Landscape architect Mark Connelley found himself at a turning point in his life and decided to take a solo vacation to Ireland. In addition to playing designated driver for his elderly sheepherder of a host, he began to study ordnance maps of County Kerry. What was the logic behind a singular monolithic stone in a clearing, dragged purposefully into place by ancient peoples? Connelley became entranced by the deliberate placement of stone circles, dolmens, and other primeval structures in the Irish landscape. “Some things from the past just grab you,” he says, “and I knew when it came time to start making art, I had to explore this.”
Years later, Connelley left behind the corporate world to become a full time large-scale sculptor, inspired by not just Ireland, but by myth, folklore, and an “addiction to the past.” His work consists of primal materials, such as steel, iron and concrete, in order to reconcile ancient themes with a modern context.
Connelley had been hired straight out of college by a firm that specialized in resort design, traveling the world to work with golf courses and sculpture gardens. All the while, he kept a sketchbook of ideas, jotting down forms that appealed to him. The economic downturn in 2008 nudged him toward full time artist status. “There’s a lot of comfort in the corporate world,” he says. “And it’s intimidating when you’re responsible for every detail of a work as an artist. But the rewards are so much greater.”
Details are important to Connelley, who sees even the utilitarian aspects of his work as part of the aesthetics. The Wishing Stone is a fitting example, whose steel, concrete, and cast iron forms are held together by large prominent silver bolts. “I love bolts,” he declares, placing attention on them just as he does the emphasized line forms of the sculpture’s frontal side. The lines, created by the negative space of clean cuts into metal, are inspired by ogham, an ancient mysterious alphabet found in many parts of Ireland. The sculpture encloses a small electric candle, though Connelley admits he would prefer a real one flowing through the inside of the piece and onto the ground.
For the Forgotten, made with steel and concrete, is comprised of all the items within his studio that didn’t work for other sculptures, but he just couldn’t get rid of — “Like the Island of Misfit Toys from the old claymation Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer movie in the 1960s,” he says. Connelley had poured the concrete at too cold of a temperature, which resulted in a choppy irregular texture that could not be replicated. Corten steel, a favorite material, will produce self-protecting rust when subjected to the elements. The surface appearance of the sculpture will change over its lifetime.
Connelley is as concerned with his craft as he is with his concept. He is the sole fabricator of his works, having learned a majority of his techniques with Kyle Van Lusk at Brevard College. “I like the meditative aspect of focusing on the bead in welding,” he says. Connelly likes to hear the phrase: “that’s a good weld.”
Harkening back to his career as a landscape architect, Connelley is considering how to create work that will encompass entire environments, the experience of “standing in that clearing and absorbing the entire milieu.” He currently has plans for a piece called Defiance, consisting of three monolithic counterbalanced pieces inspired by a Space Odyssey aesthetic. “I hope to show that ancient themes can be futuristic,” he says, with more tense angles and precarious balance points. Whatever lies ahead, futuristic or otherwise, Connelley’s continues to draw from his “unexplained connection” to remnants of the past.