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

artprize afterglow

The votes have been cast, winners announced, and entries are being deinstalled. ArtPrize 2012 is over, save for what appears to be a walking tour of the finalists and related activities. Love this LA Times article about the first prize winner, Adonna Khare.

With the perspective that time and reflection bring, my mixed feelings about the experience have clarified into something much more positive. The brilliance of it all is that I've really had to embrace exactly what my entry preached: living in shades of gray (e.g., finding more subtle rewards from being there). As my friend Mandy would say, the Universe has a sense of humor.

Mandy Gordon in front of "Bridging Humanity" by Edward CasagrandeThe biggest surprise turned out to be how upside-down I got with my priorities, once onsite. Fear of facing the public's reaction to my entry drove a lot of small-mindedness that I didn't realize was lurking inside of me. There's a certain vulnerability to witnessing thousands of people react to one's work. It's one thing to send something off to a gallery for display, or receive a rejection letter by mail. Quite another to interact directly with those responses.

The range of unfiltered, unedited human response was daunting. Ninety-five percent of people appeared to really enjoy my entry, and many were delighted. Sadly, as I focused on those whose cup of tea is not an extremely feminine paper swan ballerina, my generosity of spirit went missing. The irony is how generous people have been to help get me to Grand Rapids, and support the project once we were there. Heck, there are still people there lending a hand to help with deinstallation.

Thomas the awesomely helpful bellman at The Amway Grand Hotel

So, while I'm not proud of some of my response, the experience has been well worth it. Among many things, I've learned an important paradox: artists must have thick skins, while remaining exquisitely sensitive to the impact one's work can have on others. And that people are entitled to their experiences of the art, regardless of the reactions it fosters. Previously, this knowledge was somewhat theoretical. Now it feels very real.

Another big lesson is how important it is to get back to the work. Instinctively, one of the first things I did upon returning to Germany was focus on my next pieces for an exhibition in November here in Frankfurt. Julia Cameron talks about "keeping the drama on the page," shorthand for advising artists to focus on the work instead of fabricating trouble elsewhere because we're avoiding something difficult.

This is not the last of ArtPrize. There are people to properly thank and contributors to gift with handmade goodies. So while the remainder of 2012 is happily packed with projects and deadlines, the afterglow of ArtPrize will remain.

artprize recap (so far)

Now that I'm back in Germany post-ArtPrize install, I'm trying to gain some perspective on what's happened so far. On balance, I'm happy with the experience, regardless of how far out of my comfort zone most of it has been.

They're in the thick of voting for the top crowd pleasers in Grand Rapids. My entry did not make the first cut, about which I have mixed feelings. My admittedly competitive streak wants to be IN, of course. Who wouldn't want some form of recognition, crazy crowdsourcing and all? There's some terrific company in the Top 100 and I'd like to be one of them.

What would really matter to me is a nod from the jury. The time has passed for that - the five short lists have been selected and announced, with no chance of alteration. The voting for crowd picks continues through this Saturday.

I am genuinely happy for some of the contenders that have received the crowd's nod so far. With others, I'm scratching my head. Big time. I knew going into this that I'd be exposing myself to lord-knows-what, but in the thick of it, it's challenging to sit with.

So I go back to an excerpt from my artist's statement for my entry, Shades of Gray:

The irony of entering an art competition is not lost on me. Is this another act of extremism? Or is it simply having the courage to face something I fear and allow myself to be, regardless of the outcome?

Time will tell. For now, I'm sitting with the discomfort and seeing what happens next.

artprize: and...she's off!

This week my swan dancer entry for ArtPrize is winging her way to the Grand Rapids, in her very fancy art crate. Even if I'm not flying first class, she is. And while painfully expensive, I'm relieved to have found an excellent company to handle the job.

I suppose it's a rite of passage when one's art requires "serious" handling to ship. Treating my work with care and professionally is an investment. But it's the right thing to do. And now I can fully appreciate why galleries take a hefty commission for representing an artist's work.

Now, more than ever, I am thankful for the backing of 38 different funders through my fundraising campaign. We have surpassed my original goal of $3000 and the total continues to climb. Initially, I started to feel a little greedy...but now I'm simply grateful.

There are 70 hours left to help cover costs. Since shipping is now triple what I had budgeted, every little bit helps. Please give if you can, or help spread the word.

ArtPrize details:

Shades of Gray at ArtPrize©, Grand Rapids, MI, USA. September 19 – October 7, 2012.

