When six women from Wicklow stripped off on a beach for sculptor Rowan Gillespie, it could not have been further from his Quaker upbringing. He tells Ciara Dwyer about his latest exhibition a life punctuated by love and loss
IN Rowan Gillespie's Blackrock garden, there's a buxom bottom floating on the pond amongst the lily pads. It's part of a bronze female sculpture, full of sumptuous curves. Her thighs are thick, the calves sturdy and the sweeping line from her broad back to the tight waist is a sight to behold.
Only a man who loves women, and real women at that, could have created such a piece. That man is 56-year-old Dublin-born sculptor, Rowan Gillespie.
His sculptures are all around Ireland, and beyond. The best known are his haunting Famine figures on the Quays in Dublin (As Mary Robinson said, "They describe the indescribable").
That woman climbing up the outside of Treasury Building, which was developed by Johnny Ronan, is Gillespie's creation too. (When commissioning the sculptor, Ronan said that if he was going to have a figure climbing up to his office, it had better be a woman.)
He has done literary figures too -- his Yeats in Sligo and his James Joyce in The Merrion Hotel. On Earlsfort Terrace, the kissing couple on the corner is Gillespie's, as are those majestic long-limbed women holding up the dolmen in Blackrock.
His latest project is equally adoring of the female form. Called Age of Woman, it now stands outside a bank in Venice. A smaller version of it will be on show for the next week as part of the Solomon Fine Art exhibition in Naas.
"Originally, it was to have dancing girls and it was going to be six young women with tight bodies but then I thought no, let's have ordinary women."
And so, one day last summer, six women gathered on a beach at dawn and peeled off all their clothes for him. They were only too happy to let the sculptor photograph them for his work. Their ages ranged from 25 to 62. Among them was a primary school teacher, a solicitor and an optician. (All are members of a Wicklow swimming club.)
Rowan had an idea of how he wanted them to pose and had made model figures to show them specific stances but the minute he saw them stripping off and posing with such abandon, he decided to leave them to their own devices. All he gave them was a vague instruction to imagine that there was an apparition in the sky. Then these wild Wicklow women just did their own thing.
There were high jinks as they teased him to find out if he had a favourite. (He says he didn't.) Gillespie was surprised to see that the 25-year-old was coy in her posing but the 62-year-old more than made up for it. With arms splayed and head held high, she did an exuberant pose.
"It was 'wham!' I remember one of them was saying to her: 'Kathleen, you've got too big an arse for this,' and she shouted back: 'I don't mind, I'm the most beautiful here anyway.' They were all slagging each other off.
"What was so wonderful about those women on the beach is that every woman is beautiful in her own way, and different bodies link together naturally. The curvy person is curvy all the way up and with a straight person, it's an angular beauty. My discovery from this sculpture for Italy is that every woman, at every age, is beautiful."
When Rowan's straight-talking Norwegian wife Hanne saw the finished sculpture, she was silent for a long time. Eventually, she told him that they were "really naked". She pointed out that in Italy, where the sculpture was eventually to stand, the nudes are all so stylised, yet these were real women. And she's right -- the breasts are all different.
"When the director of the bank kissed me, I knew he was happy," says Rowan. "Of course they said: 'Couldn't you have made the breasts a little bigger?' You know Italians," he says with a laugh.
Many of Rowan's figures look up to the sky. He thinks that this may be connected with his early years in Cyprus. Although born in Dublin, when his mother was home on a brief visit, Rowan lived in Cyprus until he was six. His two elder siblings -- John and Lorraine -- were born there.
His father, Jack, was a psychiatrist and while in Cyprus he worked as a doctor for the British Colonial Service. Rowan recalls the beautifully bright skies and how he believed he could fly. (This belief was instilled in him by his mischievous brother.) Like an Icarus of sorts, he leapt off a building, flapping his arms and was highly annoyed that his brother tried to catch him. But for his interference, he believed that he would have taken off.
On another occasion, he put a ladder against his father's Volkswagen, convinced that if he climbed to the top he would reach heaven. Instead, he fell off and dented his father's car.
It was an idyllic existence. He would spend hours climbing trees (and falling off them) and carving with the penknife his father had given him.
