CWB May 2004
Patrick Gallagher has carved more than a niche. His Celtic-inspired works are at the forefront of a revolution in ornamental art, occurring thanks to three letters: CNC.
By Anthony Noel
Take one highly talented artist, an artistic style being discovered by more people every day and a time-consuming process for producing work in that style, and what do you get?
Once upon a time, you would get one of two outcomes: Prices for the work that almost nobody can afford to pay or the proverbial starving artist. But New Jersey woodcarver Patrick Gallagher saw another possibility, and the results have proved both beautiful and profitable.
Gallagher works in the burgeoning field of Celtic art, where intricate, finely detailed patterns combine to produce visual and textural effects unlike those found in any other art form. Celtic works convey, in the words of Gallagher's Web site, "The cauldron of creation bubbling up from the center of the earth."
Translation: Carving this stuff by hand is both incredibly difficult and time-intensive. As much as Gallagher loved doing it ~ and despite success and recognition that has made him a pre-eminent artist in the field ~ he knew that his work would never be available to a wider audience if he continued carving each piece by hand.
Enter Bob Campbell
"He saw my work and said, 'Why are you spending your time carving like that?'" Gallagher recalls with a chuckle.
The year was 1994, and Campbell convinced Gallagher that technology would allow him to create carvings just as detailed and beautiful as those he was making by hand, without all the manual labor. He simply had to produce a drawing and let a machine do the rest.
"[Bob] taught me how to do the CNC [drawing]. I owe him as my mentor in CNC,"Gallagher says.
"[Now] I hand-draw in [Adobe] Illustrator," he adds. "I'm not copying and pasting. It takes a long time to draw. I used to draw for an hour and carve for 50 hours. Now I draw for 49 hours and the CNC cuts it out in an hour."
If that sounds like merely trading one hand operation for another, hold on. Gallagher shows a plinth block featuring a Celtic knot: "I made about 80 of these for someone's house," he says. More accurately, the CNC did. Gallagher drew the design ~ once. Net savings: 79 repetitions of laying out and cutting each block by hand. CNC routing has completely changed Gallagher's approach to his craft.
"Most of the flat carvings I now do on the CNC," he says. "What has happened is that I now spend my time on three-dimensional carving."
As an example, in his intimate workshop in Wharton, NJ, Gallagher picks up a staff of varying diameters featuring highly intricate carved patterns to show the sort of work he's referring to ~ work that just can't be done on a CNC. At least not yet.
Still, the artist has found three-dimensional applications where the marriage of technology and his own hand-carving yield both time efficiency and striking beauty. A standing Celtic cross with elaborate carvings sitting atop his desk is a case in point.
"The front and the back were carved on the CNC on sign foam," Gallagher says. "Then I glued it together and I hand carved the sides. It worked great."
His routed work is produced at DMR Sign Systems in nearby Randolph, NJ, on a Sabre 404 CNC router from Gerber Scientific Products. (For more on Gallagher's >association with DMR, see the sidebar below.)
"In the early '80s I started carving to be a printmaker," he says. "Somewhere along the line I attended a Scottish Games in Pennsylvania."
The Celtic bug had bitten, but not hard enough that Gallagher abandoned printmaking. It is a skill upon which his carving rests heavily and for which he earned a Master's degree from Kean University in Union, NJ, in 1992. For several years before that, he made his living as a self-employed artist, doing landscape paintings among other things. (A reminder of that part of his life can be seen in a gorgeous rendering of the Pocono Mountains, which graces his living room today.) "But it seems that when I discovered Celtic art, my life took off," Gallagher notes. "And when I do it...it's magical. You know, I look at the piece and I go, 'Did I do that? Did I draw that?' So I know that it is my calling."
Gallagher still signs and numbers all his work, much of which is available at his Web site, www.celtart.com. Items in the online catalog are cast from CNC-produced originals, suitable for interior or exterior use, and range in price from $24 for a small tile featuring Celtic knotwork to $800 for a standing garden cross, plus shipping and handling.
But whether cast in cement or cut from wood, Gallagher does not feel that the CNC element of producing his designs diminishes them.
His customers apparently agree. Notable clients include Sean Connery, Cliff Robertson, Noble Prize nominee Morgan Llywelyn, and solo musician (and erstwhile Eagle) Don Henley. Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains, the highly regarded Irish folk band, is also a patron.
Notable or not, Gallagher's clients are so enamored with his work that their desire for it provides him transaction simplicities that many architectural woodworkers would envy: "A lot of people, they mail me the board, I carve it out and I mail it back," he says.
Furthermore, "I'm not a carpenter," he says. "If I have to do the installation, I hire a guy."
Gallagher's work is a feature in many of New York City's renowned Irish pubs and restaurants, including O'Lunney's Times Square, The Kinsale on 2nd Avenue and Ned Devine's in the Bronx.
Speaking of Divine...
As perhaps the highest honor any artist working in Celtic motifs could hope for, his "Patrick's Celtic Cross" design was embroidered on vestments worn by the late Cardinal John O'Connor, archbishop of New York, for St. Patrick's Day services at the city's venerable St. Patrick's Cathedral in 1999.
