Interview: Playing With Fire at The Address Boulevard Dubai, UAE

 Kelly M. O'Brien,  Playing With Fire No. 30 . Paper, gold leaf, flame. 20 x 28 x 2.65 inches. ©2016. Image: Z. Al-Gafoor, Image Centre

Kelly M. O'Brien, Playing With Fire No. 30. Paper, gold leaf, flame. 20 x 28 x 2.65 inches. ©2016. Image: Z. Al-Gafoor, Image Centre

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.

     Kelly M. O'Brien,  Playing With Fire No. 25  and  No. 26 . Paper, gold leaf, flame. 35.5 x 29 x 2.65 inches each. ©2016. Commissioned for The Address Boulevard Dubai. Images: Z. Al-Gafoor, Image Centre

    Kelly M. O'Brien, Playing With Fire No. 25 and No. 26. Paper, gold leaf, flame. 35.5 x 29 x 2.65 inches each. ©2016. Commissioned for The Address Boulevard Dubai. Images: Z. Al-Gafoor, Image Centre

    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.

       Kelly M. O'Brien,  Playing With Fire No. 25  (detail). Paper, gold leaf, flame. 35.5 x 29 x 2.65 inches each. ©2016. Commissioned for The Address Boulevard Dubai. Images: Z. Al-Gafoor, Image Centre

      Kelly M. O'Brien, Playing With Fire No. 25 (detail). Paper, gold leaf, flame. 35.5 x 29 x 2.65 inches each. ©2016. Commissioned for The Address Boulevard Dubai. Images: Z. Al-Gafoor, Image Centre

      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?

      New Work: Playing With Fire, inspired by nature

       Kelly M. O'Brien,  Playing With Fire No. 32 . Paper, gold leaf, flame. 40 x 28 x .25 inches. ©2016. Images: Z. Al-Gafoor, Image Centre.

      Kelly M. O'Brien, Playing With Fire No. 32. Paper, gold leaf, flame. 40 x 28 x .25 inches. ©2016. Images: Z. Al-Gafoor, Image Centre.

      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.

       Kelly M. O'Brien,  Playing With Fire No. 31 . Paper, gold leaf, flame. 40 x 28 x .25 inches. ©2016. Images: Z. Al-Gafoor, Image Centre.

      Kelly M. O'Brien, Playing With Fire No. 31. Paper, gold leaf, flame. 40 x 28 x .25 inches. ©2016. Images: Z. Al-Gafoor, Image Centre.

      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.

       Kelly M. O'Brien,  Playing With Fire No. 30 . Paper, gold leaf, flame. 20 x 28 x 2.65 inches. ©2016. Images: Z. Al-Gafoor, Image Centre.

      Kelly M. O'Brien, Playing With Fire No. 30. Paper, gold leaf, flame. 20 x 28 x 2.65 inches. ©2016. Images: Z. Al-Gafoor, Image Centre.

      Stay tuned here as the experiments continue!

      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.

      New Commission + New Toy: Dubai Hotel project

       Kelly M. O'Brien,  Playing With Fire No. 25  and  No. 26 . Paper, gold leaf, flame. 35.5 x 29 x 2.65 inches each. ©2016. Commissioned for The Address Boulevard Dubai. Images: Z. Al-Gafoor, Image Centre

      Kelly M. O'Brien, Playing With Fire No. 25 and No. 26. Paper, gold leaf, flame. 35.5 x 29 x 2.65 inches each. ©2016. Commissioned for The Address Boulevard Dubai. Images: Z. Al-Gafoor, Image Centre

      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.

       Kelly M. O'Brien,  Playing With Fire No. 26 (detail) . Paper, gold leaf, flame. 35.5 x 29 x 2.65 inches. ©2016. Commissioned for The Address Boulevard Dubai. Image: Z. Al-Gafoor, Image Centre

      Kelly M. O'Brien, Playing With Fire No. 26 (detail). Paper, gold leaf, flame. 35.5 x 29 x 2.65 inches. ©2016. Commissioned for The Address Boulevard Dubai. Image: Z. Al-Gafoor, Image Centre

      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.

       Kelly M. O'Brien,  Playing With Fire No. 25 (detail) . Paper, gold leaf, flame. 35.5 x 29 x 2.65 inches. ©2016. Commissioned for The Address Boulevard Dubai Image: Z. Al-Gafoor, Image Centre

      Kelly M. O'Brien, Playing With Fire No. 25 (detail). Paper, gold leaf, flame. 35.5 x 29 x 2.65 inches. ©2016. Commissioned for The Address Boulevard Dubai Image: Z. Al-Gafoor, Image Centre

      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.

