December Studio Update: A Year to Remember

As 2017 winds down, I am grateful. While it has been the hardest year of my life (one reason I am thankful it is over), it has also been one of unexpected opportunity, growth, and new beginnings.

MA Fine Art Open Studios at Bath Spa University

This coming Wednesday evening and most of Thursday, the 6th-7th November, we're having Open Studios for my MA Fine Art program at Bath Spa University. There's all kinds of interesting things happening in our studios - if you have a moment, pop in! I'd love to see you there. Details below.

Holiday Cards 2017 in Partnership with Compassion in World Farming

Back in 2015, my studio practice took a one-year exploratory detour into overpainted photographs of farm animals. We had recently relocated to the English countryside from Germany and I was captivated by rural living. 

Initially, the farm animals grounded me to a new normal, and then the focus shifted to the animals themselves. They gaze at the viewer with undeniable presence and personality. My interest grew in acknowledging their existence as living beings, in the midst of large-scale farming.

The series of paintings born from this period, New Country, is no longer work that I actively pursue. The original paintings continue to be collected and I love to find ways to keep the series active, even if I'm not still painting.

 Kelly M. O'Brien,  Bossy Ones for CIWF Holiday 2017 . ©2017

Kelly M. O'Brien, Bossy Ones for CIWF Holiday 2017. ©2017

Which is why I'm thrilled to share that two pieces from New Country have been selected for Compassion in World Farming's 2017 Holiday Card boxed set. All proceeds from card sales go to support this UK-based non-profit that works effortlessly in service of farm animal welfare. There will also be an auction for one fine art print each of the two images that were selected for the cards.

There's still time to order cards for the holidays, but you should hurry - the first printing sold out weeks ago but the online shop has been restocked with more! 

 Kelly M. O'Brien,  You're New Around Here, Aren't You? for CIWF Holiday 2017 . ©2017

Kelly M. O'Brien, You're New Around Here, Aren't You? for CIWF Holiday 2017. ©2017

Learn more about CIWF's mission, purchase cards and spread the word about a good cause!

Hand-embellished Prints

I am very excited about a new project underway—and while I can't reveal many details (yet), I can start to share the process of creating something brand new. The challenge is to come up with a solution to use a large amount of my work in a cost-effective way. Original artwork is beyond the scope of the budget, yet we want to create something more unique and special than limited edition prints of the same piece.

Enter hand-embellished prints. They sit between original artwork and a straightforward reproduction, such as giclées (fine art digital prints). Using a reproduction print as the base, the work is then added-to or worked-into with techniques such as touches or washes of paint, spots of clear acrylic to create highlights or other mark-making on top of the print.

 Laser cut tests at Bristol Design Forge. Kelly M. O'Brien ©2017

Laser cut tests at Bristol Design Forge. Kelly M. O'Brien ©2017

In the case of my burnt paper series, I have been testing ways to efficiently burn back into the paper print of an original, as well as create satisfying gilding effects that are cost-effective. Bristol Design Forge has been helping figure out how to use laser cutting to create a range of effects, from clean cuts that barely appear to be touched by heat, to heavier edges with a crispy effect (the latter being much to the owner's dismay, I think, as they pride themselves on getting as clean a cut as possible!).

Testing the possible range of laser cut effects for my burnt paper series, "Playing With Fire" at Bristol Design Forge, Bristol, UK. Kelly M. O'Brien ©2017

The samples are off to the client next week, and with a little luck, I'll be sharing more on this project in the near future.

Mending | Tending at Spike Island Art Centre

Spike Island is a fantastic art center in Bristol that offers world-class exhibitions, artist studios, creative industry workspace, and lots of rich public programming. It's a really inspiring place to be, housed in a former tea packing warehouse on the banks of the Avon River that winds through the city.

I got involved last winter by becoming an Associate and attending monthly art critiques—an informal, friendly gathering of mainly artists and curators to discuss our work. One of Spike's curators saw work from my Object (Im)permanence and Mending | Tending series at a crit (art critique where we share our work and get feedback on it), then shortly after that invited me to do a workshop on the ideas and techniques behind the work.

