Rappahannock Review Contributor Spotlight: Interview with Toti O’Brien
Rappahannock Review Art Editor: You have a distinctive multimedia style in your work. Describe your method and process in creating these pieces.
Toti O’Brien: Every new body of work has some element of novelty and surprise, as the impulse that generates it is a wish for discovery. Therefore I don’t really have a method, though I have noticed common threads in my practice. My pieces always begin with an abstract composition, never planned, achieved relatively fast. Organizing shapes, textures and colors on a surface in a way that feels organic and meaningful is what I initially do. Slowly I add layers, gradually detailing the initial geography, always trying to maintain an organic balance. I proceed towards smaller and smaller, alternating techniques. I paint over the elements I apply. I apply over the paint, or I carve within it. There are multiple layers, things transparent, things hidden. As I overlap, narrative suggestions appear. I follow them loosely. At some point the piece feels saturated, complete. At that point, I usually know what it is about.
RR: How do you find inspiration for your art (Jupiter’s moons, for example), and how do you translate these sources of inspiration into your work without being literal?
TB: I could say that inspiration finds me and I think it is correct, as I never search for a theme. They emerge, and are the things that fascinate me in life. Certainly the cosmos is one of them, and nature in general, the urban environment (especially houses), the human body. These themes cross and interact without me being conscious of it. I believe this very con-fusion makes the work less literal. For example I have done lots of ‘planets’, realizing early on they also meant ‘people’—individuals seen in both their loneliness, and uniqueness. I have done lots of ‘maps’, realizing they were also ‘bodies’—landscapes of muscles, bones, flesh and blood. So there’s always some kind of spontaneous metaphor, luckily widening interpretation and letting the work breathe.
RR: Describe the role text plays in some of your pieces.
TO: I am a writer and a musician. Since childhood, all of art has been one for me. Old copies of my writing or scores end up in the studio. I paint over them. I glue, I file wood, I cast resin over a slush pile of poetry or song. As I work, words are shapes and constellations under my eyes. As I casually read them they sparkle an image or a shape. They end up on a canvas quite naturally. Very often the titles of my pieces are lines of my poems, and the other way around.
RR: Describe your personal aesthetic as an artist and the concepts you keep in mind when creating your work.
TO: If aesthetic means what I like, that is so many things… My taste is quite open. I am usually attracted by contrast and complexity, and sometimes by simplicity! Maybe by the contrast between complexity and simplicity. I am attracted by multi-sensoriality—work, for instance, that appeals to the sense of touch together with that of sight. Henceforth the love for texture and layers.
As I work, I thrive for authenticity. Each piece is a total commitment. I don’t let it go until it says it is ‘found’. Each piece is a risk. I don’t go for something I already know. I need to discover something each time.
RR: Describe your evolution as an artist. When did you begin making art and how has your method shifted over time in terms of medium, subject matter, and technique? When and how did you develop your unique style?
TO: I have started painting and sculpting when I was a child and I have never stopped. Collage (and assemblage when I work in 3D) has always been a magnet for me, an elective media to which I often return. But I was attracted by a number of techniques, and I have alternatively worked with all of them. Such variety served a purpose. I have strived to master as many media as possible, to be able to follow whatever path a piece might suggest. At this stage of my life, ‘collage’ finally means the free mingling of all techniques I have experimented . Of course I have lots and lots to learn still, at my greatest delight.
Toti O’Brien’s work appears in Issue 5.2 here.