"For a depiction of how it was, think of that film Zorba the Greek," he says. "There were horses and carts and there was joy in the music -- but then there was that dark sinister thing of those widows in black and old people with no legs and boards attached to the stump."
But the political situation in Cyprus changed. The Greeks and the Turks wanted the British out. Because he was Irish, Rowan's father was able to stay on a little longer, but the children were still labelled colonial children and it wasn't safe for them to remain there. Rowan was packed off to boarding school in Malvern.
It wasn't a happy time. During his first week, he was caned three times because he failed to tie his shoelaces. But what would he know of shoelaces, having worn plastic flip-flops all his life? Even the notion of caning was alien to him. His parents were Quakers, and being brought up in such a tradition meant that no one ever raised their hand to him.
"The Quaker upbringing was about morality, doing the right thing and being a good person. It was about honesty. I still stand by all those things."
When Rowan was 11, he moved to a Quaker boarding school in York. By that stage, his family was living there too. Life was good all over again. He spent hours in the art room and he got into serious trouble when he was caught in the dormitory of the local girls' boarding school.
He smiles at the memory and concedes that he has always loved women. His mother Moira was a strong woman, who had studied science at Trinity. She was forever quoting Yeats's poetry to him. This was not wasted on him years later, when he inscribed his statue of the Sligo poet with lines of poetry.
On leaving school, Rowan studied art at York. Immediately, he was drawn to sculpting. And that has never changed. As a sculptor, he is a rare breed in that he does the whole process from creating to casting. (He has his own foundry in his Blackrock home.) He was also drawn to women.
He smiles as he recalls the beautiful au pair girls who passed through York. One stunner was a Norwegian called Hanne, and she is now his wife. They spotted each other in a pub. He remembers that she was smoking a long pipe.
"When I saw her, I remember feeling something," he says, clasping his chest.
A Danish girl had warned Hanne to stay away from Rowan. With a line like that, it was inevitable that she would be lured. They got together and over the next few years, they would travel to see each other.
Then Hanne phoned Rowan from Norway to tell him that she was pregnant. On hearing her words, he knew what he had to do. He left art college in his final year, packed his car and took the ferry to Norway. They married and their son Alexander was born. A father by the age of 21, Rowan settled down to work. Hanne did tapestry and he sculpted, when he wasn't giving talks at the Edvard Munch Museum in Oslo. Life was artistic and fulfilling.
Hanne wanted to move to Dublin and it seemed a very good idea, what with Haughey's tax exemption for artists. Then she had their second child -- Teresa.
However, life with an artist is not always easy. One day, fed up with it all, Hanne took the children and fled to Norway. Rowan was devastated. The only way he knew to communicate was through his work, so he created a series of forlorn statues -- some with men in the foetal position -- and engineered an exhibition in Norway. When Hanne saw the show, she understood his anguish and knew this was his way of pleading. But she also said: "Why didn't you just write a letter?"
They all moved back to Dublin and Hanne found herself a new talent. She teaches yoga and runs the classes in Clonlea yoga studio, which is attached to their house.
Having a sunny disposition, sometimes Rowan is surprised at some of the tragic subjects he is commissioned to sculpt -- abandoned bodies, prostitutes, not to mention the Irish Famine.
But his life has not been without tragedy. His sister Lorraine, who suffered from anorexia, committed suicide. One of his Famine statues is of a distraught man carrying a body on his shoulders. He had thought of her emaciated body. It was his Famine sculpture which launched him onto another level, eventually resulting in more Famine statues in Toronto -- the Irish arriving. But his late father never saw the harrowing statues now on the Dublin quays.
"He felt I had no right to do them, because my direct family would not have suffered the same way as others. When the sculpture was finished, he refused to look at it or even a photo of it. It was sad for me. I kept saying that the Quakers were really relevant because they set up all the soup kitchens. The only people coming out of the Famine looking at all concerned were the Quakers.
"But he was at the end of his life," he says with compassion. Rowan is forgiving and benevolent about it, a true Quaker.
The bronze maquettes (scale models) for the 'Age of Woman' commission can be seen at the 'Spring Forms' exhibition, May 25-31 at Solomon Fine Art, Rathmore, Naas, Co Kildare. See www.solomonfineart.ie