In Touch With...Helen O’Leary

Nobody gets through life without facing challenges, but an artist’s ups and downs are often made tangible by what he or she creates to express and transform the experiences. For Helen O’Leary, a professor of art born and raised in County Wexford, Ireland, life’s recent changes—including a divorce, followed by being selected to receive a 2010-2011 John Simon Guggenheim Award—have inspired her to “root in the ruins and failures” of her personal and national history to visually map the relationship between language and literature and art. ”My work uses my life as subject matter, at middle age and mid career, post nuclear family, my continued unpacking and packing, belonging and retraction of homes between countries,” writes O’Leary. We joined her in her studio recently to discuss her recent work and the Guggenheim Fellowship term that took her to New York, Paris, and Berlin to investigate the texts and letters of Samuel Beckett and shape a material response to them.

Q: What themes and forms are you exploring in your recent work?

A: I’ve been writing stories for the last few years. I’m trying to work with language—both written language and painting language—that has an informal diary feel. That’s very important to me. Lately I’m working off a dating site and Craigslist to find seeds of stories. The themes I’m interested in are people who downsize, people who change their minds somehow, and also in things that are offered that won’t come through. I’m interested in that kind of uncertainty, using the Irish economy as a model, so I’m putting that all together from the very domestic to the larger armature of a country. On a larger level, I’m interested in the much-mythologized culture of loss in Ireland and I’m interested in using that in a very contemporary and offhand way through the person. God knows how I’ll put all that together but I’m doing it. I’m trying!

Q: Tell me more about your childhood and its impact on your growth as an artist.

A: My father died when I was very young. We got hit by a tornado first, then we got struck by lightning, then my father got a brain tumor. It was ”bam, bam, bam!”—three things. And my mother was left with four girls in a culture where girls shouldn’t own land. It was expected that we would sell off the farm. But our project for the next eight years was to keep it going. We rented rooms to tourists before tourists were really a thing in Ireland. It brought the world to us, but it also made land really important to us. Land, to me, is also the canvas or the table, the tangible. Our world became very unconventional very quickly. I learned that you live by the skin of your teeth. It trained me for art school to realize that conventions might not work for you and could be broken, so when I came to making art—oh, I hate the word art—let’s say, making things, I would always look for another way to do it. I loved drawing on the kind of insubordination I grew up with, and using it.

Q: Why do you hate the word art?

A: It’s so grandiose and above. I didn’t grow up with the idea that art was within my reach, but human expression was. Art to me was something that belonged in the ”big house.” Growing up in rural Ireland in the 1960s through ’80s, I recall my mother often spoke about the “big house" and the class system that was clearly in place. She’d end each story with “Their ways weren’t our ways” and, later, when my family ran our boarding house, she would dismiss the tourists who stayed with us with the same comment. My childhood was defined by a culture where making things—food, shelter, ornament—and ”making do”— were central to both the physical and emotional survival of the family. So art is my world and my life and I believe in it, but I would just call it our need to speak rather than that word.

Helen O'Leary smiling in her studio
Patrick Mansell

Q: Do you consider the writing you’re doing fiction or memoir?

A: I would say I’m working with memoir, stories of growing up on the farm in Wexford and my life now in the States. I’ve called my work ”invention out of need,” using my own displacement as fodder for meaning. In terms of the writing, I started out just writing my story of growing up and my mother’s survival after she was widowed. And it turned out that I was writing about that as Ireland was losing its economic foothold, going from the second richest country in the European Union to the humiliation of our banking crisis, so I was looking at my youth, the Irish situation and my situation now and I was trying to put all those things together—but not in some ”sad bastard” way. I’m interested in the kind of optimism that’s always present in the Irish psyche. Laughter is a huge part of it. When I’m trawling through these online sites, I’m looking for laughter more than anything else: people selling weird things or people with strange notions of businesses or…kind of more of a Samuel Beckett approach to life more than Oprah.

Q: Do you still primarily consider yourself a painter?

A: I consider myself a visual poet. If I was to find a niche, that’s where I’d say I’m sitting. I make postcards with found text on them that are like concrete poems. I make photographs of historically made books. And I make paintings that are large and kind of look like they’re becoming undone. I’m interested in things that leak, things that tear, things that come apart. I’m taking apart my house bit by bit and making it into slivers and then reconstructing it as armature for painting.

Q: What is behind the emphasis on deconstruction in your recent visual art?

A: While I revel in painting—its rules, its beauty, its techniques—I need to fold my work back into the agricultural language I grew up with. I'm interested in the personal, my own story, and the history of storytelling. So I take things apart, forgetting conventions and reapply my own story to the form. In ”Where Things Matter,” one of my latest works, I was interested in painting that would stand up without the usual structures of support. I am looking at my own life, the history of Sean-nós singing in Irish music, Beckett's pared-down language, and the ”currency of need” found in most houses when I was growing up.

I think there’s another layer as well: You spend the first 50 years gathering stuff and you spend the next 50 years getting rid of stuff. So I’m getting rid of stuff. And I’m interested in what happens when you slice it up. I have disassembled the wooden structures of previous paintings—the stretchers, panels, and frames—and have cut them back to rudimentary hand-built slabs of wood, glued and patched together, their history of being stapled, splashed with bits of paint, and stapled again to linen clearly evident. At this point, I want painting to be picked clean; I like its thinness, its touch. I whittle for meaning. I’m literally culling my house, splintering things and re-assembling them as armature. It’s hopeful: through the process of deconstruction and reassembly, these structures imagine the possibility that painting might take root and find a place to press forward into fertile new terrain. Ultimately I’m after painting that gives joy to the eye and substance to the spirit.

Last Updated December 13, 2012