Founder image

Capturing meaning through materiality

– an interview with William J. O'Brien

William J. O'Brien lives and works in Chicago. His works has been shown in numerous solo exhibition, notably at  Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York, USA (2020); Shane Campbell Gallery, Chicago, USA (2019) and Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo, Japan (2014). O'Brien's work has been the subject of several solo shows at major institutions, including at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (2014); The Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City (2012) and the Renaissance Society at The University of Chicago (2011). O’Brien has received awards from the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation (2011) and Artadia: The Fund for Art & Dialogue (2007). His work is included in the permanent collections of the Pérez Art Museum Miami, USA; Miami Art Museum, USA; The Art Institute of Chicago, USA; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, USA and CAHara Museum of Art, Tokyo, Japan, among others.

Photo by Evan Jenkins

"I have always been invested in the possibility of merging the natural with the synthetic. This comes through with the colored pencil drawings because they are a marriage of both rule following and improvisation."

Could you tell us about your artistic practice and how it has evolved over the years?

I think in some ways I became an artist because I wasn’t necessarily good at anything else? I wanted to be an Olympic gymnast, then a mathematician, until eventually settling on art and design. I think my work vacillates between different interests I have. Most recently, especially during the pandemic, I have been most invested in clarifying what is most important and valuable for me in the work I make which is essentially finding meaning in what I am doing and how the viewer responds.

You work within a broad spectrum of mediums and materials. Does each of them convey different meanings to you? How do they relate to each other?

I like to think of my practice as being one of both following rules and respecting history, but also breaking them as well. Part of my practice which is rooted in drawing and ceramics is one of both listening and responding. Most recently, I have been working on different bodies of work simultaneously and when they are finished really depends on following through the rules I have set for the work. 

You often use affordable materials to create your art. Is that a way of communicating specific intentions?

Well, part of that is frankly from the reality that when I was younger, I couldn’t afford paint and more expensive art materials, so out of a desire and necessity to want to still make work decided to make work with what I had available. Later, I was I able to properly articulate that that was a conversation really about class, accessibility, and essentially who can afford and make certain types of work.

Can you tell us about ‘Doorway’? What is the genesis of this work?  

This body of work started in 2017 around the passing of someone close to me. Now, almost five years later, finishing this body of work that started essentially by asking questions about the afterlife, became also the space in-between the living and the dead. I like to think this particular work is about the notion of doorways, passages, contemplations. Maps of the body, Maps of the mind, Geographies of memories. Blueprints of what we leave behind. Doorway can be in some way thought of as a map. But also, my father who was one of my most earnest and best critiques would probably say it is just a lovely balanced drawing of shapes and color. 

You have previously said that different types of drawings have different types of sounds. Could you tell us more about how you view musicality in visual arts? 

As mentioned, I have always had an interest in systems, logic, patterning and sound which was part of my interest in science and mathematics. In some ways I have always been invested in the possibility of merging the natural with the synthetic. This comes through with the colored pencil drawings because they are a marriage of both rule following but also improvisation which I think are also central themes found within many artistic disciplines such as jazz, improvisation, etc.

Do you listen to music when you work?

Yes, of course. But to be honest for the past couple of years in the studio I have worked in silence. I think this is mostly related to just the speed and how loud the world we live in is. The time to make work in the studio is a privilege so have come to really appreciate the ability to just be quiet and check in with myself and listen. Also, I think it helps me focus better sometimes? Although I love music, most recently I did create a playlist for a Queer Magazine Bud’s Digest ( which I have been enjoying listening to and also most recently New Order’s Substance album is keeping my spirits lifted.

William J. O'Brien, Doorway, 2021

View work

What does a typical day at your studio look like?  

Depends on the day. I am professor and now chair of the Ceramics Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, so my schedule is fairly regimented. Actually, when I have less time to procrastinate, I am more productive in the studio. But essentially my days usually start with yoga, procrastination, etc. I'm more of a morning, early afternoon art maker so usually will try to focus during that time. I think I have come to appreciate that there is a time and place for everything, and in the most recent chapter of my life I have come to love mentoring and helping artists, teaching meditation, watching TV with my partner, napping and then with all other free time making art. I most recently have become aware of the preciousness of time so really have tried to get rid of as much bullshit as I can to be able to make art with whatever free time I have. 

What and who inspires you?

This is always a trick question. I am inspired by genuineness, boldness, weirdness, humour, the good, the bad, evil and beautiful in whatever form that manifests.

If you could own any piece of art, what would it be?

Another trick question. Too hard to answer but if I had the privilege, I would love to be able to visit the Monet rooms at Musée de l'Orangerie at will. After my studio fire in 2012 I was at wits end and not sure of the power and magic of art. When I entered those rooms for the first time I felt I finally got Monet and also realigned the values I feel about art- It is always important and essential despite what external obstacles we are presented with.   

What are you working on at the moment?

Drawings and just finished a body of ceramics orbs that I would like to show in different sacred spaces during the four seasons

Untitled, 2017 
Photo © Evan Jenkins

Shame Spiral, Atlanta Contemporary, 2019
Photo © Erin Jane Nelson, Courtesy Marianne Boesky Gallery NYC and Aspen

Photo © Evan Jenkins