in conversation with Alex Nodopaka
Toti O'Brien made art since a teenager in a variety of media, with a definite accent on collage and assemblage. Putting together fragments is the form that best fits her inspiration of the moment. She sold her first collages at the age of 18 in an art gallery in Rome, Italy, the city of her birth. It was a brilliant beginning, not followed by any brilliant development. In fact, her career has been as fragmented as her art work due to various causes. Among them she lists her geographical peregrinations: immigration first to France then to the US, and living several years on tour, managing a small theater company where she also acted and built sets. The variety of her pursuits add to the progress of her art as well as her exploring a gamut of media. She also seriously applies herself to dance, music and writing. Those expressions always made her whole. Although she's a folk musician, she had a classical training; she sings operas and choral music. One could never cast out one without harming the output in its entirety.
Alex Nodopaka: It's been a long time since we met in Pasadena but your art is still on my mind. Would you be kind enough to explain where your latest visual achievements have brought you?
Toti O'Brien: I have you perfectly in mind. You took a picture of me in 2010, at a poetry reading. I think it is the best portrait I ever got by anyone. I'm grateful for that. Recently I have installed a 3 persons show in Glendale. It is a store front with 18 pieces of mine, plus the works of other artists that I chose. It is all assemblage, low relief or 3D. My pieces, although chosen for dimension and theme, are pretty representative of my work. I have another opening at Brand Library, also in Glendale, called Bibliophiles. It includes a very large piece of mine, as wide as the wall on the "book" theme. I'm finishing the piece right now.
Alex Nodopaka: I'm glad to hear that. It sounds like you are venturing with your craft into a variety of fields.
I understand you are fluent in French and Italian but I do not remember us ever speaking French! How did trilingualism come by?
Toti O'Brien: Ah, my mother is Italian and my father French and we spoke both languages at home and English here of course. I don't think we spoke French as I'm a private person, so I would not have mentioned it if I wasn't directly asked. But I remember that you were not from America, and that you spoke other languages. Which is always an asset, because we never know or have seen too much of the world. The more numerous the points of views, the better the understanding.
Alex Nodopaka: I took a virtual gander through several websites where you show your art but I didn't see any from the time I was at the Poets on Site Salon in Pasadena. I'm still into your visuals of then and appreciate your present talismanic venture.
Thank you for the portrait compliment. I remember shooting over a dozen of you reciting very expressively your poetry. You literally acted out a poetry performance. Plus I have many of you exhibit-dancing. In regard us seeing ourselves in portraiture the way we like to see ourselves is quite another story. It's natural for instance when I shave every morning I really do not see myself. Maybe it's different with women. Do you closely analyze yourself when looking in the mirror? The reason I ask is that I want to hear your side of all the artistic ventures you undertake and how it makes you such a well-rounded artist.
Toti O'Brien: I have always worked in all possible media - it has long been a problem just because everyone I knew advised me not to. It wasn't a problem any more when I stopped listening.
Alex Nodopaka: Thank you for reminding me of the portrait you like best. I must say that's the only romantic view of you because you were very intense in your character performance when dancing or reciting poetry. This portrait has an Italian Madonna feel about it.
Tell us about your artworks. For instance how you were inspired and why and what and where. What were the particular motivations periods of your life during the time you were doing them. Also, I was wondering do you continue painting in a similar vein or you are into a new cycle?
Toti O'Brien: Yes I continue painting. I suppose the vein is the same, although referring to the images you chose certainly I don't allow myself the freedom of sexual representation I was used to. Its echoes are too different in Europe and in the US. In Europe, nobody especially notices. In US that strikes the audience. I don't like shock value. So, no: you won't find genitalia or hands on genitalia in my paintings, for sure. Not anymore. Here, people would only see hands on genitalia, in the entire painting. They won't even see the painting.
Alex Nodopaka: Thank you reflecting on that specific part of your work.
Toti O'Brien: It is always a great opportunity to reflect on one's work in retrospect.
