Artistic License: Helen O’Leary - The Gloss Magazine

Artistic License: Helen O’Leary

Originally from Wexford, the renowned artist Helen O’Leary is based between New York and Leitrim where she builds ‘history paintings’ created via a process of dismantling and redress as she describes in this exclusive interview … 

How do you work?  

I knit with wood, leach colour from plants, and have built a DIY museum/studio of accumulated waste from Craigslist [an online marketplace in New York]. I break things down – language, institutions, rules, supports – and re-configure them into a re-imagined language I can handle. Resilience, defiance and fortitude seemed even more important to me in the uncharted territory of middle age. I work every day and prefer, like most artists, long days unpunctuated by anything else. I keep distractions to the bare minimum; Agnes the dog, coffee, and the radio are all the visitors I need. I start by tidying, putting things in an order of sorts, moving things around, picking at things. I try to do the real finicky stuff as early as possible when I’m alert; the physical building takes a lot of focus. Getting ready to paint takes time, I use pigments, eggs, milk, chalk grounds, so there is a lot of prep work. I start most days with a healthy unravelling and dismantling of things I’m not happy with, and try to put a bit of order on the studio. 

Where do you work? 

I just left a fellowship at Mac Dowell, New Hampshire, which was pure heaven for six weeks. I find residencies good for the work, being around the artist community is crucial, it amplifies the magic of making. I live between Drumshanbo, Leitrim and Jersey City. I like to work where I live, and the best situation for me is having a studio adjacent to a living space. 

I love my home on Sliabh an Iarann in Drumshanbo. My house is at the end of a lane and I can hear birds sing, and am close to animals and nature, which is fundamental to my work. I have the benefit of good neighbours, I have truly come to love both the people and the place. I chose Jersey City because it was a lot cheaper than my overpriced Bushwick loft, has real neighbours that are entrenched in the community, handy to Newark, close to a park for my dog, and is a bit away from the bustle, but I can be at the Met in 40 minutes door to door. 

In Jersey City, we rebuilt the house (twelve feet wide and three stories tall) and my studio from trash, from unwanted things advertised on Craigslist, cheap, or on their way to landfill. My studio is epic, with big iron doors scrounged from a Mac Mansion, steel beams from a dismantled factory, fans and lights from other people’s lives, and reused windows from architectural salvage. I call it the DIY museum, both the three-storey house and studio are as pieced together as my work. It is definitely the biggest collage I have ever tackled. 

In Drumshanbo I restored the house, stone by stone, and pieced it back together again. It is simple, frugal, modest, whitewashed and perfect. I feel safe in it. My studio is the old cowshed and I also use the lower room, but I am in the process of extending it to be a more expansive permanent studio. I make very different work in both places, relying on hand tools mostly in Ireland, and a slower sort of whittled process.

How do you define your work – it falls between painting and sculpture?

Staunch practicality, material efficiency and insistence on self-determination were skills bolstered and learned as a child facing the dizzying fragmentation and the dissolution of the economics of my family after my father’s early death. My ‘one man band’ approach to making comes instinctively to me, but it is also a way of making new systems when the old ones don’t work. 

Destruction and rebuilding are very much a part of my practice, as is the mutability of working with the needs of the job at hand. I wanted painting to stand up on its own, and rethink the notions of support and framing, much as I do in my life. The old ways seldom worked for me. I think of how people construct lives and I construct paintings with awareness of the failures, disappointments, foibles and euphoria that are part and parcel of being alive. Painting is a language, we push it forward to keep it going, but I’m always conscious of its history as I work. 

The farm where I grew up was littered with functional objects with great familial meaning. I think of them a lot, things that once had a function, but the meaning has been skewed, changed or lost. Language is much like that, it is constantly being re-jigged. The space in between feels very comfortable.

Who or what was integral to your artistic career? 

Oddly enough, Charlie Haughey, which I know sounds insane. I never met the man and had nothing really to do with him at all. But he did change my life. I was working with my sister on the farm after secondary school, and Sister Marie (Presentation Secondary School) came down to borrow paintings of mine to decorate the new prefab extension that Charlie Haughey was opening. I have often imagined his discomfort surrounded by nuns, and the ensuing small talk. He casually asked who made the paintings and was I going to art college. The nuns informed him that I was farming, and was needed at home, and he replied that he would like to provide a scholarship for me to go to NCAD. My work at that time was all landscape, I painted the land we farmed and were trying so hard to keep. 

Sister Marie returned the paintings with this ecstatic news, but my mother was outraged as she knew nothing of him but of his philandering reputation and said over her dead body would she see me beholden to such a man. (To this day I mix up the word philanderer and philanthropist.) So that was that in terms of the scholarship, but it planted a quiet seed in my head, a seed of vague possibility, that art college was something I could pursue, and a year later, while getting my wisdom teeth out in Dublin, I had slipped my sketch book into my bag while packing, which would have been usual for me as I travelled nowhere without it back then. The stardust tragedy happened and all non-emergency patients were asked to leave. I was unaware at the time of the extent of the tragedy, it still haunts me. 

I took the bus into town, walked up to Kildare Street and asked the man at the booth if I could talk to the painters. Campbell Bruce and Charlie Brady kindly accommodated my impromptu visit, and I remember clearly sitting at a big table with my cheeks bruised and swollen from the teeth extraction, being asked why I wanted to be a painter. I said nothing of this excursion when I took the train back home, but a few weeks later I got an offer of a full scholarship, and that was it the deal was sealed.

What was the inspiration for your new exhibition of works? 

I build ‘history paintings’ that are created in the process of dismantling, renovation and re-thinking. The back reveals, the fronts are cushioned with layers of linen, crushed eggshells, and layers of egg-tempera made from sourced pigment. I think of these forms as the upholstery and bulge of middle age, straddling the uncharted space between disappointment and euphoria. 

Place has always been important to me, I am currently mining a palette from emotionally, politically, economically charged sites, places I have called home in the US and Ireland. I am interested in the veneer of security, colour, minerals and dyes as poultice, literally pulling my materials and palette from Carbon County, PA, Wexford, and the Iron-mountain, in Leitrim. This is an ongoing project, working with soil scientists and plant scientists at the University.

What do you enjoy most about what you do creatively and what do you hope visitors to the exhibition will take away from it? 

I got a message recently that I am still thinking about, from an artist I admire and my former teacher, Buzz Spector. He went to see an exhibition of mine at the Art Alliance in Philadelphia, and this he wrote: “Since I was there after hours, I spent some time with the darkened installation before someone turned the lights on. The gloom seemed to bring out something of the deep sadness nestled in your sculpture, otherwise kept at bay by the tensions among its supports and colorful fragments.”

I think there is a sadness in my work, but also, I hope, the euphoria of resistance. I want care, tenderness, acceptance and repair to be very much in evidence, so it makes a path forward to possibility and continuance. This is what I would like visitors to take with them.

Need to Know: D U E T, an exhibition of artwork by Charles Tyrrell & Helen O’Leary is at the Claremorris Gallery, Mayo until June 22. Gallery hours are 1-6pm, Wednesday to Saturday or by appointment. 


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