Helen O’Leary in conversation with ArtFile Magazine’s Monique Atherton
Helen O’Leary, Quarantine, 2014-2015
by Monique Atherton
I COULD LISTEN TO HELEN O’LEARY TALK ALL DAY AND, MORE IMPORTANTLY, I COULD LOOK AT HER PAINTINGS ALL DAY. FROM CAPTIVATING STORIES OF LIFE IN THE COUNTRYSIDE OF IRELAND TO HER LIFE IN THE U.S. AS AN ARTIST AND EDUCATOR, IT IS CLEAR THAT O’LEARY REALLY LIVES LIFE TO THE FULLEST. WEAVING TOGETHER HER PERSONAL NARRATIVE AND FRAGMENTS OF OBJECTS FROM HER HOME AND STUDIO, O’LEARY CREATES BOLD AND STRIKING PAINTINGS THAT ENGAGE THE VIEWER IN A MOST PROFOUND WAY.
It is almost as if the pieces in your show “Delicate Negotiations” are like Chapters from a bigger story. What role do these titles play in your work?
They become chapter headings for me, like notes to a story. The narrative from my life is a backstory; the paintings find their own logic through materiality and other painterly references.
Helen O’Leary, Delicate Negotiations, egg tempera on constructed wood, 60 x 56 inches
How is poetry important to you? Who are authors and poets that inform your practice?
Seamus Heaney and Patrick Kavanagh are Poets who helped me appreciate the voice that came out of a rural Irish agrarian experience. I started to read them as a young painter, and they used the vernacular language of my youth to describe the epic themes of life. Later, Poets like Louise Gluck and Vona Groarke showed me emotional concision, a way to allow one’s vulnerability to be content, to work through the personal and wind it into the world, and to ultimately get to the nub of what it is to be human.
Helen O’Leary, The Measurement of All Things, egg tempera on constructed wood, 13 x 10 x 2 inches
When looking at your work, there is a very strong sense history and memory that emanates from the work. What role does personal narrative play in your
A lot. I use the story of my life to tell bigger stories. The narrative of my life is nothing by itself, everyone has a story, but I like to weave it into bigger narratives or back-stories that can talk to the history of painting and the lives of others. I wrote this as I started working on this body of work because I wanted to remember the geometry of that place:
The house I grew up in was simple, two stories, mud with a thatch. The walls were thick, and windows small. The kitchen was square, the cream Aga at it’s centre, and a table, six chairs, and a bread bin from the fifties in the corner, a clock on the wall and a picture of the sacred heart at the foot of the stairs which led upstairs. The walls were papered every year or so, and the big window at the foot of the stairs was big enough to sit in. Upstairs were three simple squares, two bedrooms and the room over the kitchen had been turned into the new bathroom. They were small and framed by the thatch, all facing the sea. We never sat in the sitting room, it was the good room with things from the wedding, china, a collection of good cut glasses, and cabinet for drink. A small cement pebble-dashed porch had recently been added, and it was the door that all new people came in through, with a view of the sea through the geraniums on each window. The scullery was an addition off of the sitting room, and had a back door, only accessible from the haggard (farm yard).
Each spring the house would get a new coat of whitewash, slapped on with a big brush, speckles of pure white bled away from the house. It was dirty work. The lime was dangerous, and my father would come in with the motionless white dribbles all over his work clothes, hands burned by lime, eyes red, his clothes stiff with white wash. In summer I would lean into the cool wall, press my body into its mass and feel its cold strength and simplicity, lime on mud. The house was old, no dates, just old. Our people had been there forever. The farm was built in stone around the house in a square, with arches over the cow house doors. We knew the world through stamps cut off of letters, Australia, America, England. Our neighbors sister was a nun in Africa, her stamps were collected and traded. The world appeared distant, yonder, small squares of colour pasted into the front of a book.
Spring also would bring the fixing of the boat, the barrels of black hot tar for the bottom of the boat, the sally switches for the lobster pots and the bolts of white cloth hoisted onto the loft to sew new sails. Tarring was done on the strand, and had a smell that I still associate with summer. Blue green nets would be spread out all over the haggard and carefully sewn back together. A larch would be earmarked, cut, planed, and left to season. Large vats of water would slowly train it to bend into the sway of a boat. He would work, between pigs, cows, hens, crops, thatching, his hands remembering what our people had done before him. Men would come down to watch him, his boats were known up the country. I would help, he would hold me with both rough hands around my chest above the boat and I would tar the bottom with careful long strokes. It would dry matt black and form an almond shaped void in the sandy burrough. The lobster pots were akin to knitting. Sally trees were trained to grow in straight switches, it would take a year, and then methodically cut, collected and piled according to size. It was here he taught me to knit, sitting beside him on a flat rock as he would weave the pots and talk with the fishermen about the weather and the price of cattle.