Click here to donate.
Click here to visit my ArtPrize page.

artprize: rock the vote!

As ArtPrize draws nearer, there's plenty afoot for the big shindig in Grand Rapids. You can follow the growing list of events here. And if you're anywhere near GR, please register to vote for my entry:

Vote Code: 53118

It is, after all, election season! Dear friend Mandy (and ArtPrize team member) cleverly pointed out the relevance of my entry, Shades of Gray, to the current political culture:

Amidst the flutter of campaign rhetoric and the often extreme positioning of our two parties as they pit themselves against one another, here's something refreshing. Shades of Gray. My dear friend and gifted artist, Kelly O'Brien, seeks through her work to explore what lives between black and white--something I'd love to see more of as the campaign moves forward. She's raising money to fund Shades of Gray's entry into ArtPrize. Check it out. She doesn't have a super pac and needs every dollar of generosity out there.

Thank you, Mandy. And thank you to anyone who gets out there to vote - preferably early and often.

seeds are sprouting

Image: The Utilitarian FranchiseMy friend Joe emailed me last week with a gentle nudge: "What, no blog posts?" He's right - how did it get to be nearly five months since my last post?! A sign, perhaps, that I've been happily productive in a low-key way.

Also a factor has been the sheer time it's taken for me to settle into life here as an expat, find my bearings in a completely unknown arts world, and establish a rhythm for my daily studio practice.

Quiet frankly, I had no idea what it meant to be a full-time "professional" artist, something that this time abroad affords me to explore. Not that I fully know now, but I'm beginning to gain a sense of what this takes.

It's harder than I thought. Yes, the work is demanding. But that's not the hard part. The big challenges are showing up every day - regardless of inspiration or motivation - to just do the work. And facing down the fear of putting myself out there.

It was very naive of me to think that an artist enters the studio constantly fueled by endless inspiration. And clueless of me to disregard the inner Critic who sits waiting for me any time I do something that feels like a creative or professional stretch.

No different, really, than what I faced in my professional consulting work back in the states. And those business skills definitely help now. But the stakes feel much higher now, especially as good things start to happen. Julia Cameron captures this feeling well in her book Finding Water:

When the odds start to shift, when the dominoes are falling in the right direction, we can suddenly feel out of control. Where before we knew how we felt - frustrated - now we feel something worse - vulnerable. And we hate to feel vulnerable. Once more our dreams have been nudged awake. Once more our dreams have the capacity to break our hearts.

Seeds that I've been planting are beginning to sprout. This thrills and terrifies me. There are some opportunities on the horizon that feel pretty awesome. But I'm learning that the sanest thing I can do is just show up every day and make art. Do the next right thing. Protect my time from things that could easily distract me from what keeps me grounded: being in the studio. Connect with people here. And keep putting myself out there.

At the end of this month, it is one year that we've been here. In the past, major transitions have taken about a year for me to assimilate, so I'm right on schedule. Bloom where planted? Why, yes, don't mind if I do.

grace finds home

The last project I did before moving from the states was an installation for Art Whino's G40, called Grace in Full Bloom. Shortly after deinstalling, Grace got packed up in her very own custom box and tucked into our shipping container for the ride across the ocean.

Since landing here in Germany on July 1, she's remained in her box, up to her shoulders in pink packing peanuts, waiting patiently to come out and take her rightful spot in my studio. A couple of weeks ago - box cutter in hand - as I started unpacking her, I stopped mid-cut. It suddenly occurred to me: that's me in that box.

"Grace in Full Bloom" up to her neck in packing peanuts.Okay, not really me. But the part of myself that I consider the most sacred and core to who I am. Clearly, we (Grace and I) haven't been ready to come out of our box and settle into this new house. How could we, with all the chaos of the move and challenge of starting over, not to mention a dog bent on destroying anything he deems mine every time I leave the house?

Until that moment, I hadn't been able to put my finger on why I was keeping Grace under wraps. Nearly all of the unpacking was finished, but she remained safely ensconced. Once I realized this, it became very clear for me what to do: I needed to welcome Grace home. But first, I had to create a suitable environment for her.

Last week, I unleashed a swarm of book paper butterflies on my studio. They fly in from our front door, down behind the stairwell, and down to Grace's feet...

