After running out of a coveted type of gold leaf from a supplier that is no longer in business, I've been getting up to speed on this material that is so key to my art practice.
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.
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!).
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.
Two new pieces are winging their way this week to take up residence in a Mt. Nicholson Show Flat in 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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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
In recent months, my Playing With Fire commissions have evolved from dimensional pieces constrained by a mat and frame, to floating sculptural objects, unconstrained by form.
My new obsession has become the edges of these burned stacks of paper. While I give love and attention to every detail of a commission, I've been dreaming of how to celebrate their edges.
Enter Edgy, a series of small burned paper objects that flip the stacks on their sides and make each object all about this tiny but gorgeous feature. I've only just begun this series and am eager to see where it takes me.
Edgy will eventually show up as a grid of nine framed pieces – and probably a few special ones left unframed – in my solo exhibition with Galerie Uhn in September, details below.
Playing With Fire | Galerie Uhn | 25 August – September 28, 2017 | Vernissage: Friday, 25 August, 19:00
This coming September I'll be debuting my Playing With Fire series in Germany with a solo exhibition at Galerie Uhn in Königstein-im-Taunus. Plans are coming along nicely for a body of work that both showcases work similar to the PWF commissions that I've been doing steadily for the past 18 months, as well as pieces that take the work in some new directions.
One such direction is Phases, a small series of six pieces that attempt to categorize and put order to an otherwise uncontrollable, ephemeral combination: paper and fire. Oh, the metaphors! The fact that these works emerged during a particularly stressful time in my personal life is no surprise.
Deep meaning aside, I'm particularly pleased with the experiments using subtle color. Viewed straight-on, the color is a faint glow of pink, orange or green. From an angle, the color becomes more noticable, a reward for looking at things differently.
Playing With Fire | Galerie Uhn | 25 August – September 28, 2017 | Vernissage: Friday, 25 August, 19:00
All images are by Z. Al-Gafoor, Image Centre, Bath
When a private collector came to me wanting one of my Playing With Fire pieces for her home on the water, I was excited to see where coastal inspiration took us. I presented three sketches, all slightly different takes on her theme.
The client and her husband selected sketch #1. This one was actually my favorite, inspired directly by the topography of where their home is located in Connecticut on the Long Island Sound. Place and homeland have featured prominently in my work since moving overseas from the US in 2011, but not necessarily in my Playing With Fire series. Here was an opportunity to marry the two – my more abstract work with themes and inspiration that are close to home.
This has been one of my larger burned paper pieces to date, so safety was paramount in what I fondly call The Burning Shed. I use an unfinished stone out-building on our property to do this kind of work, complete with stainless steel workbench, certified respirator, fireproof jumpsuit, fire blanket, fire extinguisher and ventilation fans. Action video below!
And the finished framed piece:
Something that excites me about this piece is that the work is becoming more object-like and sculptural. By floating the artwork inside a larger frame, all sides of the piece come into play. In this case, the object's irregular shape was informed by the state of Connecticut, but the float allows me to be otherwise unconstrained by the rectangular shape of a frame. Stay tuned on this idea!
The path from sketches to finished product was a bit more complicated for this commission. The size of the piece presented some framing challenges, mainly due to color restrictions for the larger mount board (matting) on which the artwork floats. The client's interior designer specified Pantone colors for my framer to match, which meant the board had to be painted. The UK uses a different color system, so we had to visually match Pantone paint sample cards to the RAL system here. All very geeky and boring if this isn't your thing! Luckily, it is mine, and we got it right in the end, thanks to the patience and professionalism of my framer, Ian Pittman and his team at The Framing Workshop in Bath.
Another challenge was creating something interesting and layered without making the final framed work too deep, as the artwork hangs on a wall over which a large flatscreen TV glides up and down. Instead of simplifying the design, I found ways to retain the layering while staying within the client's design specs.
Overall, I'm really pleased with how this piece turned out. Many thanks to the team at The Framing Workshop in Bath, to HMC Logistics for the TLC of their art handlers and expertise to get the final product safely into the client's hands, and a huge thank you to this collector for the opportunity to create something special for their home.
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.
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.
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?
My burned paper series, Playing With Fire, has had a nice run for over a year now. Commissions have been for versions of two basic designs: concentric circles and diagonal lines. While no two pieces can be alike given the medium, I'm interested in evolving this series to new ideas.
I've begun experimenting with using patterns in nature to inform the work. This stemmed from research for a new commission in Dubai, inspired by sand dune patterns in the Arabian Desert. Once I started looking at other patterns in nature - veins of a leaf, a knot of wood, shattered ice, waves, shells, even migrating birds - I realized that the possibilities are endless.