The world came in in hiccups. Belches of modernity, that would hint to a bigger world, then snap back in a second to the inwardness and timelessness of that place.
The quiet geometry of our pre-industrial and pre-modern history was all but erased by a series of natural disasters that destroyed our farm. A fire, a tornado and my father’s death left the family almost bankrupt and vulnerable to the hostilities and cruelties of a more ‘modern’ and somewhat colder culture. It was the emptying out of certainty as we knew it, and the start of something else much more precarious.
I think of my teenage years, which was much about labor and the epic saga of keeping the farm. I think about dunghills and cow houses, about damp cold against the warmth of a family and the love of my sisters and mother that was shown through endless jobs and gestures, never in words. About survival and defiance, resistance and strength, about one small gesture leaning into against the next and the next that could amount to a life’s work.
Helen O’Leary, The Measurement of All Things (Verso) egg tempera on constructed wood, 13 x 10 x 2 inches
How does the present inform your work?
This new work is very much about middle age. I locate it between the moments of material and emotional certainty, the short shelf life of predictability, both laughing at and questioning the structural prosthesis of conventions established through economic, cultural and gender constraints. Currently I’m interested in the uncertainty present in any economic downturn or change, between youth and middle age, and in the rupture between external and internal life. I look outside and within the tradition of painting for content, and am looking at the form inherent in sean-nos singing, (lament) for its economy of form and the content and meaning inherent in it’s frugal self containment, and have used a similar self containments in my approach to painting.
I think of them as both history paintings and portraits. I am building a series of large scale ‘history’ painting made from thwarted joinery, armatures, insets and shelves that both displays all of its components and continually rebuilds and reframes its structure and meaning. I want a painting that can both cast it’s own shadow and hold its own mess, the minutia of it’s making, in the very structure that keeps it standing. The closer I can get this piece to hold some of the honestly of the studio, the happier I will be. I want a transparency, but yet, the final piece will hold a bit of a mystery despite its apparent ‘openness’. I like to walk the line of collapse, to keep just to the edge of it, so it could go either way. I reinforce everything, to the point of chaos. I look at things like buttresses, things that will actually destroy a structure by insisting in it remaining static.
Helen O’Leary, Armature for Painting, 12 x 18 x 2 inches, 2013-2014
As a child, you made landscape paintings on rocks and sold them to tourists visiting your town in Ireland. Tell us more about this and how your early practice influenced this current body of work.
My father died when I was eleven. The economic needs and reality of keeping a farm became the foremost job in our young lives. It became a family Odyssey, we were all young, all girls, and farm work is heavy. We rented rooms to tourists, which became the bread and butter of our survival. It was the beginning of full-on tourism; although my mother had always rented a room to fishermen. I had learned to paint; I was handy at it and would draw things to understand them. I painted the cows on the whitewashed walls of the cow house while we milked them so that I could tell them apart. Once I painted them, I could identify them and know which ones we had milked.
I was pretty much self -taught, I painted the view from the house through the fields to the sea on stones, and it was the view we wanted to keep. The more I painted it, the more I thought we would never lose it. I sold the stones to the tourists, with a shamrock and the name of the farm on the back. I made decent money for a child.
I’ve often thought of those painted stones and how we never sold the land. I drive through Ireland now looking at walls, castles, houses and ruins and call it our currency of stones.
In the studio I work in piecemeal bits, and make large scale paintings. I think of them as an epic whole, a history painting of the studio, but exhibit small bits as fragments, much like the stones could never be but an image or fragment of the land, a small painting is just a fragment of the studio.
Helen O’Leary, The Story of Some, egg tempera on constructed wood, 2014-15
Was there a point in your career as an artist that you felt your work shifted dramatically?
Three times so far:
When I came to Chicago from Dublin in my early twenties. I felt removed from my own reality, and history. I started looking at my studio floor as the stand in for my history or land. I made a series of large-scale paintings from the drips and mistakes and overshot gestures that ended up on the floorboards. I thought of the servant class, of washing floors, of the drippings off the table and of making a full life out of the cast offs of others. Joyce was in my head, his fractured looking glass, his use of language, and his love of the vernacular rhyme and rhythm of language of the street.
