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.

The Growing Importance of my Sketchbook

My sketchbook. Kelly O'Brien ©2017

My sketchbook. Kelly O'Brien ©2017

One of the things that is becoming central to my studio practice is sketching. For an artist, this sounds obvious, right? Yet I didn't start out with a foundation in drawing beneath my work - I dove in and made things...handmade paper, artist books, handmade boxes to house my new work. Even when I started doing large sculptural installations, I only sketched when I had to, for proposals and applications. It just wasn't something I'd been schooled in or was comfortable with.

Kelly O'Brien ©2017, sketches for new burned paper objects

Kelly O'Brien ©2017, sketches for new burned paper objects

Lately I've been making friends with my sketchbook, finding ideas, inspiration and grounding within its pages. It's turning into an indispensable early step in moving from the hint of a new project to making things happen.

Kelly O'Brien ©2017, sketches for  Fifty Bees: The Interconnectedness of Everything

Kelly O'Brien ©2017, sketches for Fifty Bees: The Interconnectedness of Everything

I'm now to the point where I use sketches to give a client options for a commission, to ensure we're on the same page and clear about where things are headed. I know this is old hat to many artists, but for me it's a growing confidence that my sketches don't have to be fancy to get the job done, or for me to feel good about them.

Kelly O'Brien ©2017, sketches for client commission,  Playing With Fire No. 40 .

Kelly O'Brien ©2017, sketches for client commission, Playing With Fire No. 40.

art for the holidays!

For those of you who have asked about giving some of my original art, cards and postcards as holiday gifts, now is the time to take action!

 Blank cards and postcards! Available as full sets or individually.

Small watercolors, one-of-a-kind prints, and nicely packaged card sets await your holiday shopping spree.

Postcard sets make a nice little desktop gallery! Free easel with every full set.

My Hard Tryer series has been getting some fanfare on Etsy lately, featured in five seven different curated treasuries just this week.

Watercolors and etchings featured on Etsy this week

Surprise loved ones and friends alike with a gift that is thoughtful and unique. What could be easier? My online shop makes it a snap to browse, order and ship.

Because of shipping times to the US from Germany, plan ahead. Now is definitely not too early to order. Local Frankfurt peeps, personal deliveries to you can be arranged, or I'll ship direct to your recipients.

artprize: a great funding start & flowers made in france

It's been a productive week, and we even hosted a house guest in the mix. My dear French host-sister, Hélène Lorblanchet, was here from Montpellier. We've been "family" since my Junior Year Abroad, a long time ago. Very lucky for me, she seems to love making paper flowers!

Not only did she make enough this week to cover my dancer's costume bodice, but she returned home with materials to continue flower production for my next project, A House With Four Rooms, in November. It means a lot to me that she's involved in these projects, and "Handmade in France" has a lovely ring to it.

"Shades of Gray" (in progress) by Kelly O'Brien for ArtPrize 2012

My ArtPrize funding campaign launched this week, as well. We're off to a great start! At 17% of the way in, the campaign is 46% funded. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for your generous donations to Ian Lowe, Stacey Cohen, Leon Lowe, Kieu Lam, Gretchen Schermerhorn, Jose Dominguez, Louisette Winkel, Jennifer McQuistion, and Anonymous. Your funds mean that I can now cover my overseas shipping.

There is much more to cover, however. Even if I hit my $3,000 funding goal, I am still carrying a lot of the cost myself. If you are in a position to contribute (and want some art in exchange), please do. And if you can help spread the word through your contacts, newsletter, Facebook, Twitter, or mailing list, all the better.

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.

the zen of paper flower making

This is what I'm up to, these days. One petal at a time, I am hand-cutting, hand-painting, hand-assembling, hand sewing, and hand-gluing many, many paper flowers for my ArtPrize paper sculpture installation. It is aMAZing how long this all takes.

It's forcing me to slow down. To focus on the next task at hand, instead of racing (mentally and actually) to the million other things that I think I should be doing.

walking a tightrope

Am walking a bit of a tightrope right now, balancing time in the studio with minding my day job. It would be soooo easy to let the day job work slowly fade away, if there weren't financial repercussions. I keep telling myself that the client work underwrites the art. For now. Recently finished Lewis Hyde's The Gift and, although I found much of it tedious, I mined a few gems. Namely, some of the thinking/rationale behind protecting the arts from the marketplace. It's resonated for me and cooled my heels on wanting to figure out a "business model" for my art.

