‘Making is Thinking’: Artist William J. O’Brien to speak at Anderson Ranch Arts Center
If You Go …
Who: William J. O’Brien
Where: Schermer Meeting Hall, Anderson Ranch Arts Center
When: Thursday, July 6, 12:30 p.m.
How much: Free (registration required)
Artist William J. O’Brien is attempting to make sense of the thorny relationship between the art world establishment and artists who work in traditional craft-based materials like clay and fiber.
The Chicago-based artist will deliver a talk at Anderson Ranch on Thursday titled “Making is Thinking,” digging into attitudes about “makers” and “artists.”
“It’s an effort to contextualize and formalize some things I’ve been thinking about, specifically the way that people think about ‘makers’ versus other types of artists,” he said in a recent phone interview.
O’Brien, who teaches at the Art Institute of Chicago, has risen to the heights of the art world while working with materials traditionally brushed aside by the gatekeepers as unserious crafts. His glazed ceramic vessels and masks and sculptures have become signature works, but he also regularly sculpts steel, makes colored-pencil drawings, paints and weaves fabric pieces that collage geometric shapes (these may remind locals of Herbert Bayer’s tapestries, recently displayed at the Aspen Institute). Recently he’s been making prints on T-shirts.
Drawing, clay and fiber art are often associated with hobbyists, children and art therapy. O’Brien is interested in looking at why that is.
“Historically, materials that cost more money are taken more seriously,” he said. “So, painting on the one hand, or pencils and clay on the other.”
In his work, O’Brien has bridged those worlds — working in traditionally craft-oriented materials, yet being embraced by museum and major galleries (he shows regularly at Marianne Boesky’s New York gallery, and may be among the artists that exhibits work in her new downtown Aspen space in the future).
As he’s broken out and landed his work alongside the dominant conceptual high-brow works of the contemporary art world, the attitudes around “makers” have shifted.
“It has to do with a lot of people asking questions about craft and hierarchy and wanting art to be more accessible,” O’Brien said. “Craft-based materials are more horizontal, more community-based. That’s important to me. I believe that art should be accessible to a wide range of people, not just a select few.”
He’s found some of the wisest assessments of art come from viewers who are not artists or critics or gallerists or professors or traditional tastemakers. He calls his father, an electrician, his “best critic.”
To underscore his makers-versus-artists arguments, O’Brien is looking to his own life. His childhood in rural Ohio included pastoral beauty and spiritual back-to-the-land lessons from his family, but also the fear of coming out as gay to his religious parents. As a kid, he also traveled with a unicycle drill team, performing and riding in parades. He had relatives with cerebral palsy who communicated nonverbally. Looking back now, all of that added up to a rebellious streak in O’Brien, a respect for the outsider, a playful sensibility and a rock-ribbed belief in communicating through a physical process.
“A lot of my work came from trying to search and find and figure out who I was as a person,” he explained. “So it’s an extension of that.”
Not knowing the answers, he believes, also is important for an artist.
“Art is about asking questions and sometimes good art is about not having an answer,” O’Brien said. “Really, good art is about searching and asking questions.”
O’Brien will be coming to Snowmass from the Shambhala meditation center north of Fort Collins. The artist regularly goes into retreat there.
“I’m going to take some time before and after coming to Aspen, just to get some Rocky Mountains time in,” he said. “I connect with the landscape up there.”
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