hard tryer

"Hard Tryer" series study by Kelly O'Brien (watercolor, coffee and pencil on paper with burn marks)

This Spring, I'm taking a mixed-media sculpture class through the Städelschule Erwachsenenbildungädel (Städel Museum Adult Education Program). The 13-week semester class is in German and attended largely by serious and accomplished German artists and other fluent expats.

Not only am I far from even conversant in German, I was unfamiliar with the ramifications of "German directness" in an art critique. It's actually refreshing to get clear and honest feedback on what people think of your work, but it has taken some getting used to while I wait for my skin to thicken.

"Hard Tryer" series study by Kelly O'Brien (watercolor, coffee and pencil on paper with burn marks)

Add this to a couple of years of sustained exposure to "new" and frequently uncomfortable, and a critical mass seems to have accumulated. It feels like a tightly-stretched wire finally snapped, in a good way. As a result, the work that's emerging feels looser, more playful, and braver.

"Hard Tryer" series study by Kelly O'Brien (watercolor, coffee and pencil on paper with burn marks)

Of course, a little self-deprecation has also been helpful when juggling multiple ego-confronting forces at once. Hard Tryer is the series of 2D and 3D studies that's emerging. The title is a nod to the vulnerable, slightly awkward, determined, yet hopeful part of us that conjures the courage to try new things.

My friend Mandy—witness to a lot in our long friendship—has called me a hard tryer for years. It's a label I used to cringe at, and now (ironically) seem ready to play with.

playing with fire

In my last post, I mentioned three exhibitions in the Marseille-Provence region that my work will be in this spring. Playing With Fire is new work for an exhibition at The Red Door Gallery in Aix-en-Provence.

The task was to use French poetry as inspiration for paper art. I found Silvia Baron Supervielle’s poem, A l’Encre, in Elles, an anthology of modern French poetry by women. You can read the full poem in English at the end of this post.

This project was full of surprises from the start. The original idea that was accepted by the jurors was a life-sized paper sculpture installation—inspired by another poem—that became unwieldy to transport and install. I had to shift gears from large to small, 3-D to 2-D, and find a new poem that inspired. Quickly.

For A l’Encre, my initial focus was on ink—shades of ink washes, splatters, lines, an inky ombré grid. It felt obvious and safe, since everything else was out of my comfort zone. Out of many tests and samples, one tiny detail emerged that excited me: a delicate, organic edge of ink that seemed impossibly thin to recreate or predict.

The more times I read Supervielle's poem, the more it became about fire for me. Here's where it took me:

Paper, ink, pencil, cut, engrave, crumple – a kindred obsession with shared materials of our different crafts. Silvia Baron Supervielle’s poem, A l’Encre, deploys rich visual metaphor to evoke her process for getting poems down on paper, using words and images that I covet.

As it sinks into me, the power of this poem is in the physicality of Supervielle’s process. She seems to interact with her work viscerally, physically. Like a dancer, she allows words to flow through her, musically, and drip out onto the page. There is struggle, but also grace.

Shared materials, shared struggle. I circle around the materials again and again. Trying too hard to find an elusive answer. Only when I give over to faith do possibilities emerge.

Repetition, movement, rhythm, a light touch. These are calming, clarifying actions, just as paper and ink ground me in their simplicity. Fire? Fire is a different story. Dangerous, unpredictable, mesmerizing. Fire is Supervielle’s outcome, what she waits for, the reward, a beginning. As I burn delicate paper edges, I wonder if I can have that too, without bursting into flames.

"Playing With Fire 1" by Kelly O'Brien (2013)"Playing With Fire 1" (detail) by Kelly O'Brien (2013)"Playing With Fire 2" by Kelly O'Brien (2013)"Playing With Fire 2" (detail) by Kelly O'Brien (2013)

Test for "Playing With Fire" by Kelly O'Brien (2013)Test for "Playing With Fire" (detail) by Kelly O'Brien (2013)

What most excites me about this project is the challenge of working smaller, quasi-2D (the work hangs on the wall, but is still sculptural), and in the abstract. It's a direction I plan to investigate further.

In Ink by Silvia Baron Supervielle

when i pore
over sheets

there falls to the
depth a medal

a tear
of fire
will clear
the white

breathes into life
the smoking
of the balcony

night and day
I carve
in the lateral
table a
retable of gold
and shade

in the image of word-sound
stripped of expression
whole lucid profile
might inflame the pilgrim’s
wayward prayers
and whose mute utterance
thrown back over water
modulates a destiny
between path and step

by breathing
faint breath
on words
in the hearth

between space
and earth
voice and void
word and wind
of the echo
without end

I sever
of air

shaped like diamonds
lay out
the garden’s silence

there was distance
in hearing
the pen copy out
the very edge of words
in consenting or matching
the air-borne sand
of papers

day after day
I nourish
the salamander
which abandons
on the page
its glow

an ant
drunken worker
the route-mapped

in ink
I write


as much as
the line
draws its cut

from this bit by
bit I

giving it
a face

its silence

a colourless
shadow forms
the paper

the fist
the blank

I have seen this hand
move fast and the word

i have seen this word
see me fly
from my eyes

and find again in
the solitary hand
its course

on the reverse of
the page
is engraved

the stolen

flashes at
a distance

new snow
of dreams

to spring

from fire