"Grace Finds Home" (installation in home studio), with Beverly Ryan's oil paining, "Dancing Through.""Grace Finds Home" (paper installation in home studio), detailAnother batch flies up out of a light fixture, across the wall and into our guest bedroom.

"Grace Finds Home" (paper installation in home studio)"Grace Finds Home" (paper installation in home studio)A fellow-G40 artist inspired the light fixture idea - he had metal butterflies made from spray paint cans swarming from a light fixture on the first floor.

"Grace Finds Home," paper installation in home studio (detail)The butterflies are die-cut from vintage French book texts. I had two copies of Le Mariage de Figaro Tome II, making serendipidous use of black and white photography in the book.

"Grace Finds Home," paper installation in home studio (detail)"Grace" now home

impromptu installation

We arrived a week ago in Germany and are settling into our new home in the endlessly charming town of Königstein. While our household goods float across the Atlantic for four weeks, we’re rattling around in our empty house and making the best of our “executive expat” rental furniture package. No complaints, actually – so much nicer than living in yet another transitional place for a month.

In the meantime, in addition to navigating the myriad details of daily life in a language I don’t speak and culture that is noticeably different from the US, I’ll be working on small projects that I mailed ahead. Today, as I unpacked two boxes of art tools and materials, I thanked myself for sending the gift of something familiar and grounding: art!

One of the projects is to make progress on an edition of 50 miniature artist books for the Moving Parts boxed set. The books are small accordion-fold pieces that expand into a wearable tutu. The 234-inch long strips of handmade paper that will become tutus turned into an impromptu installation as I hung them from our second floor banister to unwrinkle.

View into my future studio on the first floorParis checks things outText is commentary on the connections between dance and lifeImpromptu installation of myTurningPointe accordion books waiting to be worked on

back to joy

This week's been a real challenge so far, as we count down to our overseas move. The movers come on Monday and we move into a hotel until Thursday, when we fly away to Germany. If it's not miscommunications with the pet movers, it's oversights by our relocation company. Each day has brought a fresh set of frustrations and things-going-wrong.

I keep getting little reminders that it's just a matter of perspective. I'm not really into the whole "angel" thing, but a set of Angel Cards that we occasionally use at my yoga studio has delivered great wisdom. Yesterday, I drew the Seek Forgiveness card, after a particularly awkward and painful goodbye over the weekend. Today, I drew See Only Love, reminding me to "look past the seeming errors, mistakes, and misunderstandings" in others.

Then this morning after my schedule unexpectedly changed, I had an opportunity to focus on making small gift books for a set of extraordinarily special people that I'll say a final goodbye to tomorrow. In the making of these books, I regrounded and found happy. I am back to joy and gratitude for this great adventure on which we're about to embark.

the sweetest goodbyes

Centerpiece by Stephanie Gamboa at last night's Pyramid Atlantic goodbye partyThere's a lot of sweet good-byeing going on around here these days. When you leave a place after 37 years, it involves a LOT of good byes. It's one thing to send off a dear friend or close colleague who is moving away. You're losing someone in your daily life and things will change, regardless of how connected you manage to stay after they leave.

Now imagine how it feels to part with everyone at once - family, friends, colleagues, neighbors - within a condensed period of time. For people who move around a lot, I guess it becomes easier. But let me tell you, this is rough.

Nobody likes to say goodbye, and many people will do their best to avoid it. But I'm learning a lot about how to say goodbye well. One thing I can't overemphasize: make time for people that matter. No matter how much "must" get done related to the tasks of moving itself, people trump things every time.

As a recovering to-do list-aholic, this is a key lesson for me to take to heart. I like how it's working out so far (although as things get down to the wire, I'm happy to report that certain people are helping do some of those things on my list!).

Last night was one such occasion, thanks to my dear friend Gretchen Schermerhorn at Pyramid Atlantic. Gretchen, Jose Dominguez, the whole Pyramid gang, and other close friends turned out to wish Ian and me well. And in true Pyramid Atlantic spirit, everyone created a book page that will be bound into an artist book for us.

It's true that parting is such sweet sorrow. But I wouldn't miss it for the world.

t-minus 32 days and counting

Hadiya Williams, Pyramid Atlantic letterpress calendar 2011My husband, Ian, and I looked at each other today and gasped: 32 days until we move our entire home, pets and lives to Germany! We've been so caught up in talking about, deciding about, planning for, and now managing the myriad tasks of an international move, that I'm missing the point.

