Carolyn O’Neill is an Australian artist who creates some of the most expressive abstract expressionist works I’ve ever seen www.carolynoneill.com.au. Her drip technique is great and shows up in many of works which are bold and colorfully vibrant. I had a great time chatting with her about her inspirations.
“… I actually don’t know what they are. Each work definitely feels like some kind of journey that changes direction quite often … I don’t think they need to be anything other than intuitive, emotional, abstract compositions ...”
MICHAEL: Carolyn, you work is simply fantastic. Your drip technique is like nothing I've seen and I love the color blocking. What's the inspiration behind those delightful confections?
CAROLYN: That is very kind of you and affirming to hear you say that, given all the artists you have interviewed. I am mindful of the importance of building a consistent body of work in order to develop my own unique style. Technical aspects often get in my way before the inspiration comes. Working with the media and exploring its potential helps me navigate my way on the canvas. My workflow tends to be very instinctive and intuitive, and because of this, I’m often unaware of what inspires me. The impetus of my work tends to be on a more subconscious level.
I am obsessed with mid-century modernist design and dream of one day owning a modernist home to house my ever expanding midcentury vintage collection. My work has become a fusion of the mid-century modernist aesthetic and abstract expressionism.
MICHAEL: Very cool. I love mid-century modern too.
CAROLYN: Drips have become an essential element in my work and are just as important as the brush strokes. I am continually challenging myself with colour combinations and I like using contrasting tones such as olive green and mustard with ice pink, salmon pink or aqua. These juxtapositions help define my work.
MICHAEL: Many of your paintings look like glowing landscapes to me. They seem to be organic depictions of something. Could they be? Are they?
CAROLYN: It’s funny you should say that because sometimes I think they resemble landscapes too. No, I don’t think they are, perhaps I am creating some kind of utopia that I am blissfully unaware of. I actually don’t know what they are. Each work definitely feels like some kind of journey that changes direction quite often. They are ambiguous and that for me is the beauty of abstraction. I am not boxed in, but free to express my emotions.
When I first started painting, I did a few naïve landscapes, but had trouble translating nature and was unsure how to fill the canvas effectively. It was prior to studying visual art and I was just dabbling with very little understanding of art in general. Perhaps this initial frustration led me to pursue abstract expressionism, I’m not sure. I don’t think they need to be anything other than intuitive, emotional, abstract compositions. Many people struggle with that concept and try to find something representational within this style of work. Apart from achieving a balanced composition, I see the expressive application of paint and the elements and principles of design that I incorporate in my work. Elements and principles like, shape, colour, form, texture, repetition, unity, contrast, etc. These are the building blocks of design. My works are visual dialogues absent of words or explanations.
The orientation of my works are often landscape as I like to spread out and need space to move. Subject matter tends to be an afterthought unless I am working to a theme. Just like beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I hope that some kind of meaning can be found in my work. I somehow guess artworks have potential for developing lives of their own.
MICHAEL: You seem to like primary colors. Tell me about your relationship with color. Your colors are bold and technicolor-ish.
CAROLYN: I do like using primary colours, as their possibilities are endless. Sometimes, I also use burnt sienna or raw umber to achieve certain tones. Mixing my own colours has helped me define my palette which differs with each work. Sometimes I feel like a mad scientist creating these concoctions in my laboratory.
My relationship with colour has developed over time and I’ve tested the limits of using limited and monochromatic palettes. I’ve been through a ‘blue’ phase and cringe at that work now. Colour is something that I am always aware of in my surroundings. I am in awe of the modernist midcentury aesthetic and feel subconsciously guided by it.
Over the last couple of years, my knowledge and awareness of the impact of colour has increased. Although I am interested in interior design trends, I prefer not to follow them. Sometimes, simply altering one area of a work can change the whole dynamic and mood. It often takes several layers of paint before I find a combination that works for me. I no longer feel retrained by colour and it has become an essential element in my work.
MICHAEL: When you were a little girl, did you imagine yourself doing what you're doing now?
CAROLYN: No, not at all. It has come as quite a surprise. I had typical girlish dreams of becoming an air hostess or hair dresser, but didn’t pursue them. Art was something I enjoyed as a child, but I don’t think I showed any potential back then. I ended up working in sales until I decided to go to university and study psychiatric nursing which provided a stable career path. There was a curiousity about the fine arts faculty at university and I did go to some of the exhibitions.
