A Conversation with Guggenheim Fellowship Recipient: Helen O’Leary

A moveable feast for the eyes, visual poetry in motion

Helen O’Leary has a way with things. It’s easy to fall into the lyrical explanations of her artwork. Her Irish accent and natural story telling ability takes you down a winding path that has you saying, “Oh yeah, that makes sense”, as you stare at an 8 foot painting made of hundreds of pieces of scrap wood jointed together by some sort of mad genius.

She’s received all the big awards – Joan Mitchell, Pollock-Krasner, Guggenheim Fellowship and the Rome Prize. Her work is daring – exploring and pushing the boundaries of painting as a medium. She’s uses bits and pieces of discarded scraps to weave together a story about our humanity and the armor we use to shield ourselves. Helen uses the brevity of art to elevate the way and with what she constructs her work. There’s both a sense of humility and humor in the work. It’s carefully constructed and meticulously pieced together, her work is a puzzle only she has the key to.

The history of her material use and subject matter can be drawn back to her childhood in Ireland. At age 11, a tornado, a lightning strike, and her father’s early death left her family bankrupt. Her mother met the struggle by renting rooms on their farm to tourists as a Bed and Breakfast. While helping her mother with the B&B, Helen also worked the land with her sister. This sense of creative practicality is at the heart of Helen’s work. 

She’s a visual poet who reshapes and reconstructs objects in a way that can best be described as raw and utterly honest portraiture. 

Detail from O’Leary’s 2018 series “Home is a Foreign Country” at Lesley Heller Gallery.
Photo by Eva O’Leary

Artistic Fuel: The definition of what constitutes a painting is a fluid conversation among contemporary artists. What is painting to you?

O’Leary: Painting is a verb, it has always been an action to me. It’s continually driving over its own corpse and re-constituting itself. It’s a tangible poem that has a deep knowledge of its history and teeters on the tight rope of the now. It must both know itself and be able to step into the unknown. It involves color, space, time, meaning, and a belly full of life. It’s the same old stuff that Breughel (Dutch Renaissance painter) dealt with, but through the personal and cultural lens of the now. 

A|F: How does material use and sustainability play into the creation of your work?

O’Leary: My childhood gave me a good grounding in what happens when you have used something all up. When you have ploughed a field into the literal ground, over planted, or neglected the very thing that feeds you. Our fields ran into the shoreline, and the encroaching ocean was always a thing, before it was part of the public conversation.  I was reared on scarcity, efficiency and re-use, and developed a healthy appetite for resilience and resistance.

Sustainability has been the core of my work, how you survive as a human, as a woman, as an artist, as a visual poet in this world of ours.

How do we protect what is so fundamentally a human right? Equality, clean air, a roof- how do we hold ourselves and our culture accountable for its carbon footprint? How do we square the circle of climate change?

In the last few years I really began to study the environmental and carbon count of everything, paint, how it is mined, how I’m supporting the fossil fuel industry but ‘okaying’ it because it is “art”. Instead of going cold turkey, I have tried to expand my palette into the garden, the fields and detritus that surround me. For me there is little space between the fabric of my life and my work. 

Part of O’Leary’s Dye Garden.
Photo courtesy of the artist.

I source color from plant based materials and clay, as well as using chalks and organic glues. The wood I use is sourced from waste, and I continually re-use and revise my own language. From there I build crates, shelves, and ‘paintings’ of the same language.  I am interested in mordants, in how they ‘ fix ‘ and deliver color, and am eyeing my mountain of iron in Ireland, where I live some of the time as potential subject matter. 

I break things down, structures, institutions, language, and rebuild them in a language that is both human scale and approachable.

My work relies on the construction of armature and much like Russian dolls, one piece has fit and protects the next. My studio work mimics the way my mother worked the farm, with invention out of need, using my own displacement as fodder for meaning. 

I knit with wood, take things apart – the surface, support and re-piece them back together again with awkward carpentry. I see my studio as an archeological site, a compendium of armatures, erasures, deliberate archaisms, renovations and restorations.  

