This interview was conducted with Chicago based artist William J. O’Brien. He has exhibited at The Renaissance Society at The University of Chicago (2011), The Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas (2012) and has had a major survey exhibition, curated by Naomi Beckwith, in January 2014 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.
His more recent exhibitions include solo shows at the Kentucky Museum of Arts and Crafts (2017), Marianne Boesky Gallery (2017) and Reliquary at the Shane Campbell Gallery. Mr O’Brien is faculty at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I was lucky to be able to speak with with Mr. O’Brien over the phone.
AG: I think I think we're recording, so if you're ready I'll just jump into my first question!
WO: All right here we go no pressure...
AG: I was first introduced to your work by a painting professor in undergrad and since then I've been inspired by your work through your use of material and through your ideas on form, colors, and through your fluidity working between media and materials. Who or what inspires your work?
WO: Oh god! [laughs] I would say the most honest answer is that my work is inspired by the people in my life and my experiences with those relationships, and the good or bad things that have happened in those relationships that have either created joy, or happiness, or pain in those situations and so the inspiration for the work, I think, most often comes from contending with difficult circumstances, or feelings and then looking for a way to understand and make meaning from them. Or on a very practical level, my practice is one of getting it out of my body and transforming it into something just outside of myself, and sometimes that comes out in beauty, and other times it comes out in chaos. But I'd also say, I'm inspired by being surprised -- and early on I think I struggled strongly to try to fit in, or to figure out what I was doing that was the way I was supposed to be as an artist, and I think I've discovered that my path towards being myself has been frequently one of -- sometimes I say to my students sometimes you figure out your influences, not by people you feel you identify with, or you're attracted to, but sometimes you figure out who you are as an artist by saying “I know I'm not this” or “this just doesn't feel like me” which would mean maybe that's like a reflection of the fact that I didn't really feel like I had a lot of role models or artists who I identified with early in my career, and so I had to sort of take choose and pick my influences and also rebel against somethings too but I probably didn't answer your question but…
AG: No, you absolutely did, it sounds like what a lot of your inspiration is through your personal relationships and that sort of leads to concepts which turn into your work. Is that what you think?
WO: I think part of it has to do with -- I would say my early work strongly had to do with conflicts I had about who I was as a queer person and then who my family wanted me to be. I'm actually William J O'Brien the seventh, and so I'm not going to have children, so there was a lot of, I think, conflict there between -- I thought it was going to be a mathematician, but then I also was gay, and so there's a spiritual upbringing I had, so I think there's a thing that goes on in my work that has to do with logic, and rules, and movements, and systems, and then also there's a part of me that's all about magic, and movements, and being spontaneous and I think that's why I gravitated early on to ceramics and drawing -- is because they both are materials that you can do that with. It's not that I don't have a concepts for my work, I would say that for me, what I've been doing the past several years has been continually working off of bodies of work that lead to more work bodies of work so I would say the way that I start my work now is usually based on what happened what I've been doing before and if there's something that I like or don't like about it, and continuing that is a way to try to figure something else out.
AG: In your drawings, are you influenced at all by any quilts like the quilts of Gee’s Bend or other artists that work with quilting influences such as Miriam Shapiro?
WO: Um… I don't know Miriam Shapiro, but I would agree. I grew up in outside of Ohio in like, you can say a rural Amish enclosed community, and so there was a lot of crafts I was exposed to, but then I thought I was going to be a mathematician and I'm really attracted to the sound of color and the music of form and material, and so there is a certain thing that exists influenced in the drawings that I think has to do with sounds and music, but then also I kind of look at them as those being like a formal quilt, but also maybe being about recording my life a little bit and those drawings for me actually I never thought I'd make so many of them because there's a lot of things about them that are -- I've gotten different feedback on, but for me what's most interesting is that I am attracted to color, movement, and line. I'm always surprised and inspired by that. I think there's some identity stuff in there too, with a queer identity with aids quilts, but I also have been trying not to force a read on things.
