The Artist and the Wall of Death – Film Review
by Frank L.
Directed by Maurice O’Brien
Stephen Skrynka is an artist with Ukrainian and Italian parents who met after the war. He lives and works in Glasgow. His art practice is multifaceted and he has made a living from it. He has also married, raised two children and is now divorced. He is driven by his own creative impulses and the financial aspect of his art practice is not paramount to him. As a mature man living alone, he became obsessed with the Wall of Death and notwithstanding his age, he wanted to learn how to do it.
The first part of the film deals with Stephen’s attempts to learn the rudiments. It involves many painful falls and scrapes. However, it only fuels his dreams of creating a new Wall of Death which would tour as an art installation. In the Netherlands, he finds a family who makes their living by giving shows on the Wall of Death and they are complete masters of the skill. He visits Michael Donohoe and Connie Kiernan in Granard, County Longford who had built a Wall of Death in 1979 and which had inspired the film Eat the Peach. He has a vision that all these various skills and talents can be combined to create a new Wall of Death with an artistic content, which will be able to travel to various locations. Sadly this dream flounders amidst a wealth of recriminations and bad feelings.
Stephen, however, still has an unquenchable desire to build a Wall. Relying on his skills as a carpenter, for which he had trained as a young man, he began the monotonous task to cut and plane by hand the necessary amount of timber during the lockdown. The amount of timber required is large and the work is of necessity slow. It is a true labour of love. As the social restrictions of lockdown began to lift other volunteers became involved. Each finds a different benefit from working on the project. The Wall is built as a beautiful hand-crafted object without a nail in it. Because of its construction, it can be disassembled and reassembled. It now has a home in a disused shipbuilding warehouse as an art space on the banks of the Clyde.
That is an outline of the background story against which Stephen’s life is shown. But the story which overlays it and dominates is that of Stephen’s determination to realise his dream. There are interviews with the various dramatis personae who contributed along the way and given that it was from plain sailing, some harsh words are spoken. However, Stephen’s single-mindedness is not to be thwarted. In the end, you cannot but admire his determination, his multiple skills and his qualities as a human being to achieve a most unlikely dream. It is a heartwarming documentary.
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