We're about 2/3 finished with the inside trays on the CityDance boxes...

Pyramid-Atlantic summer intern Nora Simon

...and I'm starting to get a little pickier on craftsmanship, now that we've got some rapport going with the interns and volunteers. Designed a companion booklet that will rest on top of the books and will post pics once I have something more concrete. Looks like we'll gold stamp the box lid, which I've never done before, so that'll be fun to learn. We're nowhere near that step, just trying to think ahead on cover board prep options.

Made a little progress this weekend on my own edition for the project. Actually, it's been very meditative coating digital ground on both sides of 150 sheets of handmade paper. It's a time-consuming step, but I like the crispness of the text I get using the ground vs. uncoated on my pigment printer. A couple of hours into it, I realized it could be much easier if I used Susan King's paint roller trick - so I got me a 6" foam roller, paint tray and am cookin' along:

Created a nice rhythm on Sunday: coat some paper, hang it on the line in my studio to dry, do a load of laundry, work on a proposal for a client, plant some hostas, rinse and repeat.

countdown to handmade mart

Lordy, getting ready for my first outdoor craft show has been a lot of work. To my hubby's point, I am a little obsessive about the myriad of details that I've decided must get done. Our spare bedroom has been converted to a mock-tent/booth, signage pinned to the curtains and all. And when we set up my new EZup Craft Dome tent in the driveway, neighbors flocked over to find out what the heck we were up to.

To make things a little more challenging, I've decided to take the "brand your booth" advice I learned at the Summit of Awesome to heart. Since I'm selling accordian books that convert to wearable tutus, other dance-related prints, and my new little biz's name is TurningPointe Press, I'm going with a dance studio theme. I won't spoil the surprise here (you'll have to come visit my booth!), but think ballet bar, life-sized dancer and wooden floor to set the mood.


from skeptic to evangelist

I started this blog less than a year ago as an experiment. I couldn't understand what all the fuss was about around blogging, facebook, youtube - and certainly not twitter. What difference would any of this make and why should I care?

Well, was I wrong.

Not only have we elected a new President - thanks largely to these social media tools - but my communications consulting practice has taken off! Suddenly, through sheer experimentation and sense of adventure, I now know more about the power of these tools to incite real change. I find myself pulled into all kinds of interesting and meaty projects that are transforming opaque, inefficient bureaucracies mired in resistance and inertia. Cool!

Come full circle yesterday. In a book arts listserv, I incited a little riot by suggesting that twitter et al. might be useful artist tools for researching topical content, running an informal survey to generate content related to a book art project, taking the pulse of a certain "target audience," or increasing awareness for one's work simply by showing up in select conversations. Several folks soooo didn't get it.

Kind of like the naysayers in my day job. I don't think this is an either/or thing - and that it's still evolving. For me, these tools are only as powerful as the choices people make to engage offline as well. Maybe that's why I cherish the book arts - and indeed, my work as an agent of change inside messy organizations. I relish the low-tech, hands-on grounding both give me in an otherwise info-saturated, too-often disconnected world.

For anyone who is interested:

How the Arts are rocking it out through Social Media

Business Week: Why Twitter Matters

no geographic fixes

I don't want this to be my Denver. Let me explain...

Almost 2 years ago, my husband and I seriously considered uprooting and relocating to Denver. We were overwhelmed by the cost of housing in the DC market and were looking at all options. The "easier" path of getting more for our money and exactly what we wanted was very alluring. Never mind it required a complete reboot of my small business and leaving our support network behind.

The real issue, however, was fear of making the tough decisions and executing them with commitment and discipline so that we could get what we wanted: a home of our own that we loved here in DC. When we finally dug in to do just that, we landed nicely. While I'm guessing that we could have made Denver work, I believe we may have continued to run from the issues we really needed to face.

So is my increasingly strong draw towards a career in the arts my new Denver...or an important transformation not to be diminished or pushed underground?

I don't know enough yet, but the topic is on the table and out in the open around here. Finally. I've been carrying it around for over a year now, telling myself this is just a hobby...something to do in my spare time. But it's time to start airing this thing, this pull, this magnetic yet natural draw I feel to reclaiming my artist self.

