North Belfast, Northern Ireland

An Artist's Reflection on the Floor Mosaic and Stations of the Cross (Holy Family Church, North Belfast)

August 15, 2008

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artist and her assistantThe new church of The Holy Family, Belfast, Northern Ireland, was designed by architect Eamon Hedderman. It is situated on the edge of two communities and sits amongst dwellings between parallel streets. The parish also shares its grounds with a local school. Holy Family is a Catholic church, which has opened its doors to the community as a whole. It is comprised of a large open welcoming space that links the local community hall, the church offices, and the main worship area. The oval shape of this latter space is flooded with light dispersed by the central roof struts. It is a very easy modern space to be in, and one feels invited to peruse the artwork as if in a gallery.

mosaic floorIntegration is an important word in relation to the local communities and is reflected in this building in every way. At an early stage in the design, I was asked to create a floor mosaic for the main north/south axis, the central aisle, of the church. The path links the exterior water font in the gathering area with the interior baptisimal font and main altar of the church. After some discussions, sketches, site visits, and budgeting, we started. I drew out the cartoon (approximately 25 m / 84ft long), handpainted and glazed the tiles, and started laying out the mosaic. The design for this passage expresses the different energies of water and land, how they coexist, sculpting and influencing each other’s forms. The playful use of fish and sheep as symbols of life, the optimistic colours reflecting friendships and renewals, all move from one area to another by use of mosaic pieces that increase in scale as they flow through the church, connecting the spaces.

stations of the crossDiscussions about various aspects of the church were ongoing and when it came to the Stations of the Cross, George Walsh (stained glass artist) and I were asked to collaborate on the design. The pastor, Fr. Séan Emerson, and the parish committee were very open to the modern imagery we suggested, and the spaces for the sculptures allowed the scale to be quite generous. Each station is approximately 1.6m / 5ft 4in high x 0.8m / 2ft 8in wide. They were each sculpted from a full slab of stoneware clay that was then cut into sections, fired, reassembled, mounted, and hung on the walls, alternating between the stained glass windows and incorporating the recurring theme of water, “water of life.” These large white abstract panels combine modern imagery of tall buildings, guns, and bullets with traditional imagery of crosses and figures to retell the stories of the Stations with current relevance.

artist explaining the stations to childrenAs we were installing the work, a group of about forty (eight to ten-year-old) school children came along to have a look and give their opinions. I asked them about the man who had just lost all his worldly possessions, every last thing, even his clothes had been taken from him: "What would you do if you were that person?" Aside from the calls for help, one little girl put her hand up and said "I would get up and start again.” That reaction and interaction made me feel proud.

The integration of the work has begun to reach out into the community and it was, therefore, very fitting when we won the Integrated Artworks Commendation from the RSUA, Royal Society of Ulster Architects and NIAC, Northern Ireland Arts Council at the recent awards ceremony in Belfast.

Laura O'Hagan is an artist who produces sculptural ceramics, murals, and mosaics.  Her studio is in Delgany, Co. Wicklow, Ireland.

Photo credit:  Anna Stepien

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