Wicklow People

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TV set creator Ellie is behind the striking sculpture in Rathdrum

Reporter David Medcalf visited the Kilcoole workshop of Ellie McNamara, whose work has become part of the Rathdrum streetscape and who spends much of her time inventing backdrops for TV series


Ellie McNamara with her sculpture of a farmer and his dog in Rathdrum

Ellie McNamara with her sculpture of a farmer and his dog in Rathdrum

Ellie McNamara with her sculpture of a farmer and his dog in Rathdrum


So what do you do with yourself, Ellie? 'I'm making a living from creating,' she replies thoughtfully - and there are not many sculptors who can say as much.

Granted, not all of her skills are channelled into traditional sculpting. Though she is capable of producing monuments, grand examples of public art, she has adapted to suit the commercial demands of the times we live in.

So, on the one hand, she has three sculptures decorating the streetscape of her adopted home town Rathrdrum. And on the other, she pays the bills by making sets for television programmes.

They are very different genres.

Her Black Bird, which welcomes people to Rathdrum as it stands on a rock in the roundabout at the foot of the main street, may be expected to outlast the artist. In contrast, a sewer system invented as a backdrop for drama on the small screen will be seen by millions one week and then probably cast aside forever.

'I'm making a living from creating.' Now that the phrase has escaped from her mouth, she decides that it is entirely appropriate. And she is happy that she can make a living from exploring such apparently diverse fields.

Aged in her late thirties, Ellie is proud to be a Clare woman. Her late father was an art teacher - which may help to explain some of his daughter's aptitude. Her mother runs a business in Ennis town - which may account for some of her daughter's commercial cop-on.

It was clear from an early age that Ellie was artistically inclined, arriving in Dublin in 1999 to study at the Dún Laoghaire College of Art. She enrolled in the department specialising in the making of models and in special effects, taking a particular interest in matters sculptural. This was the practical, commercial end of art education, with none of the flowery, abstract stuff of the fine arts.

It was in Dún Laoghaire that she first met husband-to-be John, a Dubliner who persuaded her to work on a short film he was shooting. She made him a most fetching chicken costume for the production. Such is the stuff of romance.

John has gone on since graduation to work as a script-writer and director of adverts and corporate videos, while his partner left college and headed directly for the Ardmore film studios in Bray. Her first job was in the props department for the movie 'Ella Enchanted' devising crowns and jewellery. Ellie's pieces had to look real enough in front of the camera but be light enough fit comfortably on members of a cast which included Heidi Klum. She makes no pretence of being on first name terms with the German supermodel turned actress.

'Usually I am in the background,' she says of her craft, though occasionally she may be called up on to sets to spruce up a piece of scenery that has been bashed about during stunts or fight scenes. 'Ella Enchanted' led on to 'King Arthur', the cast of which included Keira Knightley as Guinevere, who is likewise not on the Christmas card list. While the stars move on, she has remained ever since at the service of the industry, whether in Ardmore or out on location.

'One job leads to the next,' she says gratefully, noting that work has become increasingly dominated by television work rather than feature film. The next big break was the 'Vikings' series which started in 2012 when she was taken on as a sculptor and model maker.

As a result she knows more than most about ancient Scandinavian head-gear and weaponry, having cultivated an ability to work in just about any medium which might happen to come to hand, from the clean lines of aluminium to the rounder contours of clay.

Experience has also made Ellie a dab hand exploiting the full creative potential of polystyrene. To most of us its use does not extend beyond packaging or insulation. But for her it is the stuff of large-scale but light weight models which show up well for the cameras - the ultimate in throwaway art.

Her skills have remained in demand, to be enjoyed (though seldom consciously appreciated) by the audience who tune in to 'Penny Dreadful' and more recently 'Badlands'. The first named series turned locations in Dublin into a Dickensian style London while the second is set in a bleak imaginary world which smacks of 'Mad Max'.

Along the way, she and John decided to move to Rathdrum, conveniently close to Ireland's answer to Hollywood in Bray. Their choice of house in 2009 was a 'fixer upper' as Ellie recalls it, built in 1860 and requiring a year of do-it-yourself to lick into the shape the couple wanted.

One of the principal selling points of the property was the shed in the back yard where she was able to use occasionally as her professional studio.

'Rathdrum has been a brilliant move,' muses the woman from Inch in Clare who is bringing up two children in the heart of County Wicklow. 'There is a nice pace to life and loads of places to walk and Avondale is close by. I feel we have settled.'

She has clearly been accepted as a valuable member of the community in Rathdrum, as she had the honour of being chosen to make the Parnell memorial lecture on Ivy Day last year. Her striking but straightforward style of sculpture is appreciated on the treble around the town, with her statue of the late George Thomas admired in the Memorial Park since 2010.

The Blackbird of Avondale was commissioned by the local tidy towns and the county women's committee the following year. And more recently, 'Fair day' has introduced a likeness of a farmer with his dog has been installed at the behest of the county council's town and village renewal scheme. It is due to be formally unveiled shortly but has already been much enjoyed by passers-by - including Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

The artist reveals that the farmer now cast in bronze was inspired by no particular person but came from looking at hundreds of pictures. However, the model for the sheepdog is a collie called Danny, owned by artist Seighean O Draoi.

Ellie McNamara still has her shed at home in Rathdrum available for personal projects but as the work in television became more demanding and ever larger in scale, she decided in 2015 to establish a proper workshop. She teamed up with fellow model maker Karl Connolly to establish All Shapes All Makes on an industrial estate in Kilcoole.

From the outside the All Shapes All Makes headquarters could be making kitchens or some other household furniture. However, the actual output is not so humdrum, having included a 26 feet long mink whale which was made from polystyrene and rubber for 'Vikings' to be floated on Lough Dan.

It was so big that Ellie and Karl positioned it diagonally across the workshop floor as it simply would not have fitted in otherwise. They have also turned out a rhinoceros or two, not to mention a mastodon sporting horribly fearsome realistic tusks.

As well as delving into sewers they have also been known to generate cave complexes and life-size train engines. The attention to finicky detail required is meticulous at times, as when they re-created a Georgian house interior featuring elaborate plasterwork for 'Penny Dreadful'.

Ellie admits that she often watches telly not so much for the dramatic story lines as the look of the background behind the human characters. She is part of a world-wide industry, working to briefs which may be drawn up on either side of the Atlantic and often seen first by viewers in the United States. She has to be very careful about what she can reveal of the post-Apocalyptic world of 'Badlands', for instance, for fear of giving away the plot.

Amidst all of the TV work, with its high pressures, high-def standards and tight deadlines, she has successfully retained her individual identity as a sculptor. Last year, for instance, she made sculptures for the commemorations in Denmark recalling the naval history of Jutland, a prized international commission.

Nearer to home, All Shapes and All Makes came up with a display of model ships for the museum at the Epic Ireland exhibition on Dublin's north quays on the Liffey. There is life beyond the workshop in Kilcoole and she reserves some of her flair for more more substantial designs.

She was delighted recently to be able to bring her native West of Ireland and her adopted county together when she was invited to help design the World War One Peace Park in Ennis.

Much of the work commemorating those who died in conflict was made from glass but she made sure the glass was set in a base of white limestone.

The rock was chosen to mirror the military gravestones of Flanders but this limestone came from Wicklow's own Glencullen.

'I am happy as long as I am creating,' Ellie McNamara reiterates, 'and sculpture is the main interest.'