In Response: Helen O’Leary



Patricia, thank you for the prod, I was in a lethargic stupor yesterday and you sent me down the rabbit hole in my hard drives, looking for images that had some meaning for me. I have yet to photograph where I am now, but I wandered through Rome for a minute, looking at all the careful repair and construction that caught my eye. We are in the middle of rupture, in the eye of upheaval, imagine the repairs that need to be done!



I have a kaleidoscope of regrets, the one that gnaws at me, I didn’t scamper off to my mountain in Ireland and hole up when it was still safe to fly. I remember thinking we would stay in Europe, go to Ireland – maybe I was abroad long enough. But then I felt compelled to go back to Jersey City and finish the DIY museum project and my teaching job at Pennsylvania State University. Yet I continued to flirt with the idea of staying, imagining a life in Ireland with a big studio, a few hens and a working vegetable and dye garden. I have watched Ireland become more and more progressive over the years. I follow its politics closely. I love the culture, language, humanity and inherent democratic spirit. Artist and poet friends live locally, while the geography of the mountain holds pragmatism and magic in equal measure.



It is tucked on Sliabh an Iarann, (translation: mountain of iron), the very name makes it feel safe. If this lockdown does anything it has cleared my vision. l’ll shift my centre of gravity soon, spend half my time in the US, and the other half in Ireland. I remember when I was re-building the Irish house in the 90’s, old men from the village would come up to visit, intrigued by the lunacy of our young family relocating there. We would get all sorts of advice, how to unclog the water system from an endless supply of frogs, how to outwit the multi- national faceless forestry corporations, how to get government grants and schemes, and mostly, about how to survive. Tom Charlie, a local bachelor came up one evening while we were packing to come back to our American University jobs, he looked around at our packed bags, shook his head and said, you got to get ahead, you got to get a cow.



Being self-sufficient has been a theme in my life as early as I can remember. When I first started to dismantle painting as a student back in the late eighties, I began unpacking systems that didn’t work for me, going through the grab bag of history/ certainty and re-purposing it. Things come apart, meaning shifts and then, a new logic presents itself. I have to learn a new patience that logic will indeed present and prevail.



The project in Jersey City is just about finished, the DIY museum. My partner Dan and I collaged a three-story house and a large studio out of re-purposed bits found for free on craigslist. I had just spent the year in Rome, looking at fragments and fixes, and how we re-use and protect what we consider valuable. The process of building was much like my studio work, except it involved building permits, electricians and engineers. We wanted to make a painting that you could live in, that would be self-supporting and sustaining. We planned a green roof on top of the studio where I could plant my dye-garden. I wanted a painting to be able to produce, provide shelter, store, support and even have its own color. I worked on many bits and pieces while in Rome and had just moved the crate into the studio when Covid hit.




We left Jersey and drove out to the barn in PA where I teach at PSU, the area is not congested and there is a very good small hospital. I am planting a dye garden, working slowly, with a scattered sort of focus. I have a couple of big pieces on the go, sitting in the studio in Jersey City, they’ll wait.

Rome showed me a different kind of monumentality that continues to rise out of societal and moral decay and dissolution. It is a city that has survived crazy power-hungry emperors, plagues, fascism, corruption and poverty. It continues to re-knit itself out of the archeology of its own ruin and re-appears again and again as magnificent. If I have any take away from living in Rome it is that we will go on, we will re-build and continue to search for meaning and beauty in this world.



The barn in PA is small, a bit feral, it is marginally functional as a living/working space but does have a garden and a library. I don’t know what sort of mad-max thinking descended upon us, but we got five hens soon after we arrived, and I have been trying to put some order to the place which will allow for a working routine.

There has never been much demarcation between life, studio and survival for me, but the lack of boundaries is even more pronounced right now. It is a blinkered life with few distractions. We went to Home Depot once to get wood and saw a pick-up at the stop light that was painted as one big American Flag with a confederate flag in the truck- bed. I haven’t been out since and am now eyeing my cherry tree with a new interest.

None of this is normal, none of this feels right, but it is important to know that on some level we will get through it.

Might be time to get ahead, might be time to get a cow.