expat artist

hard tryer at Galerie Uhn: They Decide to Stay for Awhile

"They Decide to Stay for Awhile" by Kelly O'Brien (2014). Mixed media print on paper, 50 x 70 cm.

There's a story behind many of the pieces that I make. During the month of February while new work for my solo exhibition hangs at Galerie Uhn, I'm sharing brief backstories in a series of blog posts.

They Decide to Stay is a mixed media print, part of the Postcards from the Edge: Taunus series.

We have our very own 12th century castle ruin here in Königstein. Host to the annual Bergfest, concerts and fireworks, it sees a lot of action. But most of the time, it's a quiet spot to hike up to for a nice view.

Living on temporary overseas assignment means one's life can be uprooted at any time, with little notice. When I remember that home is where the heart is, I don't mind so much.

Hard Tryer at Galerie Uhn
January 31 – February 28, 2014

Seilerbahnweg 1, 61462 Königstein
Tel: 06174-221750

Opening hours: 

Di. + Do. 14.00 – 18.00 Uhr, Mi. + Fr. + Sa. 10.00 – 13.00 Uhr und nach Vereinbarung

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

two more berlin gems

My friend Jen just reminded me that we stumbled onto an amazing little boutique on Rosa-Luxemburg Strasse in Berlin: LANGHEIN. Inge Langhein designs other-worldly confections for brides and ready-to-wear. Actually, it was the installation of her work in her boutique that took everything to the next level. Her dresses were suspended from an arching iron grid - a nesty dome across the ceiling - each piece floating gracefully like wearable art.

Am kicking myself that I didn't ask her if I could take a photo. This image that I found online doesn't do her work or her shop justice.

Inge Langhein's boutique, BerlinAnother gem was the exhibition by Terhi Heino, an installation artist from Helsinki. I love when artists elevate ordinary and recycled materials to the sublime. In Terhi's case, she uses fish fins, used tea bags, and mylar to fashion mesmerizing works, both tiny and room-sized.

Tea bag installation by Terhi HeinoMy hunger for paper dresses was nicely fed by her tea bag clothing hanging like drying laundry from wire hangers.

Skirt by Terhi HeinoAnd her mylar wall pieces look like giant icy crystals jutting from the wall.

Juhlat by Terhi Heino

berlin: a great way to begin

Has it really been over three weeks since I last posted? August has been a whirlwind of unpacking, settling in, and home-focused activities. This past weekend, Ian and I ran off to Berlin for a few days to celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary. Little did I realize how much I needed to shake loose of the tremendous impact of our big transition and just go play.

View from our hotel in Mitte, Berlin

We chose Berlin over Paris (a sentimental favorite, since we were engaged in Paris), mainly because we wanted a place where most restaurants wouldn't be shut down or venues flooded with American tourists. Instead, we got a city full of galleries on sommerpause and European tourists. But complaining I am not! It was a terrific place to begin our commitment to get away monthly for a long weekend. That is, after all, one of the reasons we made this move: to get out and experience places that otherwise would be less accessible from our home in the US.

Museum Island, Berlin

Holocaust Memorial, Berlin (image: Ian Lowe)Instead of attempting to take in all the major sites off the bat, we organized our exploration of major districts by zeroing in on what galleries we wanted to see. Well, and which ones appeared to be open. It's a fun way to see a city, fueled by something we're both passionate about. Some good resources helped us find our way, including ArtUpdate.com/Berlin and the iPhone app EyeOut.

Over three days, we entered probably twenty galleries, although we peered in the windows of far more. The search for many was not obvious - tucked back in courtyards, down alleys, and up flights of stairs only accessible by ringing a bell and being buzzed in.

Love the colors in the U-Bahn stations, Berlin

U-Bahn station, Berlin (image: Ian Lowe)Alexanderplatz U-Bahn station, Berlin (image: Ian Lowe)U-Bahn station, Berlin (image: Ian Lowe)Once inside, people were generally welcoming, if not eager to tell us about the art. The folks at Figge Von Rosen Galerie were particularly engaging and friendly, and we discovered the amazing photography of Luzia Simons at Alexander Ochs Galleries.

