Sunday 25 March 2018

Artist finds way back to the light

The recession hit Evan Connon hard, but out of it, he found himself, and he found love, writes Lucinda O'Sullivan

AS WE attend church this Christmas, we will probably gaze up at the wonderful stained glass windows but, whilst admiring their beauty, we tend not to think about the artists who created them down through the generations.

In fact, we have a rich history of stained glass artists in Ireland, from Harry Clarke, whom many will know from his glorious windows in Bewley's Cafe, to Evie Hone, whose most important work is probably the East Window for the chapel at Eton College, but, of course, there are fine examples around Ireland, including at Cathal Brugha Barracks.

Almost two years ago, I wrote about Evan Connon, a stained glass artist, whose talent came down from his grandfather who had worked for Harry Clarke. As a child, Evan was never without a pencil in his hand. When he was 15, his father took him to the studios of Earley & Co, one of the most prestigious ecclesiastical decorators in Ireland and the UK. So began the long traditional apprenticeship.

However, just like every other business, the recession affected the stained glass profession and when I met Evan he was finding things very difficult. Since then, though, some wonderful things have happened, including meeting his partner, Anne O'Sullivan, and having a little girl, Evie.

"At that point in 2010, when we spoke, I had no money, the company was going down. I had the Revenue on my back and it was kind of a bad place where I was," says Evan.

On a happier note, Evan and Anne, who is from Dunshaughlin in Co Meath, had met in March 2010 in the Oarsman Pub in Ringsend. "I was avoiding the rugby – my sister and my brother in law were watching it on TV – and I said, 'to hell with this, I'm going over for a drink until it is over'. I was sitting there, minding my own business and I got 'accosted' by His Lordship," the statuesque Anne says with a laugh.

"I thought, this dude has rocked up to me, and I remember I wanted to go to the bathroom, and I turned around to him and said, 'what height do you think I am'? He said, 'I think you're nearly 6ft.' So, I thought, that's all right then, I'll stand up!"

"I'm only 5ft 4," says Evan. "We hit it off. I knew she was a very tall lady, but I found Anne very comforting. When Connon Studios was in serious trouble, she was great to come back to. She would say 'it will get better'. She had a great motto: 'the more muck you throw, it will eventually stick'.

"I'd spoken to my brother-in-law, the film director John Moore, who is currently directing the fifth Die Hard movie – A Good Day to Die Hard – and he advised me to start using the internet. He said 'it's going to take a lot of work making yourself known – use the internet and ring architects'. I didn't have the price of the diesel for the van, but I had the internet at home! I rang around architects for two years but none of them had any work. I realised then it was either let the business go bang, or fight on. I just turned then, something in the back of my head said, I did this hardship for eight years when training, it was hard then, and I can take two years of this. Eventually I got a call from St Kevin's Church in Harrington Street and we got the contract to do the altar windows and I was away," Evan says.

"After the Sunday Independent article in January 2011, lots of people said they'd seen me, and it gave me a bit of pride. When someone says you're good, it gives you the confidence to keep going for another month or two. People are hitting the wall now, they're looking for a lift. They're not looking for €100,000, they're looking for normality. The article gave me the confidence to tell myself, 'yes, you are an artist', and I ended up doing three pieces. There was one of Anne and I. We call it Oh Love, Come Away With Me. Anne was done in stained glass with beautiful drapery, like a princess, and I'm done as an artist in a brown cloak with nothing to give but love," Evan explains.

"The recession made me a better artist. It made me look at what is what with me, and not what is accumulated in terms of stuff. If there was one thing out of the recession, it is that I found myself.

"Before, it was what we wore or drove up to the party in, now we are making things and bringing cakes, we are bringing something to it. People say to me that maybe they are painting, it might be only six months, and I say to them keep at it. It mightn't bloom the first year or the second year, but it will eventually," Evan says.

"I went to the Enterprise Board in September 2011 and they said they would get back to me and I'm still waiting for that phone call. It got so bad I went to the social welfare officer to see what I could get by the way of relief and she said you have to produce a set of files and accounts. I said, what am I entitled to and it was almost like a screaming match. I said, if I had the money to get accounts done, I wouldn't be standing there. Anne went into labour that night and Evie was born."

Anne works for a contract furniture maker, John O'Connell furniture. The company is owned by two brothers, who make furniture for hotels and restaurants.

Anne is actually a pastry chef by trade, having trained in Cathal Brugha Street. Indeed, her last cheffing job was at the Cafe Royale in Regent Street in London but she had to give up working in that industry as she developed contact dermatitis.

In August 2011, the tide turned for Evan. "I got a call from a grade 1 conservation architect, Michael O'Boyle, to go into St Kevin's Church on Harrington Street. There have been contracts going out to German companies in this country but they wanted to use Irish stained glass artists. These windows were designed in the 1880s by Pugin and the Earleys, and we had to remove all the windows and restore them to their original condition."

Evan then also got a call regarding St Patrick's Cathedral from architect John Beauchamp, of Benjamin + Beauchamp in Somerset.

"We won the contract for that work and we are the first Irish studio to be restoring full windows in St Patrick's Cathedral as they would previously have been sent to England. Again, it was a fabulous confidence boost – nine months ago we were on the floor and now we are coming back with confidence in the service we can provide and the Grade 1 conservation.

"I see myself being the artist I was trained to be. I think Ireland at the moment may be in a recession but people are creating more, which is a more Irish trait rather than trying to keep up. We have got a new studio, best studio I've ever had, in Crumlin Business Park and I'm giving it my best shot. I'm hoping to get into England also. People have been great, coming up and saying 'well done, you've got going again'. The only thing I can say about a recession is, 'your boat might be sinking but it's not gone yet'."

Connon Stained Glass Studio is at 10A, Crumlin Business Park, Dublin 12

Call (087) 404-8796 stainedglass

Email: connonstained

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