Yesterday I started a three-part 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 is part one.
MAN: One thing I like in your work is that you don’t shy away from making your influences clear, from explicit art historical references. I’m thinking of “The Fall” [below] from last year, for example, which recalls Winslow Homer’s famous “Right and Left.” When starting a piece, do you start with a specific point of reference or influence and go from there? Or as you’re conceiving of a drawing do favorite paintings just kind of pop up in your mind while you’re game-planning?
Robyn O’Neil: I definitely have no hang-ups about these things. On the one hand, it’s inevitable. Anyone who denies that is an egomaniacal idiot. Secondly, it seems important to riff off of one’s influences. Furthering ideas and images that have already proven to be resonant can only aid in progression.
Homer seems to be the artist I “use” the most. I definitely felt like Right and Left was a gorgeous allegory, but doesn’t it look a little goofy? I don’t know if it’s the face of that left-side bird or what, but I thought it could use a revision. Not an “improvement”, of course. Just a revision. Another example is when I did my own version of The Life Line. [O'Neil's version is above] Rather than there being the slightly sexually provocative man/woman pose, [I used] just a lone male struggler. No real hope. [Below.] But I loved what Homer did with that composition. To have no idea from where that harness is coming from is just bizarre. These final hours embrace at last; this is our ending, this is our past (in the Dargerism show) also came from The Life Line’s influence.
The way this happens for me is very natural. While looking at art, certain pieces stand out as something I will want to work with some day. I very consciously catalogue that thought or idea into a certain part of my brain and let it digest. Sometimes it sits there marinating for years. There are some van Gogh drawings that I’ve wanted to work with since I was in 5th grade, and that is not an exaggeration. Who knows when that will take place. That marination process ought to be downright rank by now, so that will surely be interesting.
I don’t make sketches before making my drawings. I write down concepts and edit from there. Once an idea is solid, I’ll quietly look at it and determine from where it came. Often I realize it came directly from the piece I catalogued in my brain years before. So, basically, I don’t sit down and make concrete plans to find a certain piece from art history that will work with my next ideas. I do, however, naturally pull from the subconscious. That means, I hope, the work is closer to me and not affected. Not too overtly derivative.
MAN: Speaking of how you synthesize influences, I saw this image from your studio on Flickr.
RO’N: I make signs and put them all over my house. If I don’t see something written down and in front of me, I won’t do it. Besides drawing, nothing sounds all that enticing. I know I need to eat, but going to the grocery store? In that amount of time, I could have gotten two clouds drawn. Going to an opening? I can see the show
during the week when no one is there and I’ll see it in a quarter of the time it would have taken to see it when 150 people are in the space. I’m paranoid about not having enough time and not doing all I can. So, that is just one sign I made for myself. The ones like this, about trying to be healthy, are all over the place. I had a roommate in college who would write really mean signs to herself to get herself to eat right and work out. The one next to her alarm clock was, “Get your fat ass out of bed”. One on the refrigerator said, “You’re gross.” I thought they were sad, but hilarious.