Tuesday 20 February 2018

Couple forging their own path

HUSBAND and wife team, Michael Calnan and Gunvor Anhoj, have been operating their contemporary metalwork company out of the historic surroundings of Russborough House since 2009.

Their work can be found in collections of the OPW, Department of Foreign Affairs, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Crafts Council of Ireland and many private collections. They are also members of the Irish Artist Blacksmith Association.

However, far from being a family tradition, Michael's first venture into the world of blacksmiths came about more by chance than design.

Prior to that, he came from a background involving glass and spent time freelancing for world renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly.

'My father was a carpenter but there aren't any blacksmiths in the family lineage as far as I am aware,' said Michael as he racalled his first encounter with the age-old craft.

'I was back from America on holiday for a month and a month was too long. I needed something to do and saw a blacksmith course was running in Mayo for a week so I signed up. I went back to the States and was walking around an industrial estate hoping to hear the sound of a hammer against an anvil behind closed doors. Luckily enough, I heard such a sound, offered my services and started working there.'

He began carrying out some voluntary work for a museum and started attending college in a UK arts school which placed a major emphasis on blacksmithing. Also attending the same course was his future wife to be, Danish-born Gunvor. Her love affair with blacksmithing began as a young woman working on a farm in Norway.

Gunvor is one of very few female blacksmiths.

Whilst training at the National Centre for Rural Crafts in Hereford she was awarded by the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths in 1998 for her 'Outstanding ability in the craft of the Blacksmith.' She also won first prize at the 2011 RDS National Crafts competition in the traditional metalworks competition.

The pair started a forging business over in England, taking part in the likes of the Chelsea Flower Show and events organised by the Royal Horticultural Society. After a number of years they relocated to Russborough House as Calnan and Anhoj.

'We started business in Ireland at the height of the recession and haven't looked back,' said Michael.

'It's not necessarily the most lucrative business in the world. We won't become millionaires but we love it. We enjoy what we do and that's so important. Plus, Russborough House is a lovely place to be. It's a nice address to have. It's inspiring being located at Russborough. You are surrounded by nature, by beautiful scenery – you really can't help but be inspired by the surroundings.'

The pieces they create range from small items for interiors to large scale exterior pieces for the private and public markets. Their main aim is to retain the highest quality craftsmanship which is tasteful, original and inspiring.

In the 1970s and 1980s, there were genuine concerns that blacksmiths in Ireland were something of a dying breed.

Traditional crafts such as that of the blacksmith appeared to be in trouble as cheaply produced items became available and modern fabrication techniques were introduced. However, Blacksmiths and other older crafts appear to be undergoing somewhat of a renaissance at the moment, something Michael has recognised.

'I think gradually people have rediscovered the integrity in some of the older crafts. There are definitely more blacksmiths coming into the arena. More and more people are mixing contemporary design with the old crafts. The creative aspect of blacksmithing also appeals to people. There is always a market out there for high-quality crafts.'

As artists, Michael and Gunvor deal with everyday matters from birth to death, family, love, loss and celebration. Their deep understanding of traditional skill plus experiences from their diverse backgrounds come together in their sculptural pieces that are created using forged iron, steel, bronze, stone and bog oak.

The sell their creations direct from their forge at Russborough House and, as a design-based business, their stock is always changing. Customers can also commission something unique or from Calnan and Anhoj's portfolio of work. They will also email on designs based on the client's ideas followed by an estimate of costings.

Michael explained: 'I like work that can communicate something fundamental to us, that we can realise a connection with in some unexplainable way. My work starts with sketches that become three dimensional using hearth and anvil and at some point I realise a maquette or model. Our craft is that of the blacksmith – hearth, hammer and anvil blends with 1950s industrial equipment and contemporary design. The possibilities are infinite when this ancient trade is combined with our own artistic concepts. Our main focus would be sculpture work, both internal and external.'

The couple are also helping to keep their ancient craft alive by facilitating short courses, with Gunvor as the tutor. Most courses are suitable for beginners and there is a broad programme of projects to choose from. They have attracted participants from all walks of life. Some sign up because they want to experience something different or want to acquire the knowledge and skill sets to set up a forge at home. Artists and craftspeople have also take part, along with parents who want to give their children the hands-on experience of a traditional skill.

The courses have proved a huge success, once again highlighting the increasing popularity of blacksmithing and other traditional crafts.

'It is extraordinary the variety of individuals we get doing the courses. At this stage we are only short of a priest!' said Michael.

They are also exhibited at the Russborough Garden Sculpture Exhibition in conjunction with Gormleys Fine Art, which finished up last Sunday. The exhibition showcased the works of leading Irish and international sculptors with over 180 art works featured.

Wicklow People

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