautifully documented by O’Brien. Stephen builds an interlocking Wall of Death, fashioning each plank by hand at first.

Then Covid-19 and lockdown present an opportunity to share the process with others. A personal quest becomes a communal outlet. 

The eventual result, named The Revelator, brings Stephen closer together with his children and neighbours. His dedication manages to impress Connie too, and some of those hurt feelings give way to admiration at the memory of a shared bond and dream.

In the early stages of The Artist and the Wall of Death we see a glass sign hanging in Stephen’s studio, which reads “Art is Worth Dying For”. In the closing moments of the film we see a refashioned version of the sign, “Love Will Break Your Fall”.  

And it seems to be something like love that carries Stephen and his bike around the Wall of Death in the film’s closing moments. It’s a joyous moment of documentary magic.

This is not so much a monument to Stephen’s triumph as it is to the humility and humanity that comes from facing up to one’s shortcomings and failure head-on. 

The Artist and the Wall of Death recently screened as part of the IFI Documentary Festival. A wide release is forthcoming. 

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Luke Maxwell is the host of the film review show, Viewfinder on 103.2 Dublin City FM. He also hosts The Movie Express Podcast, which you can find at

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