Last Saturday was our sold-out workshop, a packed house of all ages and range of experience! I was a bit apprehensive about how to pull this off, given the relative complexity of the concepts and techniques I use, and the wide range of needs to take care of in the room. 

 Spike Island  Mending | Tending  Workshop by Kelly O'Brien, Bristol, UK. Part of Spike Island's  I Am Making Art  public engagement programming.

Spike Island Mending | Tending Workshop by Kelly O'Brien, Bristol, UK. Part of Spike Island's I Am Making Art public engagement programming.

The whole experience was a joy. Everyone really dug in and engaged with the ideas, materials, and art. People created beautiful, meaningful work that portrayed personal and imagined stories from the images we worked with.

 Work in progress by Jo Young,  Mending | Tending  workshop at Spike Island. Image: Jo Young via @firedupjo

Work in progress by Jo Young, Mending | Tending workshop at Spike Island. Image: Jo Young via @firedupjo

I was reminded once again - both in preparing for and facilitating this workshop - that my lifelong accumulation of skills does not end with one career (corporate/government trainer), but rather underpins and supports what I do now as an artist. Will I do more workshops like this? I'm not sure - I've resisted going down that path, mainly to focus on making my own work, but also because of burnout as a trainer. This experience was so fulfilling, it's caused me to be open to the possibility.

Two New Commissions Going to Hong Kong

Two new pieces are winging their way this week to take up residence in a Mt. Nicholson Show Flat in Hong Kong.

 Kelly M. O'Brien,  Playing With Fire No. 67 . Paper, gold leaf, ink, flame. 40 x 28 x 1 inches. ©2017. Commissioned for Mt. Nicholson Show Flat, Hong Kong.

Kelly M. O'Brien, Playing With Fire No. 67. Paper, gold leaf, ink, flame. 40 x 28 x 1 inches. ©2017. Commissioned for Mt. Nicholson Show Flat, Hong Kong.

These pieces are inspired directly from my very first and third works in this series, back in 2013. There was something very simple and innocent about Playing With Fire No. 1 and No. 3 that I enjoyed returning to in these two latest versions.

 Kelly M. O'Brien,  Playing With Fire No. 68 . Paper, gold leaf, ink, flame. 40 x 28 x 1 inches. ©2017. Commissioned for Mt. Nicholson Show Flat, Hong Kong.

Kelly M. O'Brien, Playing With Fire No. 68. Paper, gold leaf, ink, flame. 40 x 28 x 1 inches. ©2017. Commissioned for Mt. Nicholson Show Flat, Hong Kong.

These new pieces are another example of scaling up and referencing earlier work. Clients often come to me with images of my former pieces, asking me if I can do something "similar to this one, only in these dimensions."

 Kelly M. O'Brien,  Playing With Fire No. 67 . Paper, gold leaf, ink, flame. 40 x 28 x 1 inches. ©2017. Commissioned for Mt. Nicholson Show Flat, Hong Kong.

Kelly M. O'Brien, Playing With Fire No. 67. Paper, gold leaf, ink, flame. 40 x 28 x 1 inches. ©2017. Commissioned for Mt. Nicholson Show Flat, Hong Kong.

At first, I resisted the idea of just re-producing work to spec­―is that really fine art? What I've learned is that they're all original! With flame and paper as the mediums, there is no way any two pieces will ever be identical.

 Kelly M. O'Brien,  Playing With Fire No. 67 . Paper, gold leaf, ink, flame. 40 x 28 x 1 inches. ©2017. Commissioned for Mt. Nicholson Show Flat, Hong Kong.

Kelly M. O'Brien, Playing With Fire No. 67. Paper, gold leaf, ink, flame. 40 x 28 x 1 inches. ©2017. Commissioned for Mt. Nicholson Show Flat, Hong Kong.

As with any work in a series, there are subtle differences to be explored­―the drip and flow of Chinese ink, a variation on gold leaf, what fire does to paper. So no matter the original model, this work truly has a mind of its own.