AG: Do any of the materials you work -- do they all have different sort of contexts, associations or maybe hierarchies?
WO: I would say -- I think like early on in my career I first was a ceramic student and I really really enjoyed making ceramics, but then I was frequently told there is no way I would ever be taken seriously as a real fine artist if I used clay. So, I felt that there was a little bit of tension with that and I also really became very interested in. I actually didn't have a lot of money when I was starting off as an artist, and so I really actually became attracted to artists that used cheaper materials because it was just what I had around and could afford. I think part of me also has chosen the materials that I use because they are more accessible to an audience outside of an art context, but then also by using those materials it does I think does create a conversation about why we consider other materials more valuable than others and then that also could lead into a conversation about who can afford to make certain types of art, and who can't, and why we consider those things more precious than others. But really-- I really just like experimenting a lot and so I have chosen materials that are cheaper because I really like experimenting, but also the main thing for me was that I really like line, and I like time, and I think drawing and clay is really great in terms of being able to do those things well.
Someone said to me that you can't take yourself really seriously as a ceramic artist -- I think you can, but I think clay and drawing in general are materials that are more open and less serious so there's a relaxation that can occur more than other materials. I don't say -- I was really uptight when I was younger, or I did have a lot of anxiety and I was really uptight when I was first started making work in undergrad. There's like a lot of anxiety about it, so I think I was attracted towards clay and drawing because it wasn't that big of a deal to make a mistake, and so I think those things are things that I'm attracted to because it helps me make just -- someone said a creative mind is a relaxed mind and I think that's true. But you can make actually art out of any state of mind, but I think for me there was always a struggle to really believe that what I was doing was valid, so I think I gravitated towards more accessible materials because I one thing that I never want anyone to feel with my work is stupid, or isolated, or that they don't belong. I think art is a way of very quickly doing that to people, and I think the materials you use really matter in terms of how they'll make the participant looking at it feel or react.
AG: Your work definitely feels accessible, and fun and also like serious. I have kind of a question that's a little bit off off base but I'm curious -- I read in your artist statement that--.
WO: You know god I need to take that down -- I'm kidding [laughs] because people really like it though I mean go ahead. Oh my god…
AG: It's like you sort of wrote it the way you wanted to and not the way everyone else is writing theirs.
WO: I think I did that on purpose because I don't think people read artist statements anymore. I really don't know why they exist, and they like -- artist statements also again isolate people, so I felt like I wanted it to be real, and some people have given me feedback that it's too real, but I was like well better that then I don't know… I think I can be… I think I'm not saying I'm not a art snob, or that I don't have standards, but I do feel like there is this thing about art that these people feel like they're not good enough, and I don't like that at all.
AG: I think that's why I really like your artist statement because it just -- it feels like, from reading it, I can sort of get to know you as a real person. For example, in it you mentioned that you were homeschooled and I was was also homeschooled and I know like I have had very different experiences, and you also mentioned growing up in rural Ohio, and I was just wondering if you feel comfortable talking about it what your experience was like and if it has any influence on your practice?
WO: I grew up in a very religious, like conservative Catholic home. I was home-schooled and I feel like my mother wanted us to home-school-- I think she wanted us to be outside of like a system that she thought was maybe influencing us us in the wrong way, but for me, I was actually not like a high school student, and I was rebellious and I -- someone had burned down the boys bathroom from smoking, and although I had been caught smoking in the bathroom, I actually didn't burn the bathroom down, but I was asked to leave high school at that point. So for me, I felt like I didn't really have like a good connection to that school, so I actually got my first job while I was being homeschooled and it was like a really difficult period in terms of figuring out who I was, but I also was able to take my first art class because they wouldn't let me take art classes because I was so bad in high school. It really was a good period in terms of me figuring out who I was and it is a little bit of a strange things to be homeschooled, I mean I feel like it was good, but also I don't know if it was there's something sad about like in Pretty in Pink like you're supposed to go to your high school prom and I did go to a prom, but I think there was some social things there that were hard, but I am a home-schooled person. I mean, I don't know what homeschool you've had but like it was my sister and me, so it was like definitely when I did it, it was very radical, it wasn't like a thing people were doing, right? I think it was fine to those in high school and I already had a set of friends that I knew outside of school, I mean I think it kind of -- like I was talking to someone today I think all these things kind of made me embrace who I was and be a weirdo and be okay with it and I think there was a positive thing about it where I was sort of doing something that wasn't the way you were supposed to do it. So I think now I'm more comfortable with not following along, or standing on my own when not everyone-- like not doing what everyone else is doing, but I think those are good qualities for being an artist just sort of sticking with what's good for you.
