‘Sky-train’ by Mike Bulfin and ‘60 Degrees’ by Kevin O’Dwyer at Sculpture in the Parklands

When you think of reaching out to the community in midlands Ireland, sculpture is probably not the first thing that springs to mind. But that’s exactly the focus of the Bord na Móna Sculpture in the Parklands project, which won the 2009 Allianz Business to Arts Corporate Social (Cultural) Responsibility Award.

The seeds for Sculpture in the Parklands were sown in 2000 when artist Kevin O’Dwyer approached Bord na Móna with the idea of inviting fellow artists to participate in an international sculpture symposium to celebrate the rich environmental and industrial heritage of Lough Boora bog in Offaly.

This became the impetus for the 50-acre sculpture park, which covers part of Lough Boora Parklands – a series of wetlands created from a cut-away bog in Co Offaly. The park is open every day to the public, and every year artists are invited to create site-specific work during annual artist-in-residence programmes. For each residency, Bord na Móna provides Sculpture in The Parklands with manpower, public liability insurance, engineering expertise, fabrication facilities and maintenance.

“Bord na Móna has been a fantastic supporter of this project,” says O’Dwyer, who nominated them for the prize. He mentions “some great thinkers in Bord na Móna” who wanted to both revitalise the brownfield site and explore its rich environmental and industrial heritage. Bord na Móna’s long-term commitment includes the building of a green visitors’ pavillion, which will include a lecture theatre and gallery for the sculpture park.

The process of building a sculpture for the park runs as follows, O’Dwyer explains: the artist comes about six months in advance of the project to literally get ‘the lie of the land’. They then discuss their ideas with Bord na Móna, and, a number of months later begin working on the project with the help of skilled Bord na Móna employees.

In order to emphasise the natural and industrial legacies inherent in the environment, the artists use materials that are found on site, and a quick glance at the Parklands website, www.sculptureintheparklands.com, shows how diverse the results have been since 2002. There are pyramid-like structures of stone, wooden meditation rooms, metal abstract art, even a tree growing through one of the constructions!

The one thing that unites them, however, is the way they have been embraced by the community.

“This is probably because people have watched the sculptures being created and they have gotten to know the artist. It’s not just something that’s been dropped in overnight with a crane. When the artists come, they stay in the local B&B, and mix with the local community. At the end of the three weeks, some of them don’t want to leave!”

The success of Bord na Móna’s collaboration with Sculpture in the Parklands has also been greatly helped by financial investment and engagement from Offaly County Council Arts Office and The Crafts Council of Ireland.

In 2008, this combined partnership secured world-renowned environmental artist Patrick Doherty for the annual residency, who went on to create a monumental sculpture installation called Ruaille Buaille as well as quite a bit of media interest.

Also in 2008, Sculpture in the Parklands was included in the programme of the 13th International Peat Congress, which introduced delegates to a potential use for cut-away bogs worldwide.

But whatever about the international accolades it is acquiring, O’Dwyer says that one of the most enjoyable and fundamental aspects of this park is how accessible it is to everyone. “It’s not like a museum or art gallery where you can’t touch anything. Instead people are encouraged to interact, to touch, to engage. Because of this, people feel very free here.”

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