 Kelly M. O'Brien,  Playing With Fire No. 68 . Paper, gold leaf, ink, flame. 40 x 28 x 1 inches. ©2017. Commissioned for Mt. Nicholson Show Flat, Hong Kong.

Kelly M. O'Brien, Playing With Fire No. 68. Paper, gold leaf, ink, flame. 40 x 28 x 1 inches. ©2017. Commissioned for Mt. Nicholson Show Flat, Hong Kong.

 Kelly M. O'Brien,  Playing With Fire Nos. 67  and  68 . Paper, gold leaf, ink, flame. 40 x 28 x 1 inches each. ©2017. Commissioned for Mt. Nicholson Show Flat, Hong Kong.

Kelly M. O'Brien, Playing With Fire Nos. 67 and 68. Paper, gold leaf, ink, flame. 40 x 28 x 1 inches each. ©2017. Commissioned for Mt. Nicholson Show Flat, Hong Kong.

A big thank you to the team at James Robertson Art Consultants for the opportunity! And to Zed Al-Gafoor at Imagecentre in Bath for the beautiful images.

In the Face of Everything, We Did It

Our fourth group exhibition of the artist collective CKCK opened to a packed house and continues to garner great feedback and support. I couldn't be happier with the look and feel of the Stadtgalerie Bad Soden upon finishing our installation. Once again, despite having four very different practices, our sum is greater than each of us alone. 

Our CKCK colleague Chris Kircher has more images from the show on her blog here.

 Opening night for  In the   Face of Everything , Stadtgalerie Bad Soden. Image: Claudia Neumann

Opening night for In the Face of Everything, Stadtgalerie Bad Soden. Image: Claudia Neumann

Here's is an excerpt from our statement about the exhibition's theme:

While the larger context of global events is reflected part of their work, the time since their last group exhibition has been particularly challenging for each of these artists, as they have dealt with experiences such as serious illness, loss, dislocation, and trauma.

The work shown here reflects an unflinching choice to look directly at things, clear-eyed and honestly. It is in turning toward the difficult issues that they are illuminated and given space to be acknowledged.

At a time when a string of unrelenting crises challenge us as a society, what matters is how we respond. We are not immune from life's greatest tests, but we can choose how to navigate through and beyond them.

This exhibition is a story of grit, resilience, hope and love. The choice to continue moving forward with courage and compassion, in the face of everything.

My work for this exhibition consists of two sewn-paper series: Object (Im)permanence and Mending | Tending. I began both of these series during the 20-month period of my father's terminal illness and finished several of the pieces after he died in March. Sharing such private themes so publically - both in talking with people individually about the work and during my artist talk - has been part of coming to terms with this loss. The details remain private, but the themes are universal and people responded in kind.

Sewn paper art and installations for the CKCK artist collective group exhibition, "In the Face of Everything," Bad Soden Stadtgalerie, September 2017.

The two-dimensional sewn paper pieces moved from the wall into the room, hinting at where this work might take me next. Likewise, the wall installation of torn and mended paper fragments took on a life of its own, transforming into something map-like, at a scale that reminded me of how moving my body in space to make art feels like home and something I want to do more of.

In the Face of Everything | Jetzt erst recht continues through Sunday, 24 September, with artist talks by Chris Kircher and Katja v. Ruville on that day at 4PM at the Stadtgalerie Bad Soden.

Playing With Fire Now Showing at Galerie Uhn

My exhibition at Galerie Uhn in Königstein, near Frankfurt, Germany opened with an enthusiastic gathering, highlighted by a classical music trio, reunions with dear friends, and a great response to my new work.

I also gave an artist talk on September 2nd, when I had an opportunity to discuss this work in public for the first time, using a Q&A format led by gallery owner Jimin Leyrer.

A very big thank you to Jimin and her family for lots of generous support and hard work to make this a great show, and to Ann-Katrin Sura for hosting a delightful gathering after the Vernissage.

There's also a brief article about the exhibition here (open the link with Chrome and it can translate for you).

The exhibition runs until 28 September.

