For the second week of our Material Matters series, we are featuring Castlefreke based visual artist Michael Ray. Michael has been connected with both the West Cork Arts Centre and the Arts for Health team for almost twenty years. He has displayed at the Centre many times and has also visited hospitals around Cork, working with patients to create a variety of work as part of the Arts for Health team.
Michael is renowned for his work with glass, successfully exhibiting his work around the world. Yet, during the lockdown, Michael's primary focus turned to wood. I asked Michael what he has been working on recently.
"Well during the lockdown I suddenly got a really bad toothache" Michael laughed. "I wasn't able to go to the dentist with it so it became very difficult to live with. To distract myself from the pain I would go out to my shed and start crafting. Hacking away at the wood kind of took me to another place and became a sort of therapeutic relief. I wasn't making anything specific at first but I eventually realised what I was making looked like teeth and that's primarily what I have been working on lately".
Michael has an impressive ability to work with a variety of materials. Wood and glass are wildly different materials so I was interested to learn about his process with wood and what that feels like to work with.
"I first look for a piece of wood that is still growing. I like to work with greenwood because you're able to interact with it in interesting ways. It moves and changes shape dynamically so you have to be adaptable. I'll take a small branch, usually the size of a fire log, and cut it into an appropriate length. I strip the bark from it as I go. The making process starts by shaping the 'legs' of the piece which end up as the roots of the tooth. I'll rough out three of these using an adze and gouge. These legs can be anywhere up to two feet in length. Once I have those done I decide if I'm going to hollow out the main bulk of the tooth or leave it mostly solid. If I decide to hollow it out I’ll use a hook knife, which is sort of like an ice cream scoop but extremely sharp. This allows me to make curved cuts into the wood. Once that is done I'll apply a finish to the piece. I might use a blowtorch to create a charred surface to the piece, to make the wood split, and from there, apply metal leaf or a wax to keep it all smooth and sealed. I may also burnish the wood which presses the fibres down and helps the wood shine. The final product can look very animated, almost like it’s about to move off. It's a very organic process. You have to adapt to the wood and sometimes the wood can present unexpected opportunities such as knots and the directional changes in growth rings.
With glass, you have a very clear picture of what you want the piece to look like. You can’t be as prescriptive with wood which makes it a creative challenge but that's what I like about it. some of my process’s go against traditional crafting conventions of making something perfect. The destructive qualities of heat for instance, can turn the whole process on its head and allows for something new and unexpected to happen".
As the project is still ongoing, Michael isn't sure if this work will become public just yet but if you are interested in learning more about Michael's glass work, you can see examples on his website www.glitteringglass.com