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Sunday 15 July 2018

Sculptor Maurice 'Who?' steps out of the shadows

On show: Sculptor Maurice Harron's face may not be well known but his public works, like 'Chieftain' in Roscommon, are very familiar
On show: Sculptor Maurice Harron's face may not be well known but his public works, like 'Chieftain' in Roscommon, are very familiar

Maurice Harron has produced some of the most popular sculptures in the country. I asked a prominent art historian about his work. "Maurice who?" he said. Images of Harron's sculptures have graced newspaper and magazine pages, have featured in advertisements and television documentaries. His image of two men reaching out to shake hands in Derry, has become an icon of the peace process.

His 18ft high trio of figures on the Donegal-Derry border at Strabane was, he says, the country's largest public sculpture until the erection of Dublin's Spire.

His 15ft horseback 'Chieftain' in Roscommon is the country's most popular public sculpture, according to a RTE online poll. And yet Harron's name is virtually unknown.

"I'm not in the least bit 'hard cheesed' about it," says Harron. "Where public art is concerned, the name doesn't matter. Once you put something like that up, you forget it. It becomes part of public property and the public imagination."

Born in Donegal and raised in Derry, Harron studied at the Ulster College of Art and Design and then taught art. In 1989, he entered a competition to provide a sculpture at the entrance to Derry. His first idea was a sculpture of two men staring at each other, signifying the animosity that existed between the two communities. But as he worked on his entry, trying to capture this troubled relationship, he changed his mind.

Instead he made his two figures reach out and shake hands, and called it 'Reconciliation'. The idea won Harron the competition, but as the deadline for casting the figures approached, he made a crucial alteration. "I separated the men a bit, so the hands don't meet." This reconciliation was "an 'in progress' thing".

Installed in Carlisle Square in Derry in 1991, Harron's piece caught the public imagination, and quickly became known as 'Hands Across the Divide'. Though he never acquired any personal fame for it, it raised his profile and, when the 'Per cent for Art Scheme' was launched a few years later (which mandated that 1pc of the budget of all public capital works should be spent on public art), he was well positioned to take advantage.

Until now, Harron has been content to let his work do the talking for him.

"I'm not trying to be clever with people," he says. "I'm trying to put up a universal symbol that's very clear. You have to respect people. It is presumptuous to put up an art work in a public zone. Thousands of people drive past my work every day, and the last thing on their minds is art." The impact of his work is a "slow release", he says.

Private art is a different sphere, however. In June, Harron will dip his toe into the waters of private art sales, with some smaller works on sale for the first time in an auction of 'Important Irish Art' at Adam's. In September, he will stage his first exhibition of small-scale sculpture at the Gordon Gallery in Derry.

Letting your art talk for you when it's 18ft high and on a main road is one thing; but when it comes to getting the public to visit your work in a gallery, and buy it, you have to do some talking yourself, and so Harron has stepped, cautiously, out of the shadows.

In the meantime, though, there is the next public commission to finish, a series of 28ft figures for a site outside Tullamore.

The steel substructure weighs five tonnes, and Harron spent the week working on it in his foundry, with four staff, using cranes and overhead gantries to manoeuvre the parts into position.

"Wouldn't it be great to do watercolours," he said.

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