Exhibition: Playing With Fire at Galerie Uhn

Galerie Uhn's brochure for my upcoming solo exhibition just went out, a copy below. The work is all finished and framed, ready for the long drive to Germany in a couple of weeks. I'm renting a long-ish van for trek, as some of the work that I'm bringing for this show and our CKCK group exhibition is too large for my SUV. Shipping so much work is cost-prohibitive. Eurotunnel, here I come - oh, the glamorous life of an artist!

Save the Dates: August 25th and September 1st Vernissages in Germany

On Friday, August 25th I'll be at Galerie Uhn in Königstein-im-Taunus, Germany for the opening of my second solo exhibition with the gallery. I'm excited to debut my burned paper sculpture series, Playing With Fire, for German collectors. 

 Kelly M. O'Brien,  Playing With Fire No. 43 (Orange) , detail. Paper, spray paint, flame. 28 x 28 x .5 inches. ©2017.

Kelly M. O'Brien, Playing With Fire No. 43 (Orange), detail. Paper, spray paint, flame. 28 x 28 x .5 inches. ©2017.

I'll be in town until September 3rd, installing another exhibition in nearby Bad Soden with my artist collective CKCK, which opens on September 1st. I'll be showing different work there, including Object (Im)permanence and Mending | Tending.

 Kelly M. O'Brien, work in progress from Mending | Tending series. ©2017.

Kelly M. O'Brien, work in progress from Mending | Tending series. ©2017.

So if you're in the Frankfurt area, we have lots of opportunities to see each other - I would love that.

In the meantime, I've got my head down working on pieces for both shows, plus commissions. It'll be a happy race to the finish!

Playing With Fire | Galerie Uhn | 25 August – September 28, 2017 | Vernissage: Friday, 25 August, 19:00 | Königstein, Germany

In the Face of Everything | Stadtgalerie Bad Soden | September 2 - 24, 2017 | Vernissage: Friday, 1 September, 19:00 | Bad Soden, Germany

Mending What's Torn

After one of my many trips back to the United States last year, while my father was fighting cancer, I returned to my studio in England and started tearing paper. Then I sewed it back together. Tore some more. And kept sewing. 

 Kelly M. O'Brien, work in progress from Mending | Tending series. ©2017.

Kelly M. O'Brien, work in progress from Mending | Tending series. ©2017.

As my father's illness progressed and the trips back and forth from the UK to the US mounted, I sought solace in the act of repeatedly tearing and mending the paper fragments. Some of the paper and thread objects feature watercolored edges, others are taped and then sewn. Some are machine-stitched, others sewn by hand.

 Kelly M. O'Brien, work in progress from Mending | Tending series. ©2017.

Kelly M. O'Brien, work in progress from Mending | Tending series. ©2017.

The work that has emerged from this repetitive action is a new series, Mending | Tending. As a close friend observed: “We mend what's been torn, and tend what we mourn.”

 Kelly M. O'Brien, work in progress from Mending | Tending series. ©2017.

Kelly M. O'Brien, work in progress from Mending | Tending series. ©2017.

This new work will be shown along with Object (Im)permanence in the annual exhibition with my German colleagues of CKCK artist collective this September.

In the Face of Everything | Stadtgalerie Bad Soden | September 2 - 24, 2017 | Bad Soden im Taunus, Germany

New Country at ArtTeaZen in Langport

It's with great pleasure that I announce my second annual solo exhibition with lovely ArtTeaZen, a thriving supporter of local arts that also happens to be a fantastic café. This year I'm showing work from my New Country series of overpainted farm animal photographs - both originals and framed fine art prints.

 Kelly M. O'Brien,  She Looks Familiar, But I Don't Recall Her Name . Acrylic on C-print on canvas, 24 x 36 inches. ©2015.

Kelly M. O'Brien, She Looks Familiar, But I Don't Recall Her Name. Acrylic on C-print on canvas, 24 x 36 inches. ©2015.

If you're in the area, stop in for a cuppa, say hello to proprietors Andy and Clare, and get yourself a piece of affordable framed art, or splurge on an original - there are only a few from this series left.