Another solution I'm experimenting with is creating work with less dimensional depth to allow for less complex framing. The work to date has been 2.5 to 5 inches deep, requiring an investment in special framing. The work will still need to be custom-framed, but designers and collectors will have more options at the shallower depth.
Stay tuned here as the experiments continue!
What happens when you take a blowtorch to paper? All kinds of toasty, crispy, singed wonderfulness! These two recent commissions for The Address Boulevard Dubai are evidence that you can do so without burning down the studio.
Contrary to what I thought would happen, taking torch to paper allows for a range of effects. From subtle surface browning - kind of like toasting a marshmallow - to complete combustion, the possibilities are surprising. As I work more with a torch, I'm eager to see how the work evolves.
I'm very pleased for this work to be landing in a completely different part of the world, and grateful for the continued support for my work by the team at Soho Myriad Fine Art Consultants.
Playing With Fire, No. 27 and No. 28 have just headed out the door, bound for the brand new Ithaca Marriott Downtown on the Commons Hotel near Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. The pieces will be 52 x 38 inches framed and will hang in public spaces.
I'm particularly pleased with these pieces because the client asked for a finished product that is shallower in depth, yet still sculptural enough to create interest. By switching to a thinner backing material for the paper and designing in fewer layers, we achieved our goal. The end result allows for more cost-effective framing options without compromising the work.
Thank you again to Soho Myriad Fine Art Consultants for placing these pieces and continuing to support my work!
This new commission for Norwegian Cruise Lines recently shipped out for framing, once again through the capable hands of the fine art consultants at Soho Myriad. This is our third custom project together (and nine total pieces) since September and it feels like we're starting to get it down to a system. I really appreciate Soho Myriad's experience in the business of commissioned commercial art—and am happy that I tend to be a quick study!
The two pieces we're creating for NCL will go on their Hawaiian cruise ship, Pride of America, in dry dock for refurbishment through mid-March. They were originally to hang in the revamped Mandara Spa, but once they were finished, we realized that their depth might require them to be placed elsewhere.
With these pieces under my belt, I am itching to try some new ideas for this series. We have another commission in the pipeline, so it might be an opportunity to play with fire even more.
The second commission for the Franklin Marriott Hotel and Conference Center shipped to Atlanta recently. The Soho Myriad framers are hard at work constructing box frames before sending the work on to Nashville for final installation.
These pieces are different from the first commission of two circular forms. For this second project, the client wanted straight, angled pieces to hang as a group of five—an interesting challenge because the individual pieces have to relate to one another once they are installed on a large wall. Wide matting is being added to expand the framed sizes. This will further change the relationship of the pieces to one another, so I had to allow for "give" in the design.
The individual pieces range from 20”h x 27.5”w (38”h x 46”w framed) to 24h" x 30w" (46”h x 57”w framed), and are ten layers deep. So the finished box frames are approximately 4" deep.
Speaking of framing, it's a key part of the process. I wanted a more open feel to the work, so the layers progress large to small, bottom to top. This makes for very tricky work to stabilize and mask the edges for a clean look. I'm grateful that Andrea Emmons and her framing team at Soho Myriad have the experience and confidence to handle this.
When I get images of the framed, hung work installed on location, I'll share them here.
I'm very pleased to share that I just completed two commissioned pieces for the Marriott Hotel and Conference Center in Franklin, Tennessee. They are larger versions of the Playing With Fire work that I did in 2013 to exhibit as part of Marseille-Provence Culture Capital 2013 programming.
The two commissioned pieces are much larger (30 x 24 inches) and will be matted and mounted in 3-inch deep box frames to become 72 x 54 inches. They will hang on opposite walls in a corridor at the conference center. I'm very eager to see final installation photos!
Scaling up to the larger size was a challenge. Not only are the materials trickier to work with, but there's a lot of smoke involved. Because the work is created by burning the paper, I couldn't do it in my studio indoors. We have an semi-finished stone outbuilding on our property that I converted to a temporary studio. It's dry and clean enough, after some elbow grease, to be suitable for this paradoxically messy yet pristine kind of work.
Playing With Fire explores the tension between control and letting go. Fire as a medium forces me to let go – it is unpredictable, and simultaneously destructive and creative in how it interacts with paper. Fire also represents a fine line that fascinates me about what we allow ourselves to have in life. How can we have light, heat, spark and glow without self-destructing? As black and white as this work appears, for me it's all about finding a happy medium.
As I entrusted the carefully packaged work to the nice FedEx International shipping men yesterday, I said a silent prayer to Hermes that they arrive in good shape to the framers in Atlanta before their final journey to Nashville. Special thanks to Shannon Douglas at Soho Myriad, the fine art consulting firm who brokered the project. I look forward to doing more!