This blog is titled Designing a Life for a reason. I started it three years ago because I wanted to explore and document my journey of intentionally creating an authentic life. By that I mean making choices and taking action to live wide-awake, and doing what I must to keep the spark alive, feet on the ground, and soul satisfied.

(Re)discovering my artist self has been a big part of the life redesign, well-documented here. While the art is an expression of my transformation, I've left some things out. Not that I need to share my every thought here, but I think that a huge part of "life design" is conjuring the courage to carve an intentional path in the first place.

Which that brings me back to art and Germany. Each of these decisions alone is asking more of me than I could have imagined. Together, they're making my head spin a little, but in a good way.

Nobody could have prepared me for the "stuff" that's getting stirred up by leaving a well-paying 25+ year career in business to hitch a ride on the train of soul-feeding creative opportunities that feel so right I can't believe it. I came of age in the 80s when women wore power suits and many of us out-earned our spouses.

Nobody could have prepared me for what it feels like to be in the enviable but terrifying position of sitting down to face my new professional self, an artist, every day and do the work.

Nobody could have prepared me for the angst of choosing to leave a well-grounded, rich, happy life in Alexandria, VA in exchange for living without regrets by choosing to go on this adventure with my husband.

While my identity appears to be shifting at the speed of light, this has been years in the making. Current events such as shutting down my consulting practice, terminating my lease at Printmakers, and the enormous dog crate in our living room only make it feel as if life is spinning quickly into something I don't recognize anymore.

I don't want to miss a minute of this, though. Instead of just "getting it done," I owe it to myself to pay attention. One way is to start writing about the whole story here. To focus on the art and the backstory that inspires it in the first place.

saying yes to happy

Nearly five years ago, I walked into Pyramid Atlantic Arts Center in Silver Spring, MD and discovered what I wanted to be when I grew up: an artist. Since then, I've been taking progressive steps on the path to working and being fulltime in the arts, some of which I chronical through this blog.

This year, Pyramid celebrates it's 30th birthday. In honor of this milestone, I'm raising funds to help support arts programming such as their biannual book arts fair, artist residencies, public school outreach, and studio maintenance.

If there's something in your life that you've said "yes" to - or, perhaps more importantly, think you can't do - I encourage you to visit my FirstGiving page to read more about how I'm saying yes to happy. And consider making a donation, no matter how small.

There's something in it for you, based on your giving level...handmade books, beautiful boxes, handmade cards, a day in the studios at Pyramid Atlantic with me? Say yes to happy.

exit through the gift shop

Fury, envy, inspiration. These are the things I felt last night watching Banksy's documentary film, Exit Through the Gift Shop. This film blew my mind on a number of levels. Not only is Banksy a brilliant street artist, but he's crossed seamlessly into the medium of film and garnered an Academy Award nomination.

joseph cornell and ballet

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Celestial Fantasy with Tamara Toumanova), Early 1940sI love a good surprise, the kind that tips over into delight, especially when my two great passions collide: book arts and ballet. Little did I know that when I started my research on assemblage artist Joseph Cornell, I'd also learn that he was obsessed with ballet. It inspired some of his work, in fact.

For a run-down on a range of pieces he created for or that were inspired by ballerinas, The Australian Ballet's blog, Behind Ballet, does a nice job here.

Now that's the second thing we have in common - no wait, the third: we're both into the book arts, we're both inspired by ballet, and neither of us is (was) a formally-trained visual artist.

I realize that it's a bit ridiculous to compare myself to Cornell, but I feel like I'm in good company. My path into fine arts has been unconventional and intuitive, not formal or structured. It's little signs like this that tell me to just keep going.

a new year full of things that have never been

Now let us welcome the New Year, full of things that have never been.

-Rainer Maria Rilke

2010 was full of surprises, both delightful and difficult, that I could have never anticipated. Last New Year's Day, as I sat with my journal and planner, thoughtfully mapping out the things I wanted to do and achieve for the year, it wasn't even on my radar that I'd...