New Country | ArtTeaZen, Langport, UK | June 1 - July 31

New Commission: Scaling Up

A recently completed commission afforded me the opportunity to play with scale, materials and process. The client, a fine art consulting firm, wanted a larger version of a piece they had already placed in another project. I'd not "replicated" my burned paper pieces yet, thinking there was little I could do to control the effects of fire on paper and therefore produce a similar result. Let the challenge begin!

 The original: Kelly M. O'Brien,  Playing With Fire No. 31 . Paper, gold leaf, flame. 40 x 28 x .25 inches. ©2016.

The original: Kelly M. O'Brien, Playing With Fire No. 31. Paper, gold leaf, flame. 40 x 28 x .25 inches. ©2016.

Earlier this year, I developed a technique to help me accurately translate my sketches to scale. It involves using oversized prints of my sketches, which I then slice into pieces and use as templates for re-drawing the layers at the correct size. It worked well for a Connecticut coastline-inspired piece, so why not use the same process using my own work as the original drawing?

 Template for a project underway inspired by Frankfurt. Kelly M. O'Brien ©2017

Template for a project underway inspired by Frankfurt. Kelly M. O'Brien ©2017

The approach worked nicely and helped to expedite an otherwise traditional, yet time-consuming way to scale-up using a grid system to transfer an image. But what I'm particularly pleased about is that, despite an accurate rendering of the original design, the new version is entirely unique and different from the first. There is happily still not much you can do to control the outcome when taking blowtorch to paper, or when working with materials that are 300% larger than the first time around.

 Flattening rolled watercolor paper in my studio. Kelly M. O'Brien ©2017

Flattening rolled watercolor paper in my studio. Kelly M. O'Brien ©2017

There are several challenges when working at a larger size, in this case 72 x 48 inches. First is workspace. My workbench isn't large enough, so I had to improvise by using the floor and a temporary workshop set up in our dining room (not ideal). The other issue is my Burning Shed, an unfinished outbuilding where I do the things that can't otherwise be done indoors (burning, spray paint, etc.). The Burning Shed was maxed out at this size, so for larger projects, I'll have to find another solution.

Materials take on a mind of their own at this size, especially paper. As much as I flattened the rolled watercolor paper, once you hit it with the blowtorch, it curls and warps as the fibers respond to the heat. I'll continue to explore solutions to this effect, or just work with it - which is what materials are teaching me anyway. 

 Who doesn't like a little bling? Gilding with variegated leaf. Kelly M. O'Brien ©2017

Who doesn't like a little bling? Gilding with variegated leaf. Kelly M. O'Brien ©2017

Speaking of learning, this is the first project where I used variegated gold leaf for the gilding. Variegated leaf is a metal leaf that has been heat-treated, chemically-treated or both to develop patinas and unique discoloration. In this case, I love how the subtle coppers, blues, reds and greens add interest to veins of gold that would otherwise be too monochrome and flat for a design of this size.

 Kelly M. O'Brien,  Playing With Fire No. 60  (detail). Paper, gold leaf, flame. 72 x 48 x .65 inches (unframed). ©2017. 

Kelly M. O'Brien, Playing With Fire No. 60 (detail). Paper, gold leaf, flame. 72 x 48 x .65 inches (unframed). ©2017. 

Overall, I'm pleased with the outcome on this project, with clear ideas on how to continue refining the work, especially at larger sizes - which I hope to do more of!

Material Lessons

This week I was reminded that when you fight with your materials, nobody wins. What's happening in the studio is often an object lesson for currents running deeper below. Some days you find yourself in the zone, things easily falling into place. Others - like this week - the more I fussed with trying to get something to work, the less cooperative the work became.

Over time, I've learned that if I'm not mindful, I use my work to stave off or avoid feeling things I'd rather not address - fear, pain, anxiety. After losing my father in March, I've kept an eye on this with varying degrees of success. Yet in the form of this particular piece, I found my self overworking, overdoing, protesting and insisting I could make it so if I only kept trying to save it.