AG: That totally makes sense especially with your work. So my last question has to do with being surprised--which you talked about already. You've mentioned it in this conversation and also it's in a section of your artist statement and other places online. What has surprised you most recently in your studio?
WO: Oh, that I make the best work when I don't think I'm doing it. I mean that happened yesterday, I just finished a drawing, and when I was making it I was like oh my god I fucking hate art and making art! I'm sick of making drawings, and then I finished it and my partner was like “that's the best drawing you've ever made” and I was like “really?” I would say most recently, I would say I'm really surprised by how things change when you'd least expect them to. When you're doing something and even if you feel really bored, and that you're sick of making something you actually might be making the best work because you're not so self-conscious about it. I said that to my students-- sometimes you make the best work when you're bored because you're not so obsessive, trying to do a good job. You're just relaxed. You know when you're like obsessed with making something really good-- and it has to be good, and like obsessed with it. It's kind of like, when you learn how to drive a car you're very aware of everything you're doing and there's like a tension there, but once you kind of make, and you learn something and you become relaxed, you actually-- there's more flexibility to make better work because you're not so self-conscious of everything you're doing kind of like dance, or with sports it takes training to be able to relax. So usually for me, it's like the sixth drawing I'm doing I'm finally like okay I think I'm surprised. Also probably by how some of the early pain I have that still is there somewhere, but there's still something sad about -- like Louise Bourgeiosis has talked about this, there's just early stuff that we have that's the impetus for the art, and that's not bad, it's good. You know it's like our gold. I think for everybody, in my opinion the very good artists have difficulty and that's the gold that makes their work so good. They go back to that when they need to really-- it's like Sally Fields, you know, I don't know you go back to it when you need to really feel things. I also think there's this idea that like strength and masculinity is supposed to mean that something is good but truthfully feeling vulnerability is where the real strength is. It's not-- real strong people feel a lot and some people can disqualify them as seeming like they're weak, but actually they're not. Artists really are strong because they feel and process a lot of the world kind of like a barometer. Artists are barometers, you know?
I mean, so that's a hard question I'm like what am I surprised by? Okay well, I think maybe because I'm just working a lot and sometimes feel it's hard to feel surprised when you're really just working, you know? So I thought are you finished with your school now or no?
AG: I finished my undergraduate degree and I'm finishing up a Post Bacc at the University of Arkansas.
WO: Are you gonna go to grad school?
AG: I am, yeah, I keep putting it off but it's it's on the horizon. Do you have any advice?
WO: Because school is hard, I mean it's just one of those catch-22 you know? Like when you're in it you don't want to be in it, but then when you're in real life you don't want to do that. So it's like I don't know… I think it's better to go-- I don't know how old you are, like late 20s early 30s I think is a good time. I feel like you have to like in fall in love, have a terrible breakup, have like the worst job ever, maybe have a drug or alcohol problem, get sober and then you're like “oh my god this is the last thing I can do to get out of this life” and then you go to grad school. So you kind of have to wait until you're like, oh my god, it's like the magic, using it when you really you're like okay I need to use this-- because if you go too soon it's like people don't -- not that they don't know what to do, but it's kind of like inventing stuff to do.
Abigail Grix is a Post-Baccalaureate student at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. She received her BFA in 2016 from Penn State.