Question is, can I do this without completely reinventing my life? Haven't I done enough of that already? Yes, and...maybe this is what's next. Maybe now that the dust has settled and I've got some stability, I can look around for my heart's desire. And maybe I can do it in a way that's not dramatic, does not cause unnecessary chaos or hardship, and that still keeps me grounded as a responsible and contributing member of a marriage.

That doesn't preclude there being some angst as this topic is aired around here. Far form it. But I trust that more than I would unquestioning support or codependent compliance. For this not to be my geographic fix, I must face and address the things that challenge me most.

wake-up call

Got a timely wake-up call yesterday, in the form of losing a contract bid for a major job. Timely, in that I'd been getting a little cocky about a string of wins and didn't see this one coming. Ouch - especially since I was the incumbent. The universe's way of keeping me grounded, it seems.

So after a few minutes of fussing, cussing and blaming, I settled down and started journaling. Here's where I am so far...

I got beat out by a new comer – a 1 (2?) person consulting 8a with government-specific creds and great packaging. I am ultimately very competitive. I hate getting beat out. But this little firm beat me, fair and square. On image, at least. Maybe on competence and results, maybe not. But me smugly “knowing” that they client won’t get as good a result as they would with me does not mitigate the fact that I did not get this contract.

The real question for me now is am I going to really jump in here to compete in a way that will win biz? I know what to do: redo my business website, be crystal clear on what I offer to whom, and compete. Really compete. Not this half-hearted uncommitted approach I’ve been taking. My client work is whole-hearted and totally committed - my effort to "show up fully" in this market is not.

Doing is not the issue. What do I want? It means making a conscious choice. I’m at a turning point, actually. Bite the bullet and compete or don’t. But be very clear I have a choice. Instead of feeling bad or pointing fingers, this is all about me stepping up (or not), and then being accountable for my decision. And being at peace with it. In hindsight, I did see this coming - and by this, I mean a turning point, not the smaller "this" of losing a bid. I just didn't want to deal with it.

This is a wake up call. It’s time to decide. Consider. Choose. Then act.

Losing this bid could be the best outcome, actually. It asks me to pay attention. To stand up and stop playing small, making due with what lands in my lap. It’s not a sustainable strategy for getting what I want: serenity, peace, contentment and joy.

What I'm not clear on yet is the right choice for me now. I need to sit with this. Check in with myself and the small circle of wise mentors and supporters I've learned to both trust and believe. Maybe this is just part of my transition strategy. Could I tolerate it more if I saw it as a means to an end? I know I don’t want to be a big federal contracting firm – if I did, I would be acting to do so.

But can I be successful “enough” to get what I want: the platform and means to other things? Can I make enough of a living and really help my clients, without eating up all of my time or creative juice, to engage enough with the book arts (learn,  create, build relationships) to eventually sell my work, have a studio and teach?

what if...?

In Brenda Belfield's class this weekend at The Art League, Design Rules and How to Break 'em!, I was kicked right out of my comfort zone. I didn't think I'd been at the book arts long enough to know what my comfort zone is, but I discovered in this class that I clearly have one.

Brenda's a world-renowned abstract painter and glass artist, so just taking her class was a leap for me. As she encouraged us to think "what if...?" with all of our initial solutions to the design challenges she threw at us, I clung to what I now see is my comfort zone: sticking to the safety of the grid, a delicate esthetic, minimal patterns, a monochromatic palette. this how I live my life?

I'm probably being a little hard on myself. After all, I color decidedly outside the lines at times. Yet as her question continues to pop into my head today (and my post-Penland high remains), I'm struck by its application to more than our little art class exercises. What if I really embraced my art? What if I could learn to fully express what I'd like to say through these magical media? What if I could change the world, just a little, with my art? What if I could design a life that, in my wildest (no, I think these are my oldest) dreams, I never thought I could have?

Never mind how for now. Just...what if?

can you hear the mountain stream?

417LVC2P7cL._SS500_.jpgI've got enlightenment on the mind. Reading Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth, it's hard not to. Yesterday, as my husband and I hiked along a rushing mountain stream (actually, a creek with full-fledged waterfalls in the middle of Shenandoah National Park – who knew?), my thoughts turned to Tolle's story about how the Zen Master tells his disciple to listen for the mountain stream, and then "enter Zen from there."

Shaking off my week of feeling buffeted by a lot of unconscious acting out (clients' and my own), the power of Now -- in this current book, Presence --  feels like a port in the storm. And, hey, it's a lot easier! The timing of this book's appearance on my radar is just what the Zen Master ordered.