 Kelly M. O'Brien, work in progress (or not). ©2017

Kelly M. O'Brien, work in progress (or not). ©2017

After several days of this silliness, I talked with my mentor, Lisa Kokin, who gently and firmly instructed me to set the piece aside, put it away for at least a month, and revisit it with fresh eyes. Of course this is the wise thing to do - and even then, it may never be something I can fix. Maybe it will become something I'll have to let go.

Even the work that did end up being resolved this week felt like a struggle. A new piece in the Edgy series, this one has a darker, tighter feel to it, and didn't unfold as easily as the previous three pieces in this series of nine.

 Kelly M. O'Brien,  Playing With Fire No. 50 (Edgy No. 4) . Paper, spray paint, wire. 14 x 14 x 3 inches framed. ©2017.

Kelly M. O'Brien, Playing With Fire No. 50 (Edgy No. 4). Paper, spray paint, wire. 14 x 14 x 3 inches framed. ©2017.

I do like it quite a bit. There's something about it that allows a range of elements to co-exist, if not comfortably, then tolerantly: light, dark, irregular, interesting, unruly, contained, with a splash of color.

All of these pieces and more (except, perhaps, the problem child described above) will be available for purchase via Galerie Uhn in September:

Playing With Fire | Galerie Uhn | 25 August – September 28, 2017 | Vernissage: Friday, 25 August, 19:00

Fifty Bees: The Interconnectedness of All Things

 Kelly M. O'Brien,  Playing With Fire No. 61   (Andrena Rosae) . Paper, gold leaf, flame. 14 x 14 x 1 inches (framed). ©2017.

Kelly M. O'Brien, Playing With Fire No. 61 (Andrena Rosae). Paper, gold leaf, flame. 14 x 14 x 1 inches (framed). ©2017.

Fifty Bees: The Interconnectedness of All Things is a collaborative group exhibition at ACEarts lead by Queen Bee Lydia Needle. Lydia is well known for her beloved and beautiful felted textile art that celebrates the wildlife and critters she is surrounded by in daily life.

I met Lydia when we were both traders at the Bath Artisan Market and I was immediately enchanted by her felted creations. So when she invited me to contribute a piece for Fifty Bees, I jumped at the chance.

The concept is brilliant, mirroring the interconnectedness and dependency everyone has on everything. Fifty artists are creating fifty individual pieces, each one inspired by his or her assigned bee.

 Lydia Needle,  Andrena rosae . Wool, thread, tin. 2017.

Lydia Needle, Andrena rosae. Wool, thread, tin. 2017.

My bee, Andrena rosae (Perkins Mining Bee), lays her eggs in a series of deep holes that she digs into the ground, scattering dirt around her nest entrance as she burrows. The patterns she leaves on the ground’s surface inspired this piece. My medium is paper, a seemingly ephemeral material that is quite sturdy when handled. Like this little bee, who must steadfastly dig to protect her only handful of eggs during her short lifetime.

 Kelly M. O'Brien,  Playing With Fire No. 61 (Andrena Rosae) . Paper, gold leaf, flame. 14 x 14 x 1 inches (framed). ©2017.

Kelly M. O'Brien, Playing With Fire No. 61 (Andrena Rosae). Paper, gold leaf, flame. 14 x 14 x 1 inches (framed). ©2017.

While researching and working on this piece, my awareness of these beautiful insects has blossomed. Living here, we can't help but be impacted by wildlife, including a swarm of honey bees that set up house in the outside wall of our home. Daily walks take me through fields and by hedgerows buzzing with activity. This project has inspired me to slow down and appreciate the activity, laugh when a solo bumble buzzes my head, and marvel at the interconnectedness of all things.

In addition to the exhibition, there's also a book in the works. You can learn more and support the publishing project here.

Fifty Bees: The Interconnectedness of All Things | 1 July – 22 July, Private View 30 June | ACEarts Gallery | Market Place, Somerton, Somerset TA11 7NB, UK

UPDATE added July 17, 2017:

We've had some nice press about the exhibition, including an enthusiastic review by Somerset Cool and an article in The Ecologist.