There are few people in the country who can call themselves a bona fide ‘Big Top Master,’ but Phil Ruddock is among the trusted few who regularly use their building expertise to create magical settings for audiences up and down the country.
The local commercial artist has just been tasked by Derry City & Strabane District Council and the North West Carnival Initiative with creating a major piece for inclusion in this year’s St Patrick’s Spring Carnival Parade. Luckily the carnival veteran is used to piecing together some complex props, as his theme is the Lego extravaganza ‘Brick Wonders’ which is currently on show at the Nerve Centre - and it’s proving to be quite a challenge.
Working out of his Pennyburn workshop, Phil is in the midst of building a fairy castle – one giant Lego brick at a time.
“I’m a builder by trade and I started out working on a lot of stage sets and props,” he explained. “I did a lot with the Inishowen Carnival Initiative - I lived in Buncrana for a number of years and I really loved the work. It’s a job that takes me everywhere at the moment.
“I struggle with finding an official title for myself. I don’t see myself as an artist in the traditional sense of sitting down and painting a picture. I would call myself a commercial artist in that I build things for a number of different purposes, so it’s very much about the craft as well as the design.
“I love it because every project is completely different and I’m always working with different groups, and meeting new people. For example I’m currently working on the set for a show by Something Special for the summer as well as working on the Lego piece.
“I’ve had nine to five jobs before and of course having a regular wage is a real bonus, but I always seem to come back to this. There are always new challenges to take on and I just love the unpredictability of it all, the new opportunities that present themselves.
“I just keep getting sucked back in. I like to think it’s because of my professional work but I have a feeling it’s just because I can’t say no to things. I took my children to an audition once for a production in Inishowen and ended up building the set.”
Not only a master at creating magic on the stage and screen, Phil really is an official ‘Big Top Master,’ creating special arenas for entertainment events including circuses and festivals.
“I’m a fully qualified Big Top Master, but I’m actually currently working on a ‘small top’ for the Clipper Festival.
“But while I enjoy building, if I had a choice I think I would work full time on face painting. I love it, whether it’s face painting for children’s parties or special effects for stage or screen, I always try to do something a bit different from the norm.”
Phil has worked on lots of projects which local people will be familiar with, from the Banks of the Foyle Hallowe’en Carnival to Chateau le Fear. And he’s now putting the finishing touches to the giant Lego prop which will be one of the major highlights of this year’s St Patrick’s Day Parade. And just like Lego, there are bits and pieces lying all over his workshop floor.
“Myself and Seamus Coyle came up with the concept for the float after a bit of word play. We had to design a Lego style prop that reflected the magical theme of the carnival parade. We also wanted to incorporate a recognisable feature of the city into the piece so we thought that a fairy castle would be perfect as it could include the Derry Walls.
“The prop is a four towered, five piece castle, with 18 wheels, which will perfectly blend in with the mythical feel of the carnival. It’s going to be quite substantial in terms of scale. I’ve done similar large scale pieces before, including a giant oak tree, so I’m fully aware of the challenges in building it – it’s currently in hundreds of pieces about the workshop but it’s coming together. There’s a lot of work to do but I’m enjoying the work and I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
You can see the final results when the Lego Castle takes pride of place among the hundreds of local performers who will be taking to the streets at 2pm on St Patrick’s Day for a colourful cultural celebration. For more information on the four day festival programme which features events across the district go to www.derrystrabane.com/stpatricks