Specialising in traditional and contemporary craft, O’Connell Gallery, recently opened on Ashe St. in Clonakilty, presents an evolving collection of ceramics, glass, textiles, woodwork and metalwork from emerging and established Irish artists and craftspeople.
Owner Stephen O’Connell is a Cork city native who has worked in a variety of arts and cultural organisations. With a tradition of furniture-making in his family harking as far back as the 19th century, this is an area that Stephen was always interested in. His studies in furniture-making and restoration kickstarted a passionate interest in antique furniture, that culminated in him moving to London to work in the furniture and decorative arts department at Christie’s auction house. After a number of years there working as a specialist valuer and cataloguer, which Stephen says could be described as ‘an apprenticeship in looking’, he then went to work for a charitable organisation furnishing historic properties all over the UK.
“During this time spent working in London and the UK, I developed an interest in the work of contemporary craftspeople and designer-makers, which I sometimes jokingly think of as an antidote to the antique work I was surrounded by on a day-to-day basis,” he shares. “Whenever I was back in Ireland, I would seek out the work of craftspeople around the country and was really inspired by the quality of work being produced, but surprised at the lack of exhibition opportunities that seemed to exist. “
After nearly a decade in the UK, Stephen and his partner Grace decided to move home and he started working as an independent curator, putting together craft-focused exhibitions for other galleries and arts centres.
His aspiration however from the outset was to have his own gallery space, and, after the inevitable Covid-related slowdown to the development of these plans, Stephen began to look for a suitable location towards the end of last year.
Feeling a connection to Clonakilty, with Stephen having spent a lot of time in West Cork as a child and Grace’s maternal grandparents hailing from just outside the town, the couple identified the premises on Ashe Street as a suitable location for Stephen’s vision.
“The gallery is focused on craft and design, so the selection of work is material-led, drawing from established craft disciplines such as ceramics, glass, textiles, woodwork and metalwork. But the work is not necessarily bound by tradition either, and I will also show pieces by emerging artists and craftspeople for whom the perceived boundaries between fine art, craft and design do not exist.
The gallery is very much a collaborative approach between Stephen and the artists he represents.
“One of the most exciting changes in moving from the market for historical works of art, to the contemporary, is the opportunity to learn directly from the creative source about the genesis of an idea and the creation of a piece – a level of understanding which is often lacking in the auction or secondary market – and so I really enjoy that process of learning from the maker.”
Stephen’s hope is that the gallery helps to support artists and craftspeople in the development of their practices and careers in the long term and provides audiences with the opportunity to view and acquire work of the best quality.
Coming up in the Autumn, he’s really looking forward to showing work by Wicklow-based furniture-maker Stevan Hartung, who was recently commissioned by the Design and Crafts Council of Ireland and the National Museum to create a series of pieces for its permanent collection of contemporary Irish craft.
Offering high-quality everyday items that would make a wonderful gift to unique collector’s items in a beautiful space, O’Connell Gallery is an exciting and inspiring addition to the Clonakilty craft and design scene.