      New Commission: Ithaca Marriott Downtown Hotel

       Kelly M. O'Brien,  Playing With Fire No. 27 . Paper, gold leaf, ink, flame. 49 x 35 x 1.25 inches. ©2016. Commissioned for Ithaca Marriott Downtown on the Commons Hotel.

      Kelly M. O'Brien, Playing With Fire No. 27. Paper, gold leaf, ink, flame. 49 x 35 x 1.25 inches. ©2016. Commissioned for Ithaca Marriott Downtown on the Commons Hotel.

      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.

       Kelly M. O'Brien,  Playing With Fire No. 28 . Paper, gold leaf, flame. 49 x 35 x 1.25 inches. ©2016. Commissioned for Ithaca Marriott Downtown on the Commons Hotel.

      Kelly M. O'Brien, Playing With Fire No. 28. Paper, gold leaf, flame. 49 x 35 x 1.25 inches. ©2016. Commissioned for Ithaca Marriott Downtown on the Commons Hotel.

      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!

      Exhibition: Cam Valley Arts Trail Group Spring Event

      Please join us for a one-day exhibition, demonstrations, and art sale of the Cam Valley Arts Trail Group! Featuring fine art and handmade goods from local artists and artisans. There will be demonstrations and “taster” activities, including how to use the die-cutter that I use to make my paper farm animal garlands and buntings. Refreshments including coffee, tea and cakes will be on offer as well. Free entry!

      CVAT Group Spring Exhibition and Sale

      Saturday, April 30, 2016

      11 am to 5 pm

      Conygre Hall, North Road, Timsbury, Bath, BA2 0JQ

      Exhibition: Everything is Fine with Betsy

      I'll be back in Germany for the third group exhibition, Everything is Fine with Betsy, of our Frankfurt-based artist collective, CKCK. If you're in the area, please come see me, even if it's for a quick hello and hug! We'll be at grassgruen* to install all week, starting April 18th. The Opening is Friday, April 22 at 7pm. I'll be in town until Monday the 25th.

      In conjunction with Betsy, we're publishing our first group catalog, now available for pre-order. I'm so happy with the result! The catalog will also be available for purchase at our Vernissage on the 22nd.

      We're also offering two sets of artists talks: Sunday, 24 April @3pm will be me and Claudia Grom; Saturday, 30 April will be Chris Kircher and Katja v. Ruville. Details about each talk here.

      Everything is Fine with Betsy

      April 22 - May 1, 2016

      grassgruen* | Vogelbergstrasse 38, 60316 Frankfurt

      Opening: 22 April @7pm

       

      Hard Tryer at ArtTeaZen

       Breakfast with Ian Lowe at   ArtTeaZen in Langport  ,  after installing  Hard Tryer  small works on paper. ©2016 Kelly M. O'Brien.

      Breakfast with Ian Lowe at ArtTeaZen in Langport , after installing Hard Tryer small works on paper. ©2016 Kelly M. O'Brien.

      Several years into my journey as a working artist, I'm learning that you can happily revisit earlier work and it can still feel fresh. Without experience and perspective, I didn't realize this was possible. When my watercolor series, Hard Tryer, was put to bed after its debut at Galerie Uhn in early 2014, I moved on to other ideas.

       Kelly M. O'Brien,  No Fear . Watercolor, coffee and pencil on paper. 20 x 15 cm. ©2013.

      Kelly M. O'Brien, No Fear. Watercolor, coffee and pencil on paper. 20 x 15 cm. ©2013.

      I recently installed 17 small works from this series at ArtTeaZen in Langport. Owners Andy and Clare Waller have created a welcoming, pleasant café with just enough funk to make it interesting, and happen to be steady supporters of local artists through the venue's rotating exhibitions.

        Hard Tryer  small works on paper at ArtTeaZen, Langport. ©2016 Kelly M. O'Brien.

      Hard Tryer small works on paper at ArtTeaZen, Langport. ©2016 Kelly M. O'Brien.

      While most of the pieces are upbeat and light (It's Okay, Good Enough, Way Easier, Yay!), there's a row of darker pieces (Judgey, Consequences, Denial is Easier) that might garner some interesting comments, if people do indeed take a closer look.

       Kelly M. O'Brien,  Judgey . Watercolor, coffee and pencil on paper. 40 x 30 cm. ©2013.

      Kelly M. O'Brien, Judgey. Watercolor, coffee and pencil on paper. 40 x 30 cm. ©2013.

      It wasn't until this past November, when I showed four pieces from this series in 44AD ArtSpace's Art+Text exhibition, that I was reminded of how fond I am of the work - both the soft, minimalist aesthetic, and the message. At a time when I'm starting to put my work out there in new ways, Hard Tryer's simple reminders are perfect timing.