When Eva (my daughter) was two I took an academic position at Penn State, it was meant to be for one semester while we readied ourselves to move back to Ireland. The relationship with ‘home’ became really important to me. I bought a house in Ireland, and really concentrated on having a conversation with that history and its writers. I still wanted to make unsentimental epic history paintings, but preferred to travel with things I ‘could manage’ rather than art moving trucks and planes. I liked the smallness of things that could be reassembled into ‘flash flood’ gestures. I would arrive in Dublin with six suitcases that I would re -assemble into a larger mosaic of a painting.
After my divorce, in middle age, I was raw; I couldn’t hide it or the doubt and failure that seemed to drown me as an artist and a human. I had run aground and needed to re-think everything. I looked back on my childhood and its perforated Utopia, at the many times we had run aground, about bankruptcy, and the invention my mother had used to avoid it. I wanted to reinvent painting for myself by using this and my life as content. I was very much aware of the restraints around female middle age and I wanted to both laugh at it and shout it out loud. Every part of my life seemed like fertile content, it’s limitations, its vulnerabilities. I could only laugh at the cemented conventions that seemed in place for a person of my age and gender. I wanted to illuminate my vulnerability and the absence of a road map, rather than to hide it. I started looking at pierced and bent armor and Sean Os singing (Irish lament), wanting the ‘raw bar’ to be my palette. I still have a file of letters from an Irish dating site, patriarchal idiotic sexist texts that unwittingly became part of this new body of work.
Helen O’Leary, Refusal, detail, 40′ x 12,’ mixed media, ceramic, paint, metal, wood, 2013
The title of your recent show at Lesley Heller Workspace is ‘Delicate Negotiations’ yet some of your paintings are titled ‘Armour’. What does this balance of strength and delicateness mean to you?
I spent four months on a fellowship to Paris shortly after a very painful break up. I was cut to the bone and looking for truth of sorts. I kept going back to the Museum of War, looking at armour, and the things that are supposed to protect you in this world. I was drawn to the failed armour, the ones with cannon ball holes through the chest. I started writing about the farm, about growing up in a patriarchal village, about the strength and innocence of my mother. I thought of revision, of going back, and of things I might change.
You use materials such as canvas, wood, staples, and string in your paintings. What is the importance of the materials you choose to use in your work?
I like materials that are true to the history and romance of painting and to my life. I use egg tempera, I like the restraint and simplicity of it, but also love that it is simply made from things in my kitchen. Eggs and vinegar – things you have that are neither glamorous nor fussy – string, bits of wood, staples, and always, portrait linen. Things that are are plain, fragile, but together can move mountains.
Helen O’Leary, Geometry of Home geometry of home, egg tempera on constructed wood, 24 x 15 inches, 2014-15
There is a sense of fluidity and movement in your paintings. Landscape and nature immediately come to mind. Was this your intent? If so, Why?
I’m drawn to lives that are carefully constructed, the same way that painting and narratives are constructed. Monet’s garden is a place of great importance to me, because he built it and then spent a lifetime painting it.
My studio is now my landscape, my square of ground; it is a catalogue of my thwarted gestures and efforts to speak. I see it as a complete whole, from incidental marks on the floors and tables. It has become my farm. It is my view through the fields to the sea.
Helen O’Leary, Quarantine (detail), egg tempera on constructed wood, 12′ x 10′
In a recent conversation, you mentioned, “the exile of opportunity” to me. Tell me more about this idea and how it relates to your work and practice.
I work abroad from choice; I could return to Ireland if I really wanted to go home. Living here afforded me a distance, which I use in the work, a long distance two-way mirror that is often skewed and re-framed through my experiences here. I like the slipperiness, or uneasiness that not having a static lens allows. I keep a house there, I love it, and it looks like the paintings I make. I find myself from time to time pulling it up on my desktop and just looking at it. It’s home.
Helen O’Leary, Efficiency of Love, detail, egg tempera on constructed wood, 48 x 56 inches
What else can we learn about you? Any advice or stories you would like to share?
My mother had a fierce strength and passion for keeping us on the land that we inherited. She was in many ways a very simple and vulnerable woman who taught us the power of ideas and dreaming against the odds and conventions of the society. She was a feminist before I had an understanding or word for it, and she taught us the importance laughter as a tool for survival and understanding. She had an unbreakable spirit, and had kindness etched into her from a life of humble living.
I got a scholarship to SAIC, Chicago in the mid eighties, and she knew then more than I did that I would probably end up living in the US. She drove me to the train station that night before I left, and in the darkness of the car as we waited for the Dublin train; she began a litany of advice that she hoped would protect me. She had a saying that had become her mantra, and she repeated it as the lights of the train approached.
“Love many, trust few, always paddle your own canoe.”
Those words, together with the words of Seamus Heaney make a good handrail for living.
‘Walk on air, against your better judgment” – Seamus Heaney