A|F: Can you talk about the project you completed recently, your DIY museum in Jersey City?

O’Leary: Building a DIY museum and presenting the studio as archeological artifact is where my work has been heading for years.  Building an ‘institution’ around the work is both funny and downright sensible. Breaking down color to plants is sustainable, practical, and visually beautiful. This project expands my practice outside of and into the fortification of the studio. 

The DIY Museum will function as an ongoing, self-feeding discrete art object as well as studio/museum complete with a dye-garden and solar dye-cart. Much like a one-person band, or functioning vascular system – this building is a self-contained ecosystem: an archive, exhibition space, 3D evolving painting, and dye-garden. 

I am building a monumental painting (2016- ongoing) that has the ability to unmake itself, rebuild itself, become multi-purposed, provide shelter, institutional support, color, and fortification. 

A timeline of progress shots from the DIY Museum in Jersey City.
Photo courtesy of the artist.

I scrounged mostly free materials and objects from Craigslist and turned a three-story derelict house and studio into a collage of odd bits: doors, windows, beams, wire, fans, sparkle, insulation and cement provided by the most generous people of all political persuasions who gave me things they no longer needed. My approach is to incorporate the building, specifically the DIY Museum, into a ‘painting’ that could support, contain, defend, exhibit itself and grow its own color.  

It is the largest ‘painting’ I have made to date. 

Among the ‘tools’ in the museum is a compact mobile solar dye-kitchen, which will function as a pop-up dyeing studio. Like the constructed museum plinths and tables, it is multi-functional, with retractable shelves, drying racks and heated vats. 

I engineered the roof so it could hold a green roof, where I would plant a fully functioning dye garden. 

To make the dyes, I’ve sourced a list of roots and seeds from the medieval garden at The Pennsylvania State University. With the collaboration of dye expert/ artist, Kim Flick, I’m amassing the ingredients for sustainable and archival color. I soak gall apples in gum Arabic and sulphate to make black inks; stew coneflowers; using ancient and effective lichen and urine recipes. I will use the form of the dye-garden and museum to bolster and expand my existing arsenal of fragmented painting techniques. The dye garden has also moved to my barn in PA, where every square inch is planted with dye plants sourced from PA and I use my hens to source the eggs as a binder (for pigment). 

A|F: What artists have been influential in developing your studio practice – Who are you currently looking at? 

O’Leary: I think about the scale of Donald Judd’s warehouses in Marfa, James Turrell’s “Roden Crater” and other minimalist monumental projects on one end of the spectrum. Additional examples of personal museums, visionary, and community renovation art projects include the Roger Brown Museum/house in Chicago; Mary Mattingly’s barge, the Watts Towers in LA, James Luna, artist as artifact. Sam Van Aken’s grafted trees are both endlessly practical/efficient and limitlessly imaginative. Poetry and literature have been lifelong friends, the monumental mundane in Alice Monroe’s short stories and the substance of a life in the work of Vona Groake. 

A|F: What advice do you have for young artists?

O’Leary: Read everything. Read things that don’t appear timely or especially relevant, root through history, question everything. Support each other, we cannot do this alone. Most importantly, this (art) is a conversation, it is not just about our own neurosis. The personal and the cultural narratives need to be aligned, keep pulling new influences into your studio. Keep your costs down, don’t be afraid to break the mold and live outside of what everyone else is doing. Make work every day, something, no matter how small. Fix something, draw something, and especially, read like your life depends upon it. It does.

Don’t be an asshole, treat everyone with respect, the world doesn’t owe you anything. Entitlement is the enemy of everyone.

Author note: Helen O’Leary’s “DIY museum” in Jersey City (studio and life as cultural artifact) will be open post Covid,  by appointment. 


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  1. I am not much of an art enthusiast, but this interview with Helen O’Leary is fascinating, I wish I could see that 8-foot painting made with scraps of wood. I wish you had posted a couple of pictures of her work! I am more of a music buff.