  • sustain a self-inflicted major injury that would require me to face down my fear of surgery
  • have to learn to be still and allow healing to occur
  • find out the hard way what harsh self-criticism can do to a still-healing body
  • accept levels of support from friends and my husband that I'd previously been unable to ask for
  • become a juried artist at the Torpedo Factory and be asked to join one of the most desirable studios there
  • find out what it really means to be married, finally
  • be reunited with my beloved French host family after a 5-year separation
  • forgive myself and significant others, allowing compassion to enter my heart
  • learn how to choose love and joy over fear, every time
  • have the opportunity to say yes to a long time dream: living abroad again (yes, we're moving to Germany! More on that in a later post)
  • say no to the home addition of our dreams in exchange for the financial flexibility to pursue my art

So on this first day of 2011, I'm not even going to waste my time plugging a bunch of must-do's and tasks into my calendar. Sure, there's stuff I've got to and want to do. But why spoil the surprises in store by cluttering up my life with a bunch of "shoulds?"

As my wise yogi friend Jen said in her Facebook post this morning: 2011, bring it on!

good advice: proceed and be bold

I'm sitting here watching the documentary, Proceed and Be Bold, about printmaker Amos Kennedy. The man is calling my name.

Amos left a well-paying career as a systems analyst at the age of 40, returned to school to get his MFA, and hasn't looked back. He's figured out a way to make a living doing what he loves and apologizes to no one.

Some Kennedy-isms I particularly like:

"What do I have to do in order to make my stuff?"

"Life is short. But as long as you got it, make something of it."

"Instead of being afraid to leave something you don't want to do, leave it and do something you want to do."

"Nothing is permanent, so why are you going to put your faith in something you have no control over? At least you have some control over your own life."

You can catch a local screening of this terrific film on November 6th at 1:15 pm here.

unseen hands: women in the arts

Seems art is no exception to the lack of visibility women have received through the ages. The current exhibition, Unseen Hands: Women Printers, Binders and Book Designers at Princeton University is an illustration (thanks, Mark, for the heads-up!). I was first introduced to the notion of women's diminished visible role in printmaking by Susan King, whose work Women and Cars is included in this show. Susan was part of The Women's Building, a pioneering group of women printmakers in the 1960s.

Other opportunities for visibility are in the air. One of the films we're screening at the Pyramid Atlantic 11th Biennial Book Arts Fair, Who Does She Think She Is?, explores the issue on a very personal level. And then there's the new reality television show, Work of Art, where women and men have equal opportunity to shine or fail.

This is not a new issue and it shouldn't surprise me, since I come from the business world and well know the issues of women's equality in the workplace. So why are we still talking about it today? Instead of talking about it, I'd much prefer women just garner as much recognition, opportunities and success as we can earn.

mailART for June

Last month when I said that rejection wasn't a buzz-kill? I lied. It totally derailed me. I fell hard, and wallowed in self-doubt and criticism despite my pep talk via blog post. And then, thanks to some clear messages from my post-op knee, I realized this "turning on myself" was contraindicated for my health. So I dropped the harshness.

Feels like I'm back on track, doing the basics: morning pages, PT, client work ramping up. Most importantly, I'm getting my hands on my art, daily. This feels crucial to my sanity, frankly. I also pulled out books from my touchstones and guides: Julia Cameron, Natalie Goldberg, Anne Lamott. These women have lived the artist's life far longer than I and their advice feels like it's written specifically for me right now.

June's mailART exchange with my friend Elizabeth reflects a lot of this, although we didn't plan it. That seems to be the thing with collage and our wavelength across the miles these days.

Elizabeth to Kelly June 2010, frontElizabeth to Kelly June 2010, back

Kelly to Elizabeth June 2010, frontKelly to Elizabeth June 2010, back

rejection: stings, but not a buzz kill

This week I got two rejections: MCBA's Prints Now in 3-D! and 23 Sandy's Book Power! exhibitions will not include my work. The rejection emails I received couldn't have been kinder, coming from artist curators who know the sting of being told no. It still sucks.

My initial reaction was to take it lightly and move on - after all, I'm still riding high from a string of recent acceptances and big steps related to my art. But then it hit me - ouch. Tiny panicky doubts popped up...is this all just a fluke? beginner's luck? am I not as grounded in my art as it feels? with time, will I be revealed as not a "real" artist?

                                                                                                                                                                                        This morning I woke up and didn't believe any of those things. I did, however, realize that I need to get my hands on my work and create. To keep moving. To stop stalling on some pieces that feel a little intimidating to me right now (a feeling I've come to recognize as: you're on to something).

I also did a little exploring to see how more seasoned artists navigate the necessary evil of rejection. One of the most thoughtful and comprehensive pieces I've found is by Joanne Mattera, an encaustics artist who also writes a terrific blog about navigating life as an artist.