Helen O’Leary in conversation with Diana Copperwhite

Helen O’Leary, Quarantine 2, 2015, 7′ x 12′

Diana Copperwhite Could you talk a little about the day-to-day process of working in the studio?

Helen O’Leary I work every day and prefer like most artists long days unpunctuated by anything else. I keep distractions to the bare minimum; 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, 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. At night as I finish, I like to make a list as I leave of things I will get to in the morning, or to finish with a job that needs drying time. I use egg tempera, so it takes a lot of layers to get the right colour. I have a live work space, which is how I prefer it to be as I’m always leaving things to ‘settle’ or dry and I can go out to the studio at all hours of the night to switch off a pot of glue, or put another layer of ground on. I don’t like a division between my domestic life and that of the studio.

Helen O’Leary, Quarantine detail, 7′ x 12′, wood, egg oil emulsion. 2015

DC You talk about your cultural roots and what it was like for you growing up, so is there a link between that and your current practice?

HO’L The economy of little turned into a lot in my early life has influenced me; leisure was squashed into work so trying to find fun in work was a normal thing. I think about the rhythm of working the farm as a child and the delight that was found in labour and its avoidance, play seemed stolen or squashed in. There was an innocence and curiosity in the physical world of the world of the farm that I find again and again in the studio. It was a time with little use for sentimentality, where pragmatism and lyricism was hand in hand. I try to keep that alive in the studio and life.

The objects that surrounded me as a child told the story of people who farmed the land where I grew up, we had no photos of them but instead we had a wealth of objects that held our history, carved granite feeding troughs, floors that with packed with cobbled stones in geometric patterns, a straight line of a lane was cut through the fields to the new road by my father with a shovel, stones piled into uneasy but sturdy fences, and more suspect objects such as a holy well, and a devils track in the bottom of the strand field. The farm held our place in the world, past and present in much the same way as my studio holds mine now. My father made boats, lobster pots and nets when he wasnt down the land after cattle. Days were long and divided into different kind of work. Bits of trees and timber were bent into boats at the side of the house. We always had a bolt of canvas on the feed loft, and each spring we would watch his sails in the regatta as tiny triangles on the horizon line. There was always a job on the go, things ready to do, and it gave me a real sense of materiality.

Helen O’Leary, Quarantine, detail, 2015

It was I suppose pre -industrial, and it ended abruptly with a collision of events over a couple of years. A tornado, rare enough in Wexford, hit the farm, two years later the new television antenna got hit by lightening and the thatch caught fire. The fire brigade was called and turned the hoses on it. It was a mud house and it pretty much washed away in front of us. (As a child I imagined Tarzan burnt our house down). And a couple of years later my father died. We were suddenly and with little warning or warmth in a cold new world of modernity.

Helen O’Leary, Delicate negotiations geometry group

DC How do you relate that to the painting world now?

HO’L I’m very aware of the collision between the old and new, destruction and rebuilding are very much a part of my practice. I think of how people construct lives and I construct paintings with awareness of the failures and foibles that are part and parcel of being alive. Painting is a language, we push it forward to keep it going, but I’m always aware of its history as I work. The farm was littered with functional objects with great familial meaning. I think of that a lot, of things that have a function but the meaning has been skewed or changed.

Helen O’Leary, Delicate negotiations, blue, (back view)

A well-meaning tourist once sent us Frisbees from America; I remember the excitement of opening the parcel as if it were yesterday. We thought they has sent us a set of highly coloured neon plastic lids, a little useless but we ended up feeding the cats out of them in the cow house. I still remember the laughter and embarrassment when another tourist picked them up and showed us how to use them. I like that slippage of meaning, from one generation or culture to another, and it’s something I now welcome in the studio.

I learned defiance and gentleness from my mother, I remember sitting in a feminist studies class in Chicago Art Institute, and realized that I had learned it all first hand while keeping the farm afloat with her and my sisters as a child.

Helen O’Leary, Efficiency of love 2014-15, egg, oil on constructed wood, 66″ X 54″

Helen O’Leary, Delicate negotiations, 2014-15, egg, oil on constructed wood, sizes vary

DC What are your influences in the broad sense of the word?

HO’L I’m interested in thwarted gestures, of how people speak despite being silenced – of reused and re purposed language. Resilience, defiance and fortitude seemed even more important to me as I head into the uncharted territory of middle age. A few years ago I spent a while in Paris and found myself triangulating between Brancusi’s studio outside of the Pompidou, Raft of the Medusa in the Louvre, and the Museum of War. I had a well-worn path worn to all three by the time I left. The Museum of War was and still is a real favourite, especially the armour section and its collection of ‘failed’ armour, with cannon ball holes in the chest. Painting is a language that is well able to take a few hits, and can gather itself up stronger and taller, and keeps on speaking.

Helen O’Leary, Geometry of home

DC Is subversion of closure important for the work?

HO’L I need the work to make me laugh while I’m making it. Keeping things on a wobble, never settling completely is important to me. My earlier work was a series of large ‘abstract’ paintings in the 80’s, which was a collection of offs and ends from the studio floor. These paintings took on the appearance of abstract paintings; I was interested in earnest paintings of their kind, tired third generation abstract expressionist paintings, but I wanted to make paintings through the trials and errors of making. I thought about them as making do with the left over small efforts, compared to the certainty present in the language of other kinds of painting.

In recent work, the same preoccupation is present; I nod to minimalism and to the language of modernism while accumulating the odds and ends of my attempts to speak. I’m thinking of a more catholic sort of minimalism though.

I also think of the multiple ways of using or seeing an object, of re-doing something that already exists in another form in the language of painting. I gather up everything; nothing is ever wasted. I collect the ends of the sticks or paint, or jars, and they in turn become the next accumulated gesture.

Helen O’Leary, Delicate negotiations, portrait, 2014-15. egg, oil on constructed wood. 65″ x 54″

DC Do you think there’s been a shift in your process recently?

What’s next for you? You are the inaugural recipient of the Joan Mitchell Artist-in-Residency Award amongst other things!

HO’L I’m expanding the materiality of the work, and using wood and lots of joinery, I’ve put metal aside for now until my arm recovers. I’m really trying to explore surface, egg, encaustic, fresco, silver point; it’s all up for grabs. I’m also looking for even more compactness and frugality in the finished piece. I’m always on the lookout for old techniques of painting, and new things to fold into painting.

I will be at the Joan Mitchell Foundation in New Orleans in November, I’m really looking forward to it, Joan Mitchell was a big influence on me as a young painter, and it is a real honour to be invited to the residency. The studios are amazing; it will be good to see the work out of my jammed Bushwick studio.

In December I have a booth at Pulse Miami with Lesley Heller.

My show at the MAC Belfast opens in February, its a great space, I can’t wait to spread out there. I am in the process of making one of the biggest paintings that I have done to date. I want to make a painting that is self-supportive, and can fall in on itself. I’m building it in bits that will hopefully all lock together.

I have a show at Fenderesky, Belfast sometime in the late spring, and then a rest.

Helen O’Leary, Refusal, 2010-13, wood, metal, ceramic, gold, linen, detail from 30″ x 12″

Helen O’Leary is currently a Professor of Art at Penn State University. Recently she has been a recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. Her show Delicate Negotiations has just closed at the Leslie Heller Workspace, 54 Orchard Street, New York.

Diana Copperwhite is an artist living in Dublin and is on the lecturing staff in the Painting Department, NCAD.

The conversation took place in New York, summer 2015. Photographs by Eva O’Leary