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
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.
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.
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.”
It's with great pleasure that I announce my second annual solo exhibition with lovely ArtTeaZen, a thriving supporter of local arts that also happens to be a fantastic café. This year I'm showing work from my New Country series of overpainted farm animal photographs - both originals and framed fine art prints.
If you're in the area, stop in for a cuppa, say hello to proprietors Andy and Clare, and get yourself a piece of affordable framed art, or splurge on an original - there are only a few from this series left.
New Country | ArtTeaZen, Langport, UK | June 1 - July 31
A recently completed commission afforded me the opportunity to play with scale, materials and process. The client, a fine art consulting firm, wanted a larger version of a piece they had already placed in another project. I'd not "replicated" my burned paper pieces yet, thinking there was little I could do to control the effects of fire on paper and therefore produce a similar result. Let the challenge begin!
Earlier this year, I developed a technique to help me accurately translate my sketches to scale. It involves using oversized prints of my sketches, which I then slice into pieces and use as templates for re-drawing the layers at the correct size. It worked well for a Connecticut coastline-inspired piece, so why not use the same process using my own work as the original drawing?
The approach worked nicely and helped to expedite an otherwise traditional, yet time-consuming way to scale-up using a grid system to transfer an image. But what I'm particularly pleased about is that, despite an accurate rendering of the original design, the new version is entirely unique and different from the first. There is happily still not much you can do to control the outcome when taking blowtorch to paper, or when working with materials that are 300% larger than the first time around.
There are several challenges when working at a larger size, in this case 72 x 48 inches. First is workspace. My workbench isn't large enough, so I had to improvise by using the floor and a temporary workshop set up in our dining room (not ideal). The other issue is my Burning Shed, an unfinished outbuilding where I do the things that can't otherwise be done indoors (burning, spray paint, etc.). The Burning Shed was maxed out at this size, so for larger projects, I'll have to find another solution.
Materials take on a mind of their own at this size, especially paper. As much as I flattened the rolled watercolor paper, once you hit it with the blowtorch, it curls and warps as the fibers respond to the heat. I'll continue to explore solutions to this effect, or just work with it - which is what materials are teaching me anyway.
Speaking of learning, this is the first project where I used variegated gold leaf for the gilding. Variegated leaf is a metal leaf that has been heat-treated, chemically-treated or both to develop patinas and unique discoloration. In this case, I love how the subtle coppers, blues, reds and greens add interest to veins of gold that would otherwise be too monochrome and flat for a design of this size.
Overall, I'm pleased with the outcome on this project, with clear ideas on how to continue refining the work, especially at larger sizes - which I hope to do more of!
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
Fifty Bees: The Interconnectedness of All Things is a collaborative group exhibition at ACEarts lead by Queen Bee Lydia Needle. Lydia is well known for her beloved and beautiful felted textile art that celebrates the wildlife and critters she is surrounded by in daily life.
I met Lydia when we were both traders at the Bath Artisan Market and I was immediately enchanted by her felted creations. So when she invited me to contribute a piece for Fifty Bees, I jumped at the chance.
The concept is brilliant, mirroring the interconnectedness and dependency everyone has on everything. Fifty artists are creating fifty individual pieces, each one inspired by his or her assigned bee.
My bee, Andrena rosae (Perkins Mining Bee), lays her eggs in a series of deep holes that she digs into the ground, scattering dirt around her nest entrance as she burrows. The patterns she leaves on the ground’s surface inspired this piece. My medium is paper, a seemingly ephemeral material that is quite sturdy when handled. Like this little bee, who must steadfastly dig to protect her only handful of eggs during her short lifetime.
While researching and working on this piece, my awareness of these beautiful insects has blossomed. Living here, we can't help but be impacted by wildlife, including a swarm of honey bees that set up house in the outside wall of our home. Daily walks take me through fields and by hedgerows buzzing with activity. This project has inspired me to slow down and appreciate the activity, laugh when a solo bumble buzzes my head, and marvel at the interconnectedness of all things.
In addition to the exhibition, there's also a book in the works. You can learn more and support the publishing project here.
Fifty Bees: The Interconnectedness of All Things | 1 July – 22 July, Private View 30 June | ACEarts Gallery | Market Place, Somerton, Somerset TA11 7NB, UK
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
One of the things that is becoming central to my studio practice is sketching. For an artist, this sounds obvious, right? Yet I didn't start out with a foundation in drawing beneath my work - I dove in and made things...handmade paper, artist books, handmade boxes to house my new work. Even when I started doing large sculptural installations, I only sketched when I had to, for proposals and applications. It just wasn't something I'd been schooled in or was comfortable with.
Lately I've been making friends with my sketchbook, finding ideas, inspiration and grounding within its pages. It's turning into an indispensable early step in moving from the hint of a new project to making things happen.
I'm now to the point where I use sketches to give a client options for a commission, to ensure we're on the same page and clear about where things are headed. I know this is old hat to many artists, but for me it's a growing confidence that my sketches don't have to be fancy to get the job done, or for me to feel good about them.
After spending a lot of time in the new Sheikh Zayed Tower at Johns Hopkins Hospital last year where my father was being cared for, I grew to understand the incredible value of thoughtfully-placed art in a healthcare setting. The hospital's Art + Architecture Program reflects this value:
As a leader in research and patient-centered medicine, Johns
Hopkins recognizes that the character of the hospital environment
can have a positive impact on the healing process for patients and
their families. The building’s medical profile is matched by the
thought and innovation of its design and the creative contributions
of numerous artists.
The collections in the new tower and Bloomberg Children’s Center are stunning, curated by Nancy Rosen, Inc. of New York. From the actual building design and materials, to main lobbies, elevator lobbies, waiting rooms, hallways and patient rooms, a huge amount of consideration was given to human impact. Speaking from personal experience, it was at times profound.
One of my goals is to learn how I can get my work considered for healing art projects and commissions. I would love to create significant work that patients, visitors, and staff can benefit from in these environments. A tiny step in that direction is the recent acquisition of my print, Small World (above) by Lifespan Comprehensive Cancer Center in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, US. As part of the handmade prints created for The Joint Portfolio Project, our collective work now hangs in this treatment center.
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.
Art+Text 2017 opened this week at 44AD artspace in Bath, co-curated by Sveta Antonova and myself. We had a nice pool of submissions to choose from, ending up with a collection of work by artists from all over the UK, as well as the US, Europe and Australia.
The work spans a range of mediums - video, print, sculpture, installation, performance, painting - and even spills into the surrounding city. It's been so inspiring to see the innovative ways that artists are using text in art!
I'm pleased with the response my own installation is getting, Postcards from the Edge. As an American living in the UK during the 2016 Brexit vote, and then the US Presidential election, I've watched in dismay as events have unfolded on both sides of the Atlantic. For the installation, I created four different postcard designs and printed them as monotypes, with messages to President Trump and Prime Minister May respectively. At the end of the exhibition, I'll collect all completed postcards and mail them to the respective heads of state.
Art+Text 2017 is open through February 26, daily 12 to 6 pm and Sunday 1 to 4 pm. There's a closing reception on Sunday, Feb. 26 at 3pm at 44AD artspace, 44 Abbey Street, Bath, BA1 1NN.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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