Likely running a pretty close second to that honor is the chance Gallagher will enjoy in late June to teach a week-long course to aspiring Celtic artists on Ireland's west coast, where the form first appeared. The Book of Kells, the elaborately illustrated version of the New Testament that dates from around 800 A.D., was, according to legend, begun on the Scottish isle of Iona. The famous tome illuminates the union of Druidic and Christian cultures. It features ornamental borders, letters and full-page artwork which define the basis for much of what we recognize as Celtic art today. The students will have access to a copy of this ancient text as part of their instruction.
Gallagher will teach at Oideas Gael, in Glencolumcille, County Donegal, not far from the birthplace of St. Columcille. One of three Irish patron saints, Columcille (also called St. Columba) was long credited as the creator of The Book of Kells. Although that legend has largely been refuted by modern-day scholars, who believe The Book of Kells to be the work of monastics, completed roughly 200 years after Columcille's death, nonetheless calligraphy attributed to Columcille still exists, and it embodies the style upon which the monks would further elaborate. Moreover, those monks were of an order founded at Iona by St. Columcille himself, so it is difficult to separate The Book of Kells from its inspirer ~ whether his hand actually graced its pages or not.
The patterns featured throughout the book are a source of awe to all who see them. The profusion of detail in this seminal work led to centuries of increasingly intricate interpretations of what is today called "Book of Kells style" Celtic art. Gallagher's designs are among the most detailed to be found, making them prime candidates for the accuracy of computer replication. And because each is hand drawn, the final product still conveys the human origins of the work.
Gallagher compares the advent of CNC technology to the availability of the scroll saw during the Victorian period, which led to the wide use of elaborate architectural ornamentation during that time.
"But," the artist says of the latter-day technology, "it is much more intense. I expect that within 20 or 30 years this is how almost all carving will be done."
He concludes with a prediction which, as anyone seeing his work would readily agree, seems well on its way to fulfillment: "The CNC is going to revolutionize decorative artwork."
Not long after Patrick Gallagher became convinced that CNC routing held the key to his carving future, he went looking for a facility that could handle his art.
A couple of phone calls led him to Andrew Tunkel and DMR Sign Systems.
Andrew got to know the firm when it was called D&M Reproductions. Primarily a silk-screen printer for its first 30 years, the small facility did subcontract work for Andrew's then-employer, Spanjer Bros., an architectural signage company based in Chicago. Tunkel worked in Spanjer's Parsippany, NJ, office. When he got word that the "D&M" of the little company ~ the shop's husband-and-wife owners ~ were ready to retire, Tunkel says he jumped.
"I purchased it in March of '93 and changed the name to DMR Sign Systems in '96," he says. "It better reflected the type of work we do."
Today, the wholesale manufacturer provides design and fabrication services to many different types of sign shops, along with designers and cabinet builders. They make signs and the fixtures that carry them, "along with a little bit of everything else," Tunkel says.
The company's work takes shape from materials including acrylics, metals, woods, plastic laminate, sign foam and composites. "We tell our customers we love a good challenge, and Pat comes up with some great ones," says Tunkel. "We always find a way to get him the results he's looking for."
Tunkel's wife Grace, a graphic designer, joined the company three years ago, giving it design capabilities she honed as a creative director in the catalog and retail packaging arenas.
DMR's workhorse machine is a Sabre 404 CNC router from Gerber Scientific Products. It is this same machine that has revolutionized Patrick Gallagher's approach to Celtic art. After he completes a drawing, which he produces freehand "in either Adobe Illustrator or Corel Draw, depending on the project," Gallagher says, he e-mails it to DMR for CNC production.
Tunkel marvels at his machine's ever-expanding capabilities. He remembers how, when Gallagher's "Donore Disk" was first run, the computer lacked sufficient memory to do the job in one operation. "We actually had to do it in seven segments, like a pizza pie," Tunkel recalls, pointing out almost-imperceptible index lines in one of the disk's first replications.
"Today, we can do it in one shot, no problem."
Still, the technology brings with it a caveat or two.
"Because of the detail of Patrick's work, the vector aspect is something we have to watch," Tunkel says. "When the computer is guiding the router along its cut path, [the software] can actually flip the line it's working on 180 degrees and try to go around itself."
The result? Where the router was cutting on one side of the line a moment before, it will suddenly attempt to cut on the other side ~ and will sometimes try to go through the worktable to do it.
"To the computer, everything is happening in space," Tunkel says. "So when the line is flipped, it is flipped in space, not on a plane," i.e., the work surface.
Tunkel likens a related issue to a train, explaining that the computer wants the router to always go forward. Not only that, but its mathematical control nodes will try to avoid crossing over existing paths drawn as part of the design, which can result in superfluous cuts being added to Gallagher's work.
"We look for it at the programming stage and make sure it won't be an issue," Tunkel says.
When issues do arise, however, neither Tunkel nor Gallagher frets. DMR's Randolph, NJ, location is just a few short miles from the carver's workshop.
"It's really convenient," Gallagher says. "If Andy wants me to see something or if there is a problem, he just picks up the phone and I can run right over."
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