Nature and Abstraction
Róisín O’Sullivan in conversation with curator Miguel Amado in response to the solo show “I See Skies” at Triskel Arts Centre, Cork, 2022-23
Miguel Amado in conversation with Róisín O’Sullivan
Miguel Amado: What inspires your work—both the mediums you choose and your subject matter?
Róisín O’Sullivan: In my paintings, I explore process, surface, and experimentation within the picture plane. I also engage and experiment with wood burning and carving techniques. Both bodies of work stem from my own experience of nature but slip into abstraction through intuition and mark making during the studio process. I like to think I take a playful yet considered approach. I appreciate sensibility, delicacy, and ambiguity, and also subtle references to varied influences so as to make the experience of my work thought provoking. Because I consistently look to the landscape as a source of inspiration, line and repetition are always evident no matter the medium. The works take the complexity and fragility of nature as their abstracted subject.
MA: How did you begin incorporating wood as a fundamental element of your work?
ROS: For several years, I have experimented with burning and carving into the surfaces of found wood pieces. They are vast and very different, as they have lived many lives, from trees to factories. Some are raw and others are reclaimed. They carry their own memories and have memories for me, in that they’re associated with the people who gave them to me or where I sourced them. Each surface is unique and precious, waiting to be selected and worked on. I slowly honed my skills in burning, carving, and painting on wood, taking time to establish a visual language that is responsive to surface and to the experience of nature. These pieces also explore abstract mark making through the application and removal of paint. The gestures and layering of paint indicate the influence of land and natural forms. I sometimes use a blowtorch as I would use a large paintbrush to make large sweeps of burnt marks. I also use a Dremel as a drawing tool to cut marks, and sometimes dig deeper with Dremel blades and hand tools to carve out larger areas.
In addition to shop-bought wood, reclaimed wood, and found wood, I also amass various types of papers. The condition of these surfaces makes them a source of investigative interest. Sourcing different forms of wood, I delve deeper into the surface by burning and carving within the layers, causing tension between paint and woodcut techniques. The grains, knots, and other conditions often influence the form and content of the piece. The paint works with the edges, marks, and holes, creating a visible visual language amid the rawness and depth of surface.
I also experiment with wood turning. This has created new meaning to how I use wood as a material and new thoughts on how a viewer might interact with the sculptural forms.
MA: How does your studio practice informs your exhibitions?
ROS:My works, whether in paint or in wood, are often purposefully small in scale, with the intimacy of the viewing experience playing a significant part in their creation and presentation. When I say “intimacy,” I’m referring to both making marks on the surface and also the experience of the viewer in the gallery. The relationships created among the works are very important, as they change and become more evident once the pieces move from the studio to the gallery. How the viewer interacts with each surface is such an important aspect of the display strategy. The relationships among surface, scale, and markings encourage the viewer to look both from a distance and up close.
MA: How did the Tony O’Malley residency in 2022 affect the trajectory of your practice? Did your access there to nature inspire a new use of materials or new ideas?
ROS: Something shifted in my work there, but it is difficult to pinpoint how it happened. It may have been the isolation, or the immediacy of nature all around, or the vagaries of life—or maybe all combined. It was certainly a significant time to reflect and truly spend time on my own, with my thoughts and studio work. I felt that I let go within my process in a new way.
During the summer months, I used the sun as a tool to create drawings and paintings of the shadows of plants. It was difficult at times. Some days I couldn’t work if the weather was bad, or if the sun floated behind thick clouds. I had to keep a keen eye on the sky to mark where the sun was, rushing out to the garden to make quick drawings when it slowly came out from behind the clouds, making visible silhouettes that transformed into dark shadows on the ground. At times the sun would blister down persistently, allowing me rare opportunities to work for longer periods to capture the marks of shadows, but even then, I was always acutely aware of my limited time. I was specifically looking to the work of Roger Ackling, who used the power of the sun through a magnifying glass to burn and carve driftwood in beautiful ways. The idea of using natural forces to make marks or artworks was very compelling.
The garden was a place I would sit or lie between working sessions, looking to the sky. It naturally transformed with each season, and the light cast a range of shadows that became curious for me. Even in the studio, which overlooked the garden with large glass doors and windows, the presence of the sky and changes of light would influence my mood and mode of working. The sky was a constant presence throughout the house, as it was largely made of glass. The outside always present inside. The light of day, always known. The feeling of the world continuing outside, always there.
I collected more and more items from local walks. Twigs, leaves, berries, long shoots of orchard grass. They belonged to something important in where they were grown, their own wild surroundings, and then when they entered the studio, they took on yet new meanings. They sat or hung with the paintings and drawings, transforming art pieces into objects with another purpose. The intention: to capture the feeling of curiosity—looking, feeling, belonging to and being of nature.
MA: How did you develop your new series on view in I See Skies?
ROS: The work started at the Tony O’Malley residency, where I began multiple paintings and carvings over a period of eight months. As I experimented further with wood burning and carving, I also developed drawings and paintings in the shadows of plants in the house’s garden. The work captures all the interests that I’ve developed over several years, such as collecting different types of wood, burning and carving into wood, and painting. It has brought about a significant change in my aesthetic when it comes to making marks both on (via paint) and deep within (via carving and related methods) a surface. I focused intimately on each surface, experimenting further by creating curious intuitive marks that have finally come to feel very natural. It has all developed over time, with many periods of not painting or working, just looking. I have a new appreciation for these periods of looking as the work slowly builds its layers, creating new depths to the surface of each piece through mark making, gesture, and repetition. These works engage in a visual language that captures both natural phenomena and abstraction, but they are also curious and strange.
MA: What can you say about the title of the exhibition I See Skies?
ROS: It’s inspired by the passing of time, the importance of light, and the constant presence of the sky as a symbol of hope. The title goes from a one-letter word to a three-letter word to a five-letter word, with s’s, i’s and e’s in repetition, playing with the assonance of poetic language to create something both meaningful and meaningless while still connecting words to some sort of place and feeling.
MA: What role does language play in your work?
ROS: My work has always dealt with the so-called biophilia hypothesis, meaning humans’ instinctive inclination to seek connection with nature. But I am reluctant to use that exact terminology in describing my practice, so I usually express its meaning through my own experience and words. I also opt not to use the word “horizon,” as it seems somehow both too specific and too general. Instead, I like to use “where the sky meets the land” to describe something that has been my consistent focus over several years.
MA: Who influences you?
ROS: My inspirations include Agnes Martin, Helen Frankenthaler, Bill Lynch, Forrest Bess, and the Dansaekhwa movement of South Korea. The influence of Asian art is ever-present in my work, and I have also introduced into my practice yakisugi, also known as shou sugi ban, literally “burned cedar,” a traditional Japanese method of wood burning that preserves the material.