I don't make light of these ideas. I take them to heart, in fact. Designing a life is another way of living consciously. My daily task has been to attempt do so, yet it's weeks like the last one that remind me this is a journey.

Right now, this very moment, I'm loving these passages...

There are three ways in which the ego will great the present moment: as a means to an end, as an obstacle, or as an enemy. How do you go beyond a dysfunctional relationship with the present moment? ...see it in yourself, in your thoughts and actions. In the moment of seeing, of noticing that your relationship with the Now is dysfunctional, you are present. The seeing is the arising Presence. With the seeing comes the power of choice. 

Presence is a state of inner spaciousness. when you are present, you ask: How do I respond to the needs of this situation, of this moment? ...instead of reacting against a situation, you merge with it, the solution arises out of the situation itself...then, if action is possible or necessary, you take action or rather right action happens through you. Right action is action that is appropriate to the whole.

The more reactive you are, the entangled you become with form. The more identified with form, the stronger the ego. Your Being then does not shine through form anymore -- or only barely.

Nonresistance, nonjudgment, and nonattachment are the three aspects of true freedom and enlightened living.

My own little satori (flash of enlightenment) for today? Well, several actually:

  1. Being judgmental is just a bad habit that I can choose to give up, starting now.
  2. After being judgmental, resistance and attachment are my favorite defense mechanisms. I think I'll give them up, too.
  3. My attraction to working with archetypes makes sudden sense -- they're a powerful tool for bringing that which is unconscious (and the root of a lot of needless suffering) to light.
  4. Compassion and loving-kindness have felt elusive to me until now. I've wanted to feel them, but fear stood in my way, masked as my three favorite defense mechanisms.
  5. None of this is new information to me, it's just being presented in a way that I'm ready to move into it at a deeper level. Whatever has opened this up for me -- acupuncture, yoga, accumulated Western therapy, a walk in the woods with my husband -- I'm not afraid.

The idea from Tolle's book that made me smile the most? Something he quotes from Ram Dass: "If you think you are so enlightened, go spend a week with your parents." Which reminds me of my friend Mandy's useful reminder: when we recognize unconsciousness in others and then feel all judgy about it, we're reminded that we're not the Dali Lama yet.  That's okay, though. Because right Now, this very moment, I get it.

embracing doubt

My therapist calls it projective identification. I just feel like I'm caught in a storm, strapped to the mast, trying to keep from being swept up in the drama.

The client who's been making me crazy? Things came to a head yesterday. Just as we were getting somewhere during a meeting with 30 people on her management team (her direct reports, plus theirs), she couldn't tolerate it. As courage grew and elephants-in-the-room were spoken of, it was too much for her to bear. She stomped out, muttering "I can't take these people! I'm going to retire!"

Now we begin.

But for her, she seems to see this as the end. People have finally had enough of the insanity, ready to do something different. To speak their truth instead of avoid the conflict. I'm encouraging her to step into this with them. She's ready to bail.

I've been wrestling with a strange and powerful energy within myself for about 32 hours now, since the big showdown. Not just a mild case of open-eyed self-appraisal, but flooded with anxiety and self-doubt like I've not felt in a long time.

It's like my client's panic and unconscious self-doubt have come to roost in me. I feel like I've been infected...toxic stuff, that I'm physically trying to brush off of me. Cleanse out of me. Wild, huh? A few more sun salutations outta do it.

Or not. Julia Cameron suggests embracing doubt as a sign that the creative process is underway. Yes, we definitely got unstuck yesterday. And that there's a difference between honest self-appraisal in the light of day versus seething self-doubt that grips you in the middle of the night. The antidote to the latter is apparently a little self-nurture (is that why I ate two pieces of cake yesterday?) and a lot of self-acceptance.

Something my client and I could both use to get us through this. 


letting go to connect

I'm struck once again by the power of letting go. Okay, it was my smart friend, Mandy, who called this to my attention earlier this week on another topic - but the notion is apt here. We went to last week's Internal Branding Conference together to investigate what the super stars (IBM, AON, Genentech, Mayo Clinic, American Eagle) are doing to engage employees as ambassadors for their brands.

Wow, there are a lot of impressive, major-budget initiatives - beautifully messaged and packaged, slick, expensive. I keep wondering how much all of this really resonates with employees?

