It’s delightfully appropriate that Silver Springs should be the birthplace of a metalworker with the light touch of Farhad O’Neill. From his Massachusetts start in life, he was brought up in Canada, then moved to Belfast in the mid Nineties to establish the O’Neill Valley Metalworks.
O’Neill has become best known for his screens, which have a delicate, lacy appearance. Commissioned pieces can be found all round Northern Ireland – in hotels, restaurants and bars and on the cruise liner Song of America.
For O’Neill the current fascination for commissioning metalwork coincides with a resurgence in and rediscovery of traditional metalwork skills. ‘Just a few years ago it was difficult to find anyone to produce my sort of work, now there is a growing band of people working with metals in many different ways. It’s also true that this rebirth has coincided with the proliferation of contemporary style interiors. In that context metals can look really good.’
The screens have a powerful lyrical quality so it comes as no surprise that O’Neill also has a talent for music. ‘I took a fine arts degree with music as my major, and art as my minor. The fine arts college was next to the music college and I gravitated towards the sculpture studio,’ he says. ‘Pieces started to sell and then came the opportunity to show in exhibitions. Metal was my natural medium. In the beginning scrap was twisted, bent and welded into candelabras and furniture, then I moved on to copper, brass, stainless steel, then came the sheet metal work.’
The intricate and complex patterns draw their inspiration from two very different, but entirely sympathetic sources – Arabic lattice work and Celtic pattern. ‘I think of the effect as organised chaos,’ says O’Neill. ‘The starting point is a simple vocabulary composed of basic designs which can be interlaced and adapted in an infinite number of ways. I work in a very freehand way, sometimes just cutting into the surface without a drawn plan. There is always a system, but I don’t let it dominate and stifle the possibility of trying something different or new.’
His latest commissions show a move away from the two-dimensional, with work currently underway on a large Cubist-influenced statue of a Celtic warrior constructed from pieces of shaped steel.