Interview: Playing With Fire at The Address Boulevard Dubai, UAE

Kelly M. O'Brien, Playing With Fire No. 30. Paper, gold leaf, flame. 20 x 28 x 2.65 inches. ©2016. Image: Z. Al-Gafoor, Image Centre

Kelly M. O'Brien, Playing With Fire No. 30. Paper, gold leaf, flame. 20 x 28 x 2.65 inches. ©2016. Image: Z. Al-Gafoor, Image Centre

Two Playing With Fire commissions are being installed in a new residential property, The Address Boulevard Dubai, Dubai, UAE. I was recently interviewed by the management company's head of marketing, Vida Rizq, about my pieces, in preparation for publicity about the property.

Vida Rizq: How would you describe yourself as an artist?

Kelly O'Brien: Emerging. Professional. Ambitious. I know that these are not the usual descriptors that an artist might use about herself, but I haven't followed a conventional artist path!

VR: How did you decide you would pursue art as a career?

KO: When my spouse had the opportunity to pursue an overseas assignment in 2011, we jumped at the chance. It also meant leaving my US-based career as a leadership development consultant for the federal government. A couple of years prior to this, I had started learning about printmaking and the book arts and was exhibiting my work with some early success. Leaving the US was the opening I needed to pursue my art full time. The first thing I did was find an excellent art mentor and enroll in art classes in Frankfurt, Germany. I was on a steep learning curve, but I already had what many artists struggle with in the beginning: business skills and an entrepreneurial mindset.

VR: Where does your inspiration come from?

KO: My work is informed by place. Geography and surroundings play important roles. Where I am in the world has become a starting point to reflect on who I am. The links between place and identity, where we are and who we are, is intriguing. The past few years have been all about stepping out of my comfort zone, with two international moves and a simultaneous career change. The landscapes I've navigated these past few years – geographic and internal – continue to challenge my assumptions about where I should live and who I can be.

I constantly snap photos of my surroundings. These images are a starting point for ideas and sometimes become part of the work itself. Materials – specifically paper, thread and other ephemera – truly inspire me. I keep coming back to paper, which is where I started with the art of the book. Paper seems delicate, but in fact is quite resilient and enduring, even when handled and worked.

VR: Where are you from and where are you currently based?

KO: I've lived in a tiny village just outside of Bath, England since 2014. Before that, we were near Frankfurt, Germany. I am American and lived most of my life in the Washington, DC area on the east coast of the United States.

VR: Where in the world can we see your art? Is there a specific location, venue or place you would like to see your work in the future? Any dream destination or particular venue?

KO: Within the past year, my work has started to gain some visibility. This year, it's been commissioned for several hotels in the United States and for Norwegian Cruise Lines, including Joy, the first purpose-built ship exclusively for the Chinese market sailing out of Shanghai and Beijing. I'm working on several projects for spaces in Dubai. I also have work in public collections, including university collections and the US Library of Congress.

It's an honor to have my work included in this collection! As an avid traveler myself, I so appreciate thoughtfully-curated art where I stay. I was captivated by my first encounter with art intentionally commissioned for a hotel setting at Kimpton's Hotel Palomar in Philadelphia, PA, USA.

Recently, I spent time with my father in the new Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Tower at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, USA. The permanent public art collection there is stunning, integral to the atmosphere of healing. I took great comfort in daily excursions from my father's hospital room to discover work throughout the hospital in lobbies, waiting areas, and other public spaces. I aspire to create work at that level in places where people might benefit from a moment of peace, comfort, or inspiration.

Good art in public places humanizes what can otherwise feel like impersonal or institutional spaces. Even the most elegant venue is further elevated by carefully chosen art. If it slows people down to appreciate or reflect on the moment, so much the better.

VR: Can you please describe to me the artworks you have created for The Address Boulevard Dubai? What was the main source of inspiration for this artwork for The Address Boulevard Dubai?

    KO: The work was commissioned for this specific property. It consists of two shallow wall sculptures made of paper. The paper has been incised, torn, punched, and burned, with touches of gold leaf. The paper is arranged in floating layers, creating an illusion of landscapes. The work is framed in large, deep box frames to protect the materials.

    Kelly M. O'Brien, Playing With Fire No. 25 and No. 26. Paper, gold leaf, flame. 35.5 x 29 x 2.65 inches each. ©2016. Commissioned for The Address Boulevard Dubai. Images: Z. Al-Gafoor, Image Centre

    Kelly M. O'Brien, Playing With Fire No. 25 and No. 26. Paper, gold leaf, flame. 35.5 x 29 x 2.65 inches each. ©2016. Commissioned for The Address Boulevard Dubai. Images: Z. Al-Gafoor, Image Centre

    For these two pieces, I drew inspiration from patterns in nature – specifically the Arabian Desert. I constantly notice patterns in nature when traveling or on daily walks – veins in a leaf, a knot of wood, waves, shells, even migrating birds – and distill them into designs I can cut, burn and layer with paper. The layered, undulating lines of expansive sand dunes that disappear into the horizon are what I had in mind for this work.

      VR: Is the artwork for The Address Boulevard Dubai part of a series you are creating?

      KO: Yes, these pieces are part of an ongoing series, Playing With Fire, that I've been working on since 2013. Each piece is completely unique, since the primary technique involves burning fine art paper with a blow torch and branding iron. It's amazing the range of effects you can achieve by burning paper, ranging from lightly toasted to completely scorched, from delicate thin lines to dramatic dark filigree edges.

      Kelly M. O'Brien, Playing With Fire No. 25 (detail). Paper, gold leaf, flame. 35.5 x 29 x 2.65 inches each. ©2016. Commissioned for The Address Boulevard Dubai. Images: Z. Al-Gafoor, Image Centre

      Kelly M. O'Brien, Playing With Fire No. 25 (detail). Paper, gold leaf, flame. 35.5 x 29 x 2.65 inches each. ©2016. Commissioned for The Address Boulevard Dubai. Images: Z. Al-Gafoor, Image Centre

      The series explores the parallels between the creative process and what happens when fire meets paper. I'm interested in the tension between control vs. letting go, and where true creativity happens. Fire is destructive, yet what rises from ash is new growth. Some of the most interesting and unexpected effects happen in this work when I allow the paper to burn as it will. That's when the heat is most destructive and potentially dangerous, yet the results are usually worth it.

      The parallels in life are apt. How much can we have or be? And I don't mean materially, but things like abundance, contentment, and generosity. How bright can we burn inside? How far can we push ourselves without self-combusting? Where do we draw the line? And what role does fear play in our willingness to engage with the edge?