Michele O’Brien is a collage and mixed media artist working out of her home studio in Somerville, Ma. She studied at the DeCordova Museum School, the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, and the Massachusetts College of Art. Her artwork has been shown during Somerville Open Studios and in various group shows, including a 2020 Emerging Artists juried exhibition at the Cambridge Art Association. Her work appears in WTP Vol. X #3.
Interview with Michele O’Brien
By Jennifer Nelson, WTP Feature Writer
Nelson: Can you talk about how the sculptural plays into your collage works?
O’Brien: Well, it’s interesting because of course my collages are 2D, but when I work with my hands using paper and glue, it feels like I’m almost sculpting something. Sometimes there are many layers in a piece; layers that can’t be seen any longer, layers that are only partially visible. When I am making a collage, I can feel that layered depth of paper with my fingers, especially when I use textured papers. I enjoy the tactile aspect of collage making, and that’s perhaps why I reference the sculptural in my process.
Nelson: How did you come to collage as your primary medium? What other mediums have you worked in?
O’Brien: I’ve experimented with things like wire sculpture and weaving, woodworking, watercolors, printmaking, and jewelry. But collage grew as a key interest because I find it to be a medium both simple and profound. At its most basic, it’s just paper and glue on a surface. But I am constantly amazed at other collagists’ work and the meaning that can be conveyed by collage imagery. My work tends toward the abstract, but I think there can be meaning found there too.
Nelson: Tell us about your medium — what kind of papers do you use, some which lend your works an actual painterly quality, with their solid, often vivid colors?
O’Brien: I use a mixture of papers, from magazines, newspaper, and junk mail to fine art papers, tissue papers, origami, and papers I’ve painted or drawn myself. I take inexpensive papers and paint or print on them making patterns and drawings and use segments of those in a collage. Creating my own papers allows me the freedom to access the colors and patterns I want, so I don’t have to rely on collecting endless amounts of commercial paper. Also, I find it has a more interesting quality when it is hand painted rather than commercially printed.
Lately. I’ve been incorporating transfers a lot and I really love the texture and distressed look of both the transfer and the source sheet after gluing. The act of transferring an image onto another piece of paper can change the image in fascinating ways—it’s always exciting to anticipate what will come out.
Nelson: What artists have you looked to for inspiration, and what places you’ve visited have influenced your artwork?
O’Brien: There are too many artists to name, but I’ll name a couple anyway! Matisse’s paper cut-out work was something I saw when I was young and just loved; that expertise in use of color and shape has stayed with me as an influence.
A contemporary artist, whom I don’t know personally but who has influenced me a great deal is Xochi Solis. She makes collaged paintings that I find stunning and endlessly engaging, plus she’s a DJ, so how cool is that?
As far as travel, in recent years (pre-Covid) I’ve been lucky to view Indigenous Canadian art at museums and galleries in Ottawa and Vancouver. I am enthralled by the artwork from those communities and inspired by the creativity of contemporary Indigenous artists like Francis Dick who address both pain and beauty in their work.
Nelson: What is a typical workday like for you in your home studio?
O’Brien: It depends on the day. Some days I have more time and can spend hours focused on collage work, other days I am doing Instagram posts and submitting to calls for art or taking an online class. At some point each day, I am inevitably interrupted by my cat who demands attention regardless of whether my hands are covered in glue or not.
Nelson: How do you see your art evolving in the future?
O’Brien: Interesting question! I am thinking about incorporating more mixed media into my work. To go back to your earlier question about the sculptural aspect of collage, I think I might like to add more of a 3D effect. I’ve also considered trying digital collage, though that’s a whole new endeavor that I’d need to commit some serious time to. We’ll see. I am always striving to expand my skills, so I am excited to see what arises in the future. Sometimes art takes you to places you can’t predict, and you just must see where it goes—that’s part of the challenge and fun of it.
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