It boils down to letting go. It's not about hierarchies, perfect "messaging ladders," leadership authority, fancy branding or change management models. It's about asking people to step into a conversation and listening, and then taking action. Whether they use cutting edge Web 2.0 social media tools or in-person focus groups, successful leaders are letting go of the need to have all the answers. Rather, they're having the courage to ask employees to step up with some answers of their own, and staying out the way while the ride gets a little wild, a little scary...but in the end, produces much more credible answers because the people who work there figured it out, not their marketing or HR folks.

Sure, top leadership (and marketing and HR) must have the vision to tap into the paradigm shift underway here. But none of this is rocket science. This is not about jazz hands and sparkle ponies. It's about emergent collaboration. It means we all need to stop worrying and relinquish control.

Calm, grounded detachment is something I remind myself to embrace often, especially during a week like this. I've got a client that I'm trying to help who is fearfully clinging to her last illusory threads of control. She's making everyone around her nuts, including me. She's a very senior person in a large organization, so she's able to inflict a lot of damage. As much for her as for myself, I'm reminded of an idea that I attribute to Margaret Wheatley (although I can't verify this - if you know the source, please share it with me). I guess this one's for both of us:

Show up and listen fully, speak the gentle truth, let go of the outcome.

jazz hands and sparkle ponies



At this week's ALI 22nd Internal Branding Conference, I was temporarily seduced, impressed, intimidated by and envious of the parade of gorgeous initiatives that were trotted out before us. Big budgets, slick messaging, award-winning packaging. All this talk about "brand ambassadors" was making me very uneasy...I felt my feet leave the ground, as I floated up into the heady stuff these marketing super stars were promoting.

And then Chris Thornton from Pfizer took the stage and brought me back to earth. He told how they built trust and credibility without all the chitchat or big production. In Chris' words, it wasn't about jazz hands and sparkle ponies, but about coming clean and passing the sniff test.

In other words, having the courage to tell the truth without spin, have real conversations with employees, and do a few things that really matter vs. too many things that have no impact. Some ideas worth trying (some jazzier than others):

American Eagle uses digital recorders to "get the voice" of employees in action, then uses employee News Agents to blog about what's happening throughout the company.

IBM uses video-taped interviews with employees around the world to ask them what they need to evangelize IBM with friends and family, then creates story-telling tools based on this input.

Pfizer stripped its employee development intranet of really boring academic, HR-y, process-driven content, replacing it with a "life event" approach to accessing tools ("Help! I'm a new manager - now what?").

Several employers use audio branding to ignite a little excitement on intranets, at events, around the office. I've been grooving on Kaiser Permanente's Thrive CD mix in my car all week.

I do think a smart marriage between cool marketing and strategic HR can happen. In fact, they need each other - on their own, they each miss a crucial side of the story. What makes me nervous is that it's already too tempting to gloss over the tough decisions and fierce conversations that most employers would rather avoid. Throw a few sparkle ponies at the problem, and you won't have to deal with all that jazz, right?

conscious choices

I was information-interviewed by a bright young woman today, freshly laid off from her fast-track career, mother of two under two. Yikes. She's eager to "keep the intensity" and get back on her horse, now. Her resume is impressive. Her story and language and credentials all very brainy and smart and big. Turns out we both went to the same undergrad - no wonder I recognized that young woman on the other end of the telephone. We both learned to keep the intensity from the same place.

And yet, in between or underneath it all, I heard the beginning of a question: is this right for me? It wasn't so much what she said as a sense I got. I couldn't help myself...and told her to slow down. To look around. Take a breath. Design her life, consciously, with eyes open. 

I know nothing about her situation - if she has to work, chooses to work, loves to work. All I know is that she's been handed a big, fat opportunity to be still. Breath. Think. Feel. Let go. Then choose well, with intention.


They're everywhere, these ancient inherent truths... and an example of how things seem to be converging in my life. Reintroduced to them in 2006 by my acupuncturist (Pilar, an amazing healer), I'm now an avid student of them. They just make so much sense, on a number of levels.

They have some pretty intriguing applications, some of which I'm exploring through my client work (branding and organizational development), and through my art. Just this morning, Julia Cameron made reference to them in her book, Walking in This World. If you don't know her work, you should.

Don't take my word for it, though - check archetypes out for yourself.