by Fiona Byrne
In the lead up to the opening of the Ulysses Cylinders exhibition by Dale Chilhuly and Seaver Leslie with Flora C. Mace and Joey Kirkpatrick a lecture was held at Dublin Castle. This lecture looked at the making of the exhibition, glass in Ulysses and also gave an insight into why the artists and organisers decided, almost forty years after the exhibition’s original conception, to recreate this iconic show.
The evening began with introductions from Paula Stokes and Róisín de Buitléar, who have both been instrumental in getting this exhibition to Ireland for its very fitting launch to coincide with the Bloomsday festivities. A screening of the making process of these beautiful pieces took place and the complexities of the artistic process were clear. These pieces have been lavished in gold, had delicate and intricate glass drawings melted into their surface, and then skilfully blown to their final shape. This labour intensive process encapsulates the love and effort on the part of everyone on this project to make the vision of the Ulysses Cylinders a reality.
The passion for the project is infectious. Seaver Leslie gave a wonderful talk about his role in the project and his respect for his fellow artists, including Joyce himself, is worn on his sleeve. His modesty is such that he comes across as a man who is proud to have been allowed to be part of this project and not as one of its main characters. However, once he began to speak you can feel the connection and depth of knowledge that he has for his subject matter.
He stressed the links with Ulysses and Joyce that go beyond a mere visual representation of the book. ‘Proportion is everything in the making of art’, Leslie tells us, echoing the harmonics of proportion in Ulysses. The joy of discovery also links these two artists we learn as Leslie recounts the story of finding a description of glass blowing in Ulysses and describes the emotion and pride he felt at his discovery. This is something which translates to the objects in the exhibition, as Róisín de Buitléar pointed out, you have to walk around each piece to get the full picture, you have to actively seek it.
Relationships are important in this project and ownership is not seen as an issue. Leslie expresses how all art steals and borrows inspiration from others. This exhibition is about collaboration and creation, using the ideas and talents of a group to push the art form to new levels. His collaboration with Chihuly began a long time ago when Leslie first encountered Chihuly working the hot work shop in college. He described how Chihuly’s vibrancy attracted an entourage of fun, creative people.
The contrast between the more singular process of a painter and this very team orientated process of glass blowing served to draw Leslie in to the world of Chihuly. He describes himself as being hidden in a forest and Chihuly being out there causing a storm. I for one am glad he chose to come out of his metaphorical hiding place and add his talents to the Ulysses Cylinders project.
Soul is the word which occurred again and again, finding something deep and essential within art, taking it, and making it your own. Leslie leaves us with the thought that Ulysses is a spiritual book and not to be daunted as, ‘you will find what you need’ from it.
After Leslie has spoken Dr. Luke Gibbons takes us ‘Through the glass darkly’ in his talk about the importance of glass in Joyce’s writing. He tells us that Joyce asked us to look at the glass and not just through the glass. To illustrate this he described the first scene of the Dubliners where there is a young boy looking up at the stained glass windows in a church.
Joyce used glass as a carrier of meaning in various ways, once saying that ‘only a transparent sheet separates me from madness’. Gibbons informs us of the fortuitous meeting of Joyce with Thomas Pugh of Pugh’s glass manufacturers. In Pugh he found a man who had claimed Ulysses as a seminal work but who operated outside of the academic circles, this, Gibbons tells us, was Joyce’s intended audience.
Though if seems artistic collaborations can sometimes go awry. Gibbons tells us of the mix up with a commission involving the artist Matisse who was asked to illustrate Ulysses. However misunderstanding the commission he illustrated Homer's Odyssey instead, leaving Ulysses without illustrations.
This project has had its set back also. Thirty nine years ago a tragic car accident stopped the original exhibition in its tracks and resulted in Chihuly losing the sight of his left eye. Today the Ulysses Cylinders exhibition is on display at Dublin Castle after a long time in the making. This beautiful collection of objects holds more stories than those illustrated on their surface. They are alive with narratives waiting to be unlocked by the viewer.