Alex Nodopaka: Judging by your statement you came to realize that life is made of moments and we selectively choose to relive or kill or alter their memories. Your frankness and intimate explanations about the inspiration behind the paintings is exactly what I wished to hear from you. It is good to revisit our art and review it with a fresh mind. I'm glad you skipped the technical parts and stayed with what is the essence about your art.
Toti O'Brien: My nature is frank but I protect my privacy and have no wish for exposing my privacy.
Alex Nodopaka: I know you have been involved in doll-making. You went through a period of doll-making among several other pursuits not the least that you are also a musician and a dancer. Are the dolls strictly of a commercial nature or did they develop with other meaning? Please tell us.
Toti O'Brien: Yes, I did dolls my whole life. Hundreds of them because I started at 15. I always sold them unless I gave them as gifts, as it happened many many times, but they were never of a commercial nature. I made each one as inspiration dictated, and because of inspiration. People happened to like them.
Alex Nodopaka: Tell us about your 'blue' and 'red' painting periods. The fragment called "Season" is part of a current manuscript. Some parts of the manuscript have been published, but not that one.
Toti O'Brien: I'm interested in what motivates artists to pursue their vocations or avocations from a non-commercial perspective. For instance I've been doing art since I was born. I call it cave climbing... haha! I may have committed to my mother's womb walls my first cave paintings.
Alex Nodopaka: What are your thoughts about artists of the '50s and particularly abstract-expressionism? The reason I ask is that each individual artist has a interesting story of opinions and each one's craft deserves a history book, especially those who have a long history of creating art. Would you elucidate on that?
Toti O'Brien: No, I am not especially fond or influenced by abstract expressionism and I don't think it is ok to write or make art for no retribution. It unfortunately happens most of the time: it is a form of abuse. Like any other, very difficult to fight. But absolutely unjustified and unacceptable.
Alex Nodopaka: What inspires your art?
Toti O'Brien: Recently the show Charms where all pieces exhibited are on the Fine Arts Page of my website. We had a marvelous audience response. Yes, it was a miracle, I don't know if due to Thanksgiving or Christmas goblins, if we can mix religions. People asked a lot of questions about the meaning of each piece. It was challenging, intimate and even painful to answer.
I also was asked about the piece I have in the "Light of shadow" show, at Brand Gallery. But, fortunately, the people who asked the questions started talking about themselves and totally forgot about wanting an answer. So I could spare myself. On Friday and Saturday I did also a ceramic biannual sale. There I play accordion, in exchange of the booth price - sometimes I also get a residual check.
To interject here: no, I'm not financially independent from art. I do live on art. Which means, very often, on long hand - manual - menial derivations from art. And of course, for 35 years, from temporary art teachings, to all sort of people, all ages, all languages. Now, much less teaching, because I just cannot anymore.
Alex Nodopaka: How was your last ceramic exhibit?
Toti O'Brien: At the ceramic fairs customers ask pointed, deep questions - especially on the figurines I intersperse with functional pieces. Those questions often come from simple, uneducated, unaware people. They are in general right on target and I give my most sincere replies. I always feel those people don't look for intellectual frosting, not even context clues or language finesses, that I admittedly could provide but won't. They look for something deeper, something that eventually could matter to them. I like those kind of questions.
How about you?
Alex Nodopaka: I am pleased to see your excellence with ceramic. I enjoyed very much your vessels and your abstract cubist expressionist (haha!) approach to their style of execution. They are exquisitely executed! So how come you told me you have no interest in abstract expressionism when you are a master at it? I love most of the angular pieces maybe because of my mechanical engineering and architectural backgrounds combined with Russian Constructivist and Suprematist art movements.
I am not overlooking your dolls. To the contrary I realize their minutiae details and facial expressions. I love how you compose many into "windows". Windows on life? I figure you have an attachment to children, maybe your own?
I think you are also a Renaissance artist by the variety of art you undertake. So keep at it.
Toti O'Brien: Yes I love ceramics - I know you work with bronze. Do you first do the piece with clay? I imagine you do. I'm fascinated by the process of bronze casting. Of the images that you see in "vessels" I have very little left. The "boat vase" - that I oddly favor, although it's certainly not in a popular taste - the "long beach blue" - may be the "small blue vase" are in the angular category.
