object impermanence

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.

Mending What's Torn

After one of my many trips back to the United States last year, while my father was fighting cancer, I returned to my studio in England and started tearing paper. Then I sewed it back together. Tore some more. And kept sewing. 

Kelly M. O'Brien, work in progress from Mending | Tending series. ©2017.

Kelly M. O'Brien, work in progress from Mending | Tending series. ©2017.

As my father's illness progressed and the trips back and forth from the UK to the US mounted, I sought solace in the act of repeatedly tearing and mending the paper fragments. Some of the paper and thread objects feature watercolored edges, others are taped and then sewn. Some are machine-stitched, others sewn by hand.

Kelly M. O'Brien, work in progress from Mending | Tending series. ©2017.

Kelly M. O'Brien, work in progress from Mending | Tending series. ©2017.

The work that has emerged from this repetitive action is a new series, Mending | Tending. As a close friend observed: “We mend what's been torn, and tend what we mourn.”

Kelly M. O'Brien, work in progress from Mending | Tending series. ©2017.

Kelly M. O'Brien, work in progress from Mending | Tending series. ©2017.

This new work will be shown along with Object (Im)permanence in the annual exhibition with my German colleagues of CKCK artist collective this September.

In the Face of Everything | Stadtgalerie Bad Soden | September 2 - 24, 2017 | Bad Soden im Taunus, Germany

New Work: Object (Im)permanence

Kelly M. O'Brien,  Object (Im)permanence No. 2  (front). Machine sewing over incised digital photographs on paper. 12 x 16.5 inches. ©2016.

Kelly M. O'Brien, Object (Im)permanence No. 2 (front). Machine sewing over incised digital photographs on paper. 12 x 16.5 inches. ©2016.

Over the past year, I've spent a lot of time commuting to the United States from my home in England for family reasons. Some of the trips have been short, others up to six weeks at a time. It's been an unexpected opportunity to spend precious time with loved ones.

A new series of work, Object (Im)permanence, is emerging as a reflection of this time. It's deeply personal work, yet explores some universal ideas. Object permanence is the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be observed. It stems from early childhood developmental psychology to describe the stage when a child understands that objects exist and events occur in the world independently of one's own actions.

Kelly M. O'Brien,  Object (Im)permanence No. 1  (front). Machine sewing over incised digital photographs on paper. 12 x 16.5 inches. ©2016.

Kelly M. O'Brien, Object (Im)permanence No. 1 (front). Machine sewing over incised digital photographs on paper. 12 x 16.5 inches. ©2016.

The longer I live at a distance from people I care deeply about, the more I have learned to deploy object permanence with them. While these relationships cannot be neglected – on the contrary, they must be carefully tended – they are reinforced by a fundamental belief that the ties can be relied upon to sustain the connection. Likewise, in our respective absences, lives unfold without our presence.

Kelly M. O'Brien,  Object (Im)permanence No. 3  (front). Machine sewing over incised digital photographs on paper. 12 x 16.5 inches. ©2016.

Kelly M. O'Brien, Object (Im)permanence No. 3 (front). Machine sewing over incised digital photographs on paper. 12 x 16.5 inches. ©2016.

The work consists of disparate images, incised, layered and machine-stitched over and into. Sewing over the blended photographs and other ephemera, I seek a form of seamless integration and permanence. It is an act of mending together, of tacking the past to the present and the near to the far away. As a technique, it slows me down so that I can feel at home with the images, what they represent, and the life I choose here and now.

Kelly M. O'Brien,  Object (Im)permanence No. 3  (reverse). Machine sewing over incised digital photographs on paper. 12 x 16.5 inches. ©2016.

Kelly M. O'Brien, Object (Im)permanence No. 3 (reverse). Machine sewing over incised digital photographs on paper. 12 x 16.5 inches. ©2016.

The reverse sides of the pieces offer another perspective, more abstract and unpredictable in how lines and images intersect. The backs of these pieces were an unintentional happy accident. They seem an apt metaphor for how life unfolds, full of surprises and unforeseen outcomes. 

As this series evolves, I'll share more images here.