Kevin O'Dwyer is an artist who creates in silver. While to many, this may be a sweeping statement of some grandeur - I feel his work deserves the description. A long and distinguished career has given rise to a body of work unsurpassed in modern silversmithing and its sheer volume is quite staggering.
My first contact with a piece of silver by O'Dwyer was a teapot of restrained and formal proportions, both functional and decorative, the handles of which were a flamboyant triple squiggle of forged and gilded metal; a frivolous enjoyment of line and an expression of joie de vivre which is present throughout his work. His 'Rocking Teapots' were part of a solo exhibition at the Artizana Gallery which were aptly described as 'teapots that are really off their trolley...'; the lively and witty creations brought the previously traditional image of silversmithing into the modern arena. The problem with silver is that it has been inextricably connected with wealth and property, perceived as precious, untouchable- the 'family silver'. In the past the fortunes of the goldsmith have relied on the gentry and the titled of the land, whose status in society has depended on the display of conspicuous consumption. Thus the great 18th century goldsmiths produced their splendid designs to display their skills and catch the eye at lavish functions and celebrations. The more famous of these practitioners were, of course, aided by an army of craftsmen all specialising in their particular area of excellence - raising, casting, engraving and finishing each piece to order.
The modern silversmith tends to be a loner. Kevin O'Dwyer is such a man. It was with great surprise that I entered his workshop in Dublin and realised that all of his pieces were produced in that small space. Every conceivable inch of the studio is covered with anvils, hammers and metalworking implements. In this environment he has produced work in which blows of the hammer compress, contract or stretch the metal into ever more inventive forms and yet maintain an intense respect for the limitations of the medium. As a result, the pieces are often a complex mixture of opposites - the straight and crisply defined edges of an almost triangular sauceboat, juxtaposed with a sensuously, curling handle and button-ball feet. Stylistically a million miles away from regency elegance or the rococo flourish, yet employing aspects of both. O'Dwyer has had a diverse apprenticeship, both in life and in his profession. The dual experience of his American and Irish upbringing have had a profound effect on his outlook and the scope of his creative influences. Beginning his training in jewellery in 1979, O'Dwyer progressed swiftly through most of the important techniques of metalwork such as forging, raising, fabricating, and culminated, in apprenticeships with jeweller Harriet Dreissigger and the innovative silversmith William Frederick in Chicago. Further work on non-functional hollowware with Heikki Seppa made a particular impact on his design development. His craftsmanship and artistry have moved effortlessly from jewellery to silversmithing without missing a beat or sacrificing the proportion of the object.
The scale of a work of art is always important and this is particularly vital when the piece is made of metal. Silver is a hard substance with a rigid nature that is notoriously difficult to manipulate into a pleasing form. It is often the very handling of a piece of silver which can give most pleasure, and the weight and balance of the object must be combined with its visual effect. The three-piece candelabra which was commissioned by the Ulster Museum in 1995 illustrates O'Dwyer's talent for theatrical display. The three elements form an imposing centrepiece with an inexhaustible sequence of arrangements, languishing on the table in a sensual and lazy flow. Coiled like a spring yet light to the touch with only the hammermarks on the surface as a decorative motif.
The attraction of these creations is the relationship between the complimenting shapes - the solid form and the space that surrounds it. In a further development of the teapot series, O'Dwyer literally suspends the body of the pot within the circle of its own handles. In expanding the focus of the object he invites the viewer to explore the full range of the piece and its mobility. There is an irresistible temptation to behave like a naughty child at the teaparty and rock the teapot! O'Dwyer's wit however never becomes whimsy, and while his sense of humour is evident throughout his work, his craftsmanship and the focus of his designs remain his stronghold.
Technical experimentation with the surface decoration encourages the play of light upon silver. O'Dwyer's fascination with the reflective qualities of his pieces is evident in the variations of his finish. The highly polished surfaces of his forged handles contrast with the planished, scratch brushed, etched and engraved surfaces of his vessel forms. His intricate patterning is often produced using a 19th century roller mill technique that presses the flat surface of the silver sheet between etched and engraved steel plates. These figure motifs give the work a tactile and organic quality not unlike lichen on the bark of the tree. The combination of this together with the purity of his linear designs clearly depicts the architectural influences of the Chicago skyline and the softening effect of the Celtic landscape.
While most of O'Dwyer's work is indisputably functional comprising a range of tableware such as candlesticks, coffee services, salt and pepper casters and of course teapots, it can also be dramatic and sculptural. His 'Grand Prix Trophy' made for the Eurovision Song Contest in 1995 used abstract forged silver, folding and twisting on a wedged base of frosted cast glass. This collaboration between separate mediums diffuses light through glass and forces it around the turning shape of the metal. There is a lyrical quality to the controlled symmetry of this particular work and much of his silverware hints of musical references in its graphic and lively decoration.
With his numerous exhibitions in the United States and on the Continent, O'Dwyer maintains his reputation as a prolific craftsman and as a dedicated educator. In his time as tutor of design methods at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin he has greatly influenced students in their research and design development. In particular he concentrates on their future careers in a difficult and challenging profession by introducing them to business and product development skills.
In a constant pursuit of perfection, O'Dwyer continues his research and experimentation with surface decoration and form development incorporating new and innovative techniques with the traditional metalsmithing skills of the hammer and anvil. His interest in Irish prehistoric art and 20th century design and architecture is blended into his own unique style. The future of silver is in the hands of modern craftsmen such as Kevin O'Dwyer who uses the wealth of past experience to forge ahead with new ideas.