On Tuesday I started a Q&A with Robyn O’Neil, who is included in the American Folk Art Museum show Dargerism: Contemporary Artists and Henry Darger. We’re talking about influence and how the work of other artists finds its way into O’Neil’s work. Here are parts one and two. I originally thought this would be a three-parter, but it will actually be four. Part four will run on Monday.
MAN: It seems to me that Staring into the blankness, they fell in order to begin [above, and the 'first' work in the Dargerism show] is deeply influenced by Gustave Courbet’s magnificent Gust of Wind, which is in the collection of the MFA Houston, where you live.
Robyn O’Neil: Ahhh, Gust of Wind. [Left.] I love it as much as you do. The economy in the conception of this painting is so marvelous. It’s a gust of wind. It’s simple, but huge. It’s invisible and it’s not. It’s so pared down that is is perfect. And that damn sky! I was a volunteer weather watcher for most of my adult life. That means you log the highs and lows of the day and take rain gauge measurements, and then call them in to your favorite meteorologist. A true nerd’s
obsession. (Henry Darger was also obsessed with the weather and constantly wrote about the temperature. He took particular pleasure in noting when the newspaper’s weather predictions were wrong.)
I think it was the mere mention of wind in Courbet’s painting that did it for me and I was reading a fabulous book called Defining the Wind by Scott Huler. It’s basically a long essay on how the Beaufort Scale, and wind in general, is poetry. Such a great sentiment. I also loved the quote in the beginning from Hemingway (writing to John Dos Passos): “Remember to get the weather in your goddamned book — weather is very important.” I couldn’t agree more.
MAN: So I’m guessing that as you started Staring…, that you started in the upper left, with that dramatic bit of weather in the Courbet?
RO’N: Absolutely. That was the jumping off point. I don’t know if it is to you, but I always thought it was a gorgeous passage but also so incredibly strange. Look at the way the weather is at a 45 degree angle, and on a diagonal. As someone who makes images, I look at nature all the time and you realize how those things happen constantly, things that look bizarre in a painting or drawing aren’t bizarre at all. But the way you crop an image can haunt people and make them feel eerie, but it’s natural in real life.
Courbet and Frederic Church did this as well. If that image, the Courbet, were cropped — say he’s planning the painting and we’re it to cut off even six inches further on the left hand side than it does, the weird sweeping of the clouds might not have looked so weird. What I love imagining is a painter like Courbet knowing how much more strange and threatening it looked with that dramatic diagonal. That’s one of the reasons painting resonates with people. Looking at it, it’s a fucking wave, it’s the ocean, it’s a humongous wave in the sky.
Back to your very basic question: The wind and the weather. It’s the weather that was definitely the main thread and connection between my drawing and the Courbet.
MAN: I noticed in the Flickr picture to which I linked yesterday [and at right] that you had tacked up onto the wall of your studio several pictures of dramatic cloud formations, and that next to them was a small sketch for Staring... Were you working off of those too?
RO’N: I have those all over my studio. I forgot about hat. When I’m working on anything there’s usually some image of weather hanging near it. What I’ve been doing for the last seven years is making the world eat up anything human-like. Anything that’s living and is trying to maintain a life is being enveloped by nature or clouds or the weather. It has become bigger and bigger – the atmosphere has – while the people have become tinier and tinier.
When I started doing these pieces many years ago, the men in my drawings were as big as my hand. Now they’re barely the size of my pinky nail. I kept making them smaller and the world bigger so as to literally eat up the humans.
So back to these clouds: Being an avid weather-watcher, I have tons of weather books. I bought doubles of the National Geographic series on weather, so I could cut up one because they have insanely great images of clouds and weather. Those photographs have those pure blacks the way my drawing and Courbet’s painting does.