By Mary Lou Devine
If you are a visitor to or a resident of Ottawa, and if you take a tour around the city and its environs, you will see many beautiful examples of this month’s artist’s work. In the Byward Market, the “Our Fence” project is a joy to behold. Blackburn Hamlet has its own dancers, a sculpture which captures the movement of dance perfectly and which incorporates both adult and child sized figures, representative of any community. Rideau Hall, the residence of the Governor General of Canada, displays many examples of his expertise and artistry, most notably that of the crests and coat of Arms on the Ceremonial Doors at the Queen’s Entrance to the residence. Other, less visible works are either installed at private residences or in condominium lobbies. One very intriguing installation is “The Enchanted Garden”, a 6’ by 22’ piece of beauty and whimsy which can be viewed in the portfolio portion of his website. The garden fits perfectly into the infrastructure of the lobby and is sure to be a source of pleasure for the residents of the building. Fortunate are the owners of “Waterfall”, a fantastic piece of art constructed from weathering steel and aluminum, which has been nestled into a corner between a small shed and the house.
Cairn Cunnane is the artist behind all of this. He has been connected with Ottawa for most of his life. He took art classes in high school and became an architectural blacksmith, while also dabbling in sculptural work. He believes that it is important to always learn more, from books, people and/or experience. He completed one year of art history at the University of Ottawa and has also taken courses in drawing, photography and clay.
He was drawn to blacksmithing because of metal’s durability – it can be out in the world with people, especially children, and weather. The fact that metal can be so rigid in its solid form but so malleable when it is heated red hot, allowing one to change its form before it freezes into rigidity again, is another part of his trade that intrigues and interests him. Most of his work is created by forging. Unlike casting, where a mould is made and metal is poured into it, Cunnane heats the metal and works it directly for each, brief moment it is glowing hot enough to manipulate.
While he was always working on artistic projects, paying work was more available on the architectural side of his craft and his main focus was originally centred on that. He says that, sometimes, the two meet, as evidenced by the Fence and other projects. Cunnane’s evolution from architectural blacksmith to artist blacksmith was a long, hard road. Over the course of time, however, he realized that he wanted to say something with his work and he wanted people to hear what he had to say.
One can hear him loud and clear on the “Our Fence” project which was created in 2016. Located on Dalhousie Street at Bingham Park, the fence is a wonder and a joy to those who pass by or use the park’s facilities. When I visited the park on a recent sunny Saturday, there were a number of families enjoying the splash pool and the play structures within the grounds. My attention, however, was drawn to the fence itself. It is evocative of the origins of the area which was originally a swamp and no man’s land. When the decision was made to build the Rideau canal to allow boat traffic to bypass the Rideau falls, the area was settled by “rough Irish and French” workers. The land on which the park is situated was donated to the city by Mayor Samuel Bingham, who was also a lumber Baron. A portion of the fence, which consists of two large abstract trees, is representative of Mayor Bingham’s gift to the city. There is a river which runs through the whole piece, as well as a waterfall. Most intriguing to me was the construction of the fence, which is at times irregular and which incorporates a number of figures, some of whom (children) are trying to break into or out of the park, through the fence. It is worth it to stop by and see this piece of figurative art and to see how something which provides safety and security can also be beautiful and long-lasting.
Cairn has completed a number of public art installations throughout the city of Ottawa. In approaching a project, he indicates that he first tries to understand its purpose, the site and who will experience it. After that, he says it goes by feel. He starts sketching ideas or making models and then lets things develop. Any one project can take an amazing amount of time and effort. From what I have seen, it’s been worth it. Cunnane can make steel dance, he can make it musical, he can make it fight. Take a look at his portfolio on his website and you will see what I mean. While he works on both large projects and smaller pieces of art, he says that he creates a piece according to how he sees it and in relation to the space it might occupy. They evolve the same way; some are simply completed faster.
While he mainly uses various types of metal, Cunnane also incorporates other elements such as glass, wood and found objects. Examples of these pieces, such as Windows. Brain Project, Harmony, Magical Mystery Tour and his Architectural Danse Series, can be seen in his Crossover folio on his website.
In terms of his future, Cunnane says that he quite likes the work he is doing and that there is so much more that he would like to do. When asked if he had any advice for those who may wish to get involved in artistic metal work as a hobby or leisure activity or to start along a path to a career in metal work, Cairn replied, “I’d say start. There are plenty of courses and workshops (to take) if you can. Or just explore with whatever is at hand and things have a way of evolving. Have fun, take a chance, there are no rules, make your own!”. Good advice, I’d say.
Cairn Cunnane’s marvellous work can be seen at various locations around Ottawa, such as:
- Our Fence, Dalhousie Street
- Connections, Overbrook Community Centre
- Ripples, Aylmer, Quebec
- Dancers, Blackburn Hamlet
You can also see examples of his work at https://cairncunnane.ca.