Overall, my exposure to art has been very limited, however as time progressed, I started to imagine myself painting in my retirement. It wasn’t until I became inspired by a painted mural at my son’s kindergarten that I enquired about local beginner’s painting classes back in 2003 and I haven’t stopped painting since. Quite a contrast to being an artist I guess. I think the impact of working in that field has left an indelible mark within my work. Perhaps the expressive nature of my work is somehow connected to that exposure of working in psychiatry. It has definitely heightened my awareness of the fragility of the mind, including my own. Painting and creating is my therapeutic outlet.
MICHAEL: What do you think about the contemporary art world/art market today? So many people inside and outside of the art world have mixed feelings. Would you change anything?
CAROLYN: I think it has changed a lot with the plethora of online galleries that seem to be more interested in decorative artwork. Many sites and stores sell inexpensive canvas prints that are impossible to compete with. The same goes for the many boutique home stores that are now selling contemporary art. I see a lot of art that looks unfinished and churned out, but still sells because it’s ‘on trend.’
Thankfully genuine art collectors do exist and are willing to support contemporary artists. There is a lot of art out there that I really don’t get. That’s for sure. It’s fickle and people buy art for different reasons or after they’ve seen it in a magazine or on a television show. I really don’t understand this concept. Why would you want the same art as everyone else?
MICHAEL: I think it comes down to insecurity. I think that many people feel that if they’ve “made a mistake,” at least they’re not the only one out there who fouled up. Sad.
CAROLYN: I refuse to paint or create to the beat of someone else’s drum for the sake of sales and exposure. Slowly but surely, I have forged my own path and wouldn’t change a thing. I am fairly new to the art scene and social media has certainly helped myself and countless other contemporary artists gain exposure and the freedom to stay true to ourselves. Many commercial art galleries have closed down which is unfortunately a sign of the digital age, however many are still thriving and supporting artists which I am grateful for.
MICHAEL: When you're working on a painting, how do you know when it's done? Is it a feeling or what?
CAROLYN: It’s all about achieving balance and harmony. Every little detail, no matter how insignificant, matters and has to connect in some way. I kind of see it as a group conversation where no one is left out.
I guess I do get a feeling of how a work is flowing. If I get stuck and frustrated, I try to walk away before I destroy it. This gives me time to think about what needs resolving. I also photograph my work in stages and look at it on the computer to try and figure out what to do next.
Contrast within a work is really important and I try not to have anything in the centre of the canvas or lines or drips the same length next each other. Sometimes, these details can cause disharmony and are generally very simple to resolve.
So in summing it up, it’s a mixture of both the technical and intuitive aspects that are required in order for a work to feel finished. If I feel like I can’t add anything or remove anything and it doesn’t offend me in any way, it’s finished. It can be an agonizing process though. Many of my pieces already have at least one painting underneath that didn’t ‘work’ which adds more depth in the long run.
MICHAEL: Finally Carolyn, What's the point of art? Why should anybody care about art? Art is not ending poverty or famine in the world. What is the purpose of art?
CAROLYN: The point of art is self-expression and creativity. We are created to create and that’s how we can connect and share our experiences and journeys. Art is human emotion expressed through various mediums. It provides a vehicle for us to share our own unique stories. It gives us permission to open our hearts and souls through word, music, paint, dance etc. Art both inspires and disturbs. It can be a healing process for both the artist and the audience.
I don’t think we are ever fully aware of how these acts of self-expression affect others. Someone’s heartache penned in a song might become part of someone else’s healing. It may not end world poverty, but it can provide a platform to express the plight of the poor and marginalized.
Art is more than aesthetics; it is a universal forum or social commentary for our lives. Highlighting reality and inequality in a capitalist consumer society. History and culture is recorded in art and tribal languages have been developed by it. Art begins with a thought and makes way for the imagination to roam freely. Beauty is magnified and sorrow and grief find a voice. All art is the expression and extension of ourselves. Art has its most profound impact when it is the authentic expression of a deep human experience.
Art surrounds us and is all encompassing. Art is found in architecture, fashion, design, gardens and a glorious sunset. It is as essential to our souls as oxygen is to our bodies. Its effect and interpretation is as individual as a fingerprint and it matters.
MICHAEL: Well said. Thanks Carolyn.
Check out Carolyn O’Neill at www.carolynoneill.com.au