I truly don't thing abstract expressionism is something I mastered - but I've seen all sort of art, tons of art. Not only, in a way, I love it all: the tons of art have influenced and still influence me in manners that I don't own or control. So maybe abstraction has influenced me at an early stage.
Alex Nodopaka: Do you recall some of the artists that you liked when you were a child?
Toti O'Brien: As a child, I've adored Paul Klee and some Kandinsky, certainly the very late Picasso. I think those are sufficient imprints to get somehow one's hand freed. Especially when the "meeting" is powerful and it happens at a very young age.
Alex Nodopaka: What about the poetry chapbooks cover art? I am impressed by the artwork adorning their covers. I also notice your communion with Frida Kahlo and suspect a sisterhood related to her pain associated with love and abandonment. It comes through strongly through your poetry and some art pieces. Speaking of chapbooks what can you tell me about Discomfort Zone, The Composer, Forever and Ever?
Toti O'Brien: As for the chapbooks covers. Yes, it is my work besides the first one, where my publisher chose a picture of me in performance that he found online. He surprised me that way. Then, seeing my chronic incapacity for advertising myself, I thought I might as well catch two birds with one stone and have my visuals corroborate my words.
The art titled, Discomfort Zone (Fig 1.) is a detail of a piece called "Crucifige". The piece itself is very tall executed in black and white. The figure, only a torso, is a drawing. I truly enjoy drawing the human figure so I have many, often rapidly done, that I cut and leave in a corner. I "resuscitate" them, yes I do, when they look the way I feel at the moment. That certainly happened to this one. The background is a mixture of acrylic and collage: it hints at a cross made of snakes and worms. I don't have an interpretation for the piece: that is up to others. It belongs to a series called "Una Storia Sbagliata" (A wrong/incorrect story). Many pieces in that series have been exhibited but not this one. They are unframed rolled pieces, all very large, easily scrolled down the wall. Larger than life size. They all have been done in a minuscule and crowded garage, where I convinced myself to work small but the hugest work grew.
"The Composer" (Fig. 2.) is a much smaller piece (18x24) belonging to a previous series. The title of the series is in French after the famous song, but with words not separated, "Jenecroiraiquatoi" (I'll believe only in you) The acrylic paintings of the series have only numbers. The inspiration for this one is poet Pier Paolo Pasolini - one of my childhood's heroes. I was haunted by his murder, that happened very close to where I lived, when I was 15. I remember the morning after his murder. There are many controversial facts about it, that have tortured my mind for decades. I think that set the pattern for a need of searching beyond the "official truth". Both in large events - and in very small. I suppose all the portraits in this series have to do with a controversial truth - the personal one begin totally different from what is publicly accepted. The series has several Frida Khalo, Pasolini and French musician Bertrand Cantat accused in 2004 - the year I painted the series - of having killed his girlfriend Marie Trintignant. Although I didn't see the link at the time - clearly the 2 series of paintings above are a sequel. Je ne croirai - Una storia. etc.
"For ever and ever" (Fig 3.) is a small painting/collage/assemblage on canvas. It came, I think, as a diversion during the above flow of paintings. It is called "She-angel" #1, and I have done a few more, in different size, all with lots of pink in it. They are all realistic/or/not female figures, normally with some piece amiss - and one wing. The one/winged creature is clearly part of my early childhood imagination. There are least two children stories where I caught the one/wing virus.
Yes: the words communion and sisterhood perfectly describe my relation to Frida Kahlo. I wrote about her and also gave a lecture, in Italy, many years ago - since she was then entirely unknown in that country. I discovered her late, in my early forties, at a time I had an illness that I wasn't supposed to survive. Thus, it was easily to identify. But while I studied her, the number of analogies I found where impressive. I think it has been a highly fortifying discovery. I feel Frida is now a permanently introjected strength. Anyway, artists, writers and musicians from the past have always been my best friends, my teachers and my mentors.
Alex Nodopaka: What is your relationship to dolls and particularly the ones set inside open frames where you can see the wall?
