We all know Grand Canal as the home of Google but unbeknownst to many, tucked among the tech giants is a building where ancient crafts are still practised, The Design Tower. The Tower’s seven stories of studios play host to jewellers, fashion designers, conservationists and more.

In the fourth instalment in our series exploring The Design Tower, Dublin.ie meets sculptor and painter Elizabeth O’Kane to talk about her path to art, her craft and the building itself.

I always wanted to be an artist but I went to quite an academic school in Northern Ireland. I completely messed up my art paper and thought it would be too big a risk to pursue it. This was back in the 80’s and there weren’t the same opportunities then. So, I took the safe road. I followed advice from teachers, career guidance people and my parents and did my next strongest thing, languages.

I think it’s the only building of its kind in Dublin. We’re such a strong community…

I had so many career changes after Uni. I lived in Paris and Madrid. I fell ill after a trip to Asia with work. I was in hospital for weeks and had to take a few months off work. It was during that time that I realised ‘ok you’re already in your mid-twenties, you’re not loving this job, this is not what you want to do for the rest of your life’. I was ready to take the leap. Sometimes it takes something bad to push you into making a brave decision. And it was a brave decision to go back to college.

I studied interior design. It was very craft-based, we got to do woodwork and textiles, we studied history of architecture and studied technical drawing. It gave you an idea of all the things that were possible.

Elizabeth, drawing at her desk

One of my placements was in Cast Foundry which is a bronze casting foundry in Dublin. They were so good to me. They taught me the entire casting process. I went in and was able to make something from scratch. I just completely fell in love with being in a foundry, the noise, the dirt, coming out covered in black dust at the end of the day. Walking home in dirty builder’s boots and jeans, passing all of the office staff – jobs that I used to do – I knew I was much more suited to the foundry, every day was completely different.

The casting process is a bit like watching a fireworks display

After college, I worked with an interior designer for two years part-time, working on my own paintings and sculptures when I wasn’t there. Then I moved to a studio in Fairview. Once this space became available, I moved in, 14 years ago now.

This is now home. I find it really inspiring to work here. I think it’s the only building of its kind in Dublin. We’re such a strong community, you know. There are artists, designers, and craftspeople in it and everybody is so supportive and friendly and there is always somebody to help you, whatever you need.

Elizabeth standing beside a completed bust

When sculpting I start by building an armature which will form something like an internal skeleton to support the weight of the clay. Then I get a big bag of clay and just start building over the wooden blocks. Initially you’re building this by hand but as you work more into the clay you’re working mostly with tools.

I’ll usually work for months on a sculpture. if I’m working on a portrait head, I’ll try and work on it for at least two months, with as many sittings with the model as possible. If it’s a historic figure, or someone who lives far away I’ll just have to rely on photos but I’ll try to get photos of every angle of that person’s head. So, I could have 60 photos on my notice board to work from but it’s much easier for me if I have the model in front of me. It can be frustrating. There are days when you’re just struggling and can’t get the likeness. It doesn’t come easy, it’s a constant battle with the clay.

It’s just something that’s in you, that you have to do every single day

As you progress through the weeks, every change that you’re making becomes smaller and smaller but it’s those tiny little changes that make a difference and suddenly the likeness starts to show through and it could just be one little push of the clay, on a curl of a lip and suddenly, the person is almost talking to you. It’s a nice feeling.

Elizabeth O’Kane - Sculptor & Painter

Once the clay is finished and I’m happy with the likeness and the customer is happy with the likeness, then I’ll make a mould which is made with silicone rubber over the surface of the clay. It will copy every single feature and detail exact and copy it exactly in a negative. The silicone rubber is then held in place with plaster of Paris or fibreglass outside that. You paint the mould with wax; it’s exactly like making an Easter egg. That wax is then brought to the foundry where it gets cast.

The casting process is a bit like watching a fireworks display, it’s a process that has worked for thousands of years and bronze will always be the chosen medium of public sculpture, it’s a relatively soft metal, it’s very workable and it receives all of these colours so well and it lasts for so long.

When I’m 90, I’ll still be able to work with clay and bronze casting, I hope. I mean, I don’t see myself at the age of 60 or 65, thinking “I’m going to put my feet up now and retire”. It’s just something that’s in you, that you have to do every single day.

Elizabeth also carves in stone and paints architectural watercolours. To see more of her work visit www.elizabethokane.com.

Amy Sergison works in the advertising industry, creating social and digital content for brands in Ireland and the UK. The child of inner-city parents, Dublin is in her blood. When not writing you can find Amy screaming at a rugby match, Instagramming her dinner, or searching for solace in the quiet spots of the city.

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