Berlin is, like any major city I suppose, one part gentrified, two parts gritty edge. The energy I felt there, though, was different - a kind of optimistic, happy, focused buzz of people busy getting on with the business of rebirth and reinvention. Huge swaths of the city are still rebuilding post-Wall, morphing from Cold War wasteland to thriving cafe society. This took me by surprise. I guess I didn't realize there was so much active recovery still going on there.

Potsdammer Platz, Berlin (image: Ian Lowe)

Kunsthaus Tacheles, Berlin

One unexpected discovery was what must have been the original inspiration for Art Whino's G40 summit. Since 1990, Kunsthaus Tacheles has been a center for artists of all walks, but particularly street art or new brow. Tacheles is Yiddish for telling it like it is. The venue's website says it best:

After the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989, a subculture which had its main focus on autonomy, spontaneity and improvisation arose in the former East Berlin areas Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg and Friedrichshain. Artists and individualists from all over the world used the plurality of available free spaces to put alternative lifestyles to the test.

Kunsthaus Tacheles, Berlin

Kunsthaus Tacheles, BerlinTacheles' artists are now in danger of being evicted by developers. While certain aspects of the space does the brand no favors (the stairwells were pretty rank), it would be a shame to see what Tacheles represents be pushed underground or marginalized.

Ian Lowe at Alexandr Rodin's Global Warning exhibition, Kunsthaus Tacheles, BerlinAnother delight was the road trip between Königstein and Berlin through endless wind turbine farms. What is it about these giant sentinels that mesmerizes me? Surely there's an artist book about them in my future. For now, I'm delighted with some of my images and am seriously considering a road trip expressly for the purpose of chasing them up close and personal. We got pretty close at a rest stop or two.

Wind turbines enroute to BerlinWind turbines enroute to BerlinWind turbines enroute to Berlin

foraging for art supplies round 2

Café Hauptwache, FrankfurtDrove into Frankfurt today to meet the AWCT's Art & Culture group for coffee. We met at the historic Café Hauptwache, directly above the Hauptwache UBahn (subway) station. After navigating a nearby parking garage (driving in these narrow garages still feels harrowing), I found my group. Once again, I got a warm welcome from a very international set of women, with only a few of us from the US.

The real reason I drove, however, was my next stop: Boesner Art. And what an art store! Their tagline is accurate:

Boesner Art Supply: professional artists materials from the international market leader at unusually low prices.

Apparently, they're a wholesaler, although the prices seemed retail (in euros, everything seems reasonable until you remember to add another 40% for the exchange rate). Nonetheless, I received my official wholesale ID on the spot, with my name, address, and barcode efficiently printed onto the little plastic card.

There are two floors of warehouse space, chock full of art materials for every medium: printmaking, painting, sculpture, metalwork, ceramics, woodworking, mozaic, and so on. After wandering around in their massive paper area with my mouth hanging open for awhile, I got my wits about me and started recognizing comfortingly familiar brands such as Arches, Hahnemühle, and Strathmore. Stacked to the ceiling, mind you, but familiar just the same. Along with your fine art and handmade papers, you can buy Kutrimmers, printing presses, and other over-sized equipment that I've only been able to order online in the states.

Boesner's Frankfurt location

There's a nice adhesives selection, where I chose a 1000 ml tub of Guardi dispersion glue, the equivalent of ph neutral PVA - or so the description indicates.

The bookbinding materials are fairly robust for a place that's not a specialty supplier, so I was able to restock my large spool of buchbinderzwirn (binder's thread) that our dog recently ate.

I couldn't resist three little red paper notebooks in different sizes, with old-school blank labels on front.


And then there are the artsy gifts I scored that I can't reveal, in case their future recipients are reading this post.

This was the first of many trips I'm sure I'll be making to Boesner's. It's only 20 minutes from home by car, dangerously close. Today's goal was to find it, and get the lay of the land. Check and check. No more foraging required, now that I've found the mothership.

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.