Kelly O’Brien is an American mixed media artist who lives and works near Bath, UK. Kelly is currently pursuing her MFA at Bath Spa University with an expected degree award in 2019.
Kelly has undertaken residencies at Haystack Mountain School of Craft, Deer Isle, ME, USA, Penland School of Craft Residency, Penland, NC, USA, Shakerag Summer Arts Institute Residency, Sewanee, TN, USA and the Women’s Studio Workshop Summer Arts Institute, Rubha Rua, Scotland, UK. She is a juried artist at the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, Virginia, USA, and an Associate Artist at Spike Island, Bristol, UK and 44AD ArtSpace, Bath. UK. She is also part of the Frankfurt artist collective CKCK.
Materials and personal narrative play important roles in Kelly’s work. She works primarily with paper, attracted to its paradoxical qualities of ephemeral strength. Even when manipulated in seemingly destructive ways - scoring, burning, sewing into, tearing, repairing - what emerges is often more interesting and beautiful than the original form. She is interested in how her materials can transform and reinvent themselves into something new, just as we all continue to learn and grow.
'Playing With Fire' is an ongoing series of burned paper sculptural objects. The work consists of a shallow wall sculpture made of paper. The paper has been incised, torn, punched, and burned with touches of gold leaf added to emphasize certain marks. It is then arranged in floating layers, creating an illusion of a landscape. The work is either framed in a box frame of hand-waxed European oak to protect the materials, or left to be custom framed as desired. Through this work, Kelly explores how to let go of expectations and outcomes. Over time, she has learned how to 'control' the materials, as well as to appreciate the power of surprise. When she lets the flame burn as it will, there is a point before total destruction when beauty happens. Some of the most interesting and unexpected effects happen when the paper burns freely, without trying to control it.
This element of surprise sparks creativity. Fire is destructive, transformative, and necessary for new growth. That’s when the flame is potentially dangerous, yet the results are usually worth it. The game she plays with herself is: how much potential destruction of the materials can she tolerate to allow for unexpected outcomes to happen? It is this edge that she is exploring in the work.
For Kelly, using fire as a medium is also about overcoming fear and taking control. Up until her 20s, she was afraid to even light a match and has always been slightly hesitant to take things out of a hot oven. In 2013 she started experimenting with this series by simply lighting matches and using candle flame. Today, she uses a variety of tools, including a blow torch and branding iron. Because the technique is dangerous, she must be completely present in what she is doing and cannot be distracted or let her mind wander. It is a form of meditation and mindful concentration. This, she explains, is good practice for living life beyond the studio - to not get all caught up in what might happen in the future or to ruminate over what has already happened in the past. It is an interesting metaphor for living life in the here and now.
Kelly's work is held by institutions including the Library of Congress, Washington, DC, USA, University of California, Irvine Library Artists‘ Books Special Collections, Irvine, CA, USA, Corcoran College of Art Collections Library, Washington, DC, USA, Cornell University, Johnson Museum of Art, The Collection of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, Ithaca, NY, USA. It is also held in private collections in the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Switzerland as well as many prestigious corporate collections including Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons, Kimpton Hotels, Hilton Hotels, Marriott Hotels, Taj Hotels, Norwegian Cruise Lines and more.
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