       Kelly M. O'Brien,  She Decides to Show Up . Watercolor, coffee and pencil on paper. 20 x 15 cm. ©2013.

      Kelly M. O'Brien, She Decides to Show Up. Watercolor, coffee and pencil on paper. 20 x 15 cm. ©2013.

      If you're near Langport before the end of May, stop in! Details here.

      Cows and Chickens and Pigs, Oh My!

       New Country Girl farm animal garland. ©2016 Kelly M. O'Brien.

      New Country Girl farm animal garland. ©2016 Kelly M. O'Brien.

      Are you a cow person? Sheep person? Maybe chickens, ducks or pigs? A paper garland of tiny farm animals is just what you need!

      They are 100% unique on the planet (for now) and you won't find them anywhere else. I've had the idea to do these for awhile, but couldn't find the right die cuts for the job. In my studio, I have a professional hand-cutter for steel dies, through which thousands of paper flower pieces have been passed for various paper sculpture installations.

      When I was in the US over the holidays, I had a custom steel die fabricated to cut the animal shapes. Each shape is approximately 2.5 inches high, so they're fairly small. I kept going back and forth with the designers on details so that they looked authentic, especially the sheep. It took three tries to get enough fluffy wool lines for it to look right. Tiny details like the pig's tail and the chicken's feet were elusive too. It turns out you can only get the steel blades to render so much detail.

       Custom die for the New Country Girl farm animal garland. ©2016 Kelly M. O'Brien.

      Custom die for the New Country Girl farm animal garland. ©2016 Kelly M. O'Brien.

       Running the die/paper/mat sandwich through the die cutter. ©2016 Kelly M. O'Brien.

      Running the die/paper/mat sandwich through the die cutter. ©2016 Kelly M. O'Brien.

       Where the magic happens. ©2016 Kelly M. O'Brien.

      Where the magic happens. ©2016 Kelly M. O'Brien.

       Ta dah! Tiny paper farm animals ready to be sewn into a garland. ©2016 Kelly M. O'Brien.

      Ta dah! Tiny paper farm animals ready to be sewn into a garland. ©2016 Kelly M. O'Brien.

      I recently added these little lovelies to my online shops. They are made from high-quality art papers in soft, heathery hues. You can choose from a barnyard mix, or an entire garland of your favorite animal. It's amazing what joy tiny paper farm animals sewn into a festive garland can bring.

       New Country Girl farm animal garland. 102 inches long with 35 animals! ©2016 Kelly M. O'Brien.

      New Country Girl farm animal garland. 102 inches long with 35 animals! ©2016 Kelly M. O'Brien.

      New Catalog: Everything is Fine With Betsy

      For the past two years, I've had the pleasure of a growing collaboration and friendship with German artists Claudia Grom, Chris Kircher and Katja v. Ruville. We had our first joint exhibition in 2014, another last summer, and our next one will be in April this year.

      To mark this journey together, we have created our first exhibition catalog. Beautifully designed by Katja—an award-winning book designer for leading German publishers—the hard-bound, 210-page, bilingual catalog will be released at our Vernissage on April 22.

      The catalog features images from all of our exhibitions, including a preview of the work being shown in April. We are delighted to have two essays written for us by Professor Vroni Schwegler and Merja Herzon-Hellstén. And there are plenty of behind-the-scenes images and information about how the work and our collaboration has evolved.

      The catalog is available now to pre-order for €25 ($28), and you can purchase it online here. For Frankfurt locals, you can pick it up at grassgrün in April if you want. For everyone else, we can arrange for shipping.

      New Commission: Paper Wall Panels for Norwegian Cruise Lines

       Kelly M. O'Brien,  Playing With Fire No. 22 , detail. Paper, gold leaf, flame. 32 x 32 x 2.65 inches. ©2016.

      Kelly M. O'Brien, Playing With Fire No. 22, detail. Paper, gold leaf, flame. 32 x 32 x 2.65 inches. ©2016.

      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!

       Kelly M. O'Brien,  Playing With Fire No. 21 and 22 . Paper, gold leaf, flame. 32 x 32 x 2.65 inches. ©2016.

      Kelly M. O'Brien, Playing With Fire No. 21 and 22. Paper, gold leaf, flame. 32 x 32 x 2.65 inches. ©2016.

      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.

       Kelly M. O'Brien,  Playing With Fire No. 21 , detail. Paper, gold leaf, flame. 32 x 32 x 2.65 inches. ©2016.

      Kelly M. O'Brien, Playing With Fire No. 21, detail. Paper, gold leaf, flame. 32 x 32 x 2.65 inches. ©2016.

      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.