Jane Murtagh is an artist metalsmith working with non ferrous metals from her studio in Co. Clare. She studied Fine Art & Metalwork in IADT, and is a member of DCCI and Irish Artist Blacksmiths Association.
Jane develops a visual narrative in metal using the techniques of repousse, etching and gilding. A lifelong interest in ethnobotany has inspired a research process towards developing a narrative delivered through metal. Inspiration from 18th century botanical lace, pigment extracted from the dog whelk off the mayo coastline are just two examples of this process. The patination of metal is created by heat, chemicals and wood shavings. Jane pushes the boundary of metalwork, creating sculptural artistic pieces.
What’s a typical day in the studio like for you?
My working day in the studio can be so varied depending if I am working on a Repousse panel, forging round copper bar for a stem or etching a panel.
For repousse, I could be melting a 50cm square pitch block, annealing the copper sheet, placing the sheet metal on top of the warm pitch before chasing the outline of the design.
With forging, I would be annealing the round bar to a red heat, forging on my anvil and bending and shaping using my 200 year old Fly press.
Etching is altogether quieter and calmer! After de-greasing the sheet of copper, I paint everywhere I don’t want etched with a stop-out varnish, depending on the design this can take a few days. The plate is submerged into a etching bath of Ferric Chloride for a few days, depending on how much of the metal I want eaten away.
Patination and waxing the work is the final stage and that’s very experimental and full of surprises, but when it goes right it’s fabulous. I use a variety of techniques for patination, burying the metal under wood shavings, fuming with chemicals under plastic and stippling with the torch and then, if there’s gilding to do it happens at the very final stage.
What do you like most about your work?
After many drawings, listening out for guidance from a piece of music or a line of text, abandoning said drawings, starting again and then finally getting to pick up my favourite 40 year old German Repousse hammer – the first strike of the hammer, the chased line appearing and then the shocking realisation and delight when my work is bought in an exhibition or work commissioned.
What do you like least about your work?
The sleepless nights and anxiety when there’s a stubborn technical glitch, though it usually solves itself at 4am. The quality of sheet copper and gilding metal varies quite a bit in the last 10 years, that can throw up tremendous challenges when forging and patinating.
What’s your favourite craft item in your home?
There are a few items that I love around my home. A special one is a large 65cm sycamore platter by Ciarán Forbes which we love using at Christmas, it is so generous in size, beautifully elegant and shallow and of course beautifully made. I am very lucky to have a forged sculpture of a Hare by Gunvor Anhoj, a Danish artist blacksmith working in Co. Wicklow. It’s like a line drawing, full of energy and simplicity and brilliantly crafted. And lastly, a late 19th century French clock with a bisel clock face, exposed lead weights and big brass pendulum supported on the wall by decorative cast iron brackets, a joy to listen to and look at.
Find older mentors in this profession because more than likely they will have the skills to show you how to make tools and find solutions, or at least give you the mindset to look for solutions because there's very little that hasn't been worked out (think bronze age) and never stop looking and learning.
What other maker in your discipline do you most look up to?
I’m inspired by a variety of artists and makers not necessarily in my discipline. I admire and look to the drawings and bronze sculptures of David Nash for their simplicity, workmanship, humanity and scale. The American blacksmith Tom Joyce made a big impression when he came to talk at IABA’s International Forge In in Monaghan in 2011. Gunvor Anhoj for her skill and design. Charles Tyrrell – painter, for showing me the way into a drawing, getting to the point of it all, paring it down.
What advice would you give someone who is considering this craft career?
Definitely go for it, find a good hands-on course. Find older mentors in this profession because more than likely they will have the skills to show you how to make tools and find solutions, or at least give you the mindset to look for solutions because there’s very little that hasn’t been worked out (think bronze age) and never stop looking and learning.
How do you start your day?
Cup of tea, feed the hens, light stoves, throw washing in the machine, maybe check emails then it is into the studio where I would have lit the stove earlier. Pace around for a bit looking at yesterdays work, check wood shaving patination, make adjustments to drawings, begin hammering and on it goes.
What’s the first thing you do when you leave the studio?
After I’ve turned off my gas and checked all is as it should be for the next day I fill up the baskets with wood for the house which is beside my studio, lock the hens up, maybe reply to emails while dinner cooks.