Toti O'Brien: I've done lots of dolls creeping in and out of frames. I love frames. I should look way back in childhood, again, to explain you why, and it is probably too long. It has much to do with my father. But apparently (and certainly not consciously) my main idea of a frame is how to make it impermanent, how to make it open, how to climb in and out of it. This is what a doll does. I think the "doll with frame" also suggests that a doll has more to do with a story to imagine - or dig out - than with mere identification/ projection of feelings.
Alex Nodopaka: You truly are a Renaissance woman. You undertake many mediums.
Toti O'Brien: Renaissance woman? I suppose this concept applies to you, mostly. Renaissance man. But I get it. I often think of Middle Age, even. It was normal, then, to be like we are. When people explored knowledge they didn't think of separation, they though of unity. They made music and they gathered medicinal plants, they wove on the loom and they projected machines: based on the same impulse. I think they were in their right spirit, aimed in the right direction. I think the world then lost track of direction.
Hopefully it will find it back. I don't agree with the common definition of "touche-a-tout", to define someone who's finally good for nothing. In fact, il faut toucher a tout, to do even the smallest simple thing. Frame must be left open. Absolutely.
Alex Nodopaka: Thank you for the depth of your explanations. If I understand you it is that many of your pieces are somehow autobiographic or at least have a start in your subconscious. I do relate to that even though much of my own work of late is art for the sake of art with intellectual searching. In other words how many sunrises or sunsets or coastal seashores or landscapes can one produce before falling into a compositional similitude that nearly overlaps each other according to the perfect compositional S curve.
Your work is interesting because much of it deals with your intimate persona instead of some far fetched art concepts. Also personal art has obviously a personal story so in a way I feel like a voyeur by asking you their meaning. It's like sharing secrets!
As a matter of fact do you ever plan on attacking art for the sake of art? I saw some exquisite ceramics executed by you and I wouldn't mind drinking from their abstract pointy planar beaks. You have the famous architect Frank Gehry and Kandinsky and Klee in you! I also admire very much your gurus.
I am always impressed how you and so many of us have come close to losing or at least maiming our lives. I really understand your affinity to Frida who made it her lifelong calling besides being an outstanding example of femininity.
Tell us about the inspiration for the artwork of Two Dancing (Fig. 4.)?
Toti O'Brien: There are no secrets concerning my work. On one end, as soon as a piece is made the secret if there was one to start which I doubt is out there for the public to make it its own. On the other end, a distance is always preserved: whatever people "know" or "think they know" about us is always extremely little. that is why there is really no reason, in general, for telling lies. The truth we reveal is always less than the point of the iceberg. We ourselves don't handle much more. So, there is no voyeurism involved in you getting true explanations.
Art for the sake of art: don't I do that all the time? Of course. I don't start painting because "I want to say something about myself". I start painting because of form, materials, colors, shapes, texture. for my eyes and my fingers demand so. Then, obviously it is autobiographic: because even when we fetch a cardboard box from the garage we do some autobiography. It's in the way we walk, etc. Inescapable!
Two dancing: the painting is called "D'ApresManRay" because it is d'apres Man Ray.
The B&W photograph (I love B&W photography, it is one of my favorite art to look at) is very famous. I know that I transformed the original slightly and purposely, beside putting it in colors. I think I only added the brush/stylo/weapon in the man's hand, the blood or ink and his drip, probably the decorations on the sofa. probably the woman's hair. More in a lucid mood than dramatic - for what I recall. It is still under "new" paintings, but it was made more than 7 years ago.
Alex Nodopaka: What about your latest artwork?
Toti O'brien: The latest is an installation on view at Brand Gallery in Glendale - about 4 feet by 8, until Jan 17, 2014. I don't have photos yet. Immediately earlier is the series called Blood Line. Almost all pieces of that series are in the show Charms. Only one of the series is absent, because it is huge involving two mannequins and because it is so explicit. Although I find it insane to clear all sexual reference from one's work. Insane in the real meaning of the term, I have learned to be very rigorous about it here. I don't exhibit or publish anything clearly sexual, if not in the very few venues that call for it.