Featured Artist Kelly O’Brien plays with fire, literally. 

Working primarily with paper, and attracted to its paradoxical qualities of ephemeral strength, Kelly O'Brien manipulates her medium in seemingly destructive ways.

Even when burned, scored, sewed into, torn, and ripped, the final product often emerges as far more interesting and beautiful than the original form. 

After leaving a 20+ year career working for the U.S. government and other large organizations, Kelly was presented with an opportunity to pursue her art practice on a full-time basis.  

Now, she fully explores paper as her medium of choice. Kelly O'Brien is interested in how her materials can transform and reinvent themselves into something new—not unlike an adult who continues to learn and grow.

She proves that it's never too late to pursue your art career full-time. After decades of working in a different field entirely, she happily welcomes the lessons and explorations her full-time art career has to offer.   

Artwork Archive got the chance to chat with Kelly O'Brien about her creative process, career, and some of her recent achievements. You can see more of her work on Discovery and learn more about her art practice below. 

Kelly M O'Brien, Playing With Fire, No. 90, 40 x 18 x 2 in

 

When did you realize that paper was your primary medium of choice?

I’ve had a love affair with materials—especially paper—since my early training as a book artist, which I discovered ages ago while working through Julia Cameron’s classic book The Artist’s Way. The materiality of books—paper, thread, stitch—has been a constant throughout my practice to this day.

 

You mention that you are attracted to the paper's "paradoxical qualities of ephemeral strength." Can you talk more about the ephemeral strength of this material and how that relates to your work? 

The original creative spark for my burnt paper series was my response to an open call for a paper biennale in France.

The task was to use French poetry as inspiration for paper art. In l’Encre, poet Silvia Baron Supervielle describes the spark of creativity when her pen touches paper. After much experimentation, I learned that paper is more resilient than it appears.

Even when manipulated in seemingly destructive ways—scoring, burning, stitching, tearing, slicing—what emerges is often more interesting and beautiful than the original form. I am interested in how materials can transform and reinvent themselves into something new.

Kelly M O'Brien, Playing With Fire, No. 27.5 x 19.5 x 4 in

Do you have a favorite part of your creative process?

When I get an idea for new work, the first stage is to immerse myself in the context, or influences, of a project. This could be landscape references or historical/personal narratives for the collector. After researching the context, I experiment with materials.

 

When I let go of outcomes, the materials always lead me to interesting places.

 

Especially with a new series, an improvisational, collaborative approach with the materials is the key.

You left a 20+ year career in Leadership and Management Development which gave you the opportunity to pursue your art practice full-time. Can you speak more about the decision to change directions and what that process has been like? 

The Artist’s Way, in combination with an overseas move, was a catalyst for a career change from business to fine art. During that period, I pursued training and then practiced art full-time. This started with basic art workshops to completing my MFA in 2019.

In 2015, I was very fortunate to be approached by several hospitality art consultancies when an image of a piece went viral on Pinterest. I’ve been working steadily with art consultants worldwide since then.

Kelly M O'Brien, Playing With Fire, No. 22, 32 x 32 x 2.65 in

Is there anything, in particular, you're working on right now that has you excited?

This love of paper has continued with two newer series: 'Stitch' and 'PaperCuts.'

'Stitch' emerged as we moved into pandemic lockdowns. I reached for work to help keep me grounded and focused—a daily visit to the sewing machine and the meditative practice of stitching into paper soon grew into a series that is now in several collections.

More recent inspiration led me to the workbench once again, this time to slice long sentences of handwritten text from paper. I envision them evolving into poetry or prose to reflect the context or location where they are installed.

I’m currently working with text from Mary Oliver’s Upstream: Selected Essays.

Kelly M O'Brien, Stitch Study 12, 8.5 x 8.5 in

Why did you decide to use Artwork Archive to inventory/manage your artwork? How do you use Artwork Archive on a daily basis?

I’ve been using Artwork Archive as an indispensable tool for my practice since 2014.

I love how easy it is to quickly respond to dealer inquiries about existing inventory, or create a sales report to validate my track record with a new client. There’s peace of mind knowing exactly where my work is, having a detailed record of which collections it’s in, and seamless integration with my website.

Artwork Archive helps me offer a highly professional interface to my collectors and dealers and keeps me organized behind the scenes. I couldn’t live without it at this point!

Kelly M O'Brien, Playing With Fire, No. 83, 31 x 37 x 1.5 in

What advice would you give an emerging artist during this time?

I’ve recently relocated back to the US and am, in a sense, starting over again.

The advice I’d give to emerging artists is the same advice I’ll give myself:

1. Get into the studio and do the work:

First and foremost, you’ve got to have an art practice and make good work.

2. Network strategically but authentically:

Build relationships for the long term; be generous with and support your peers.

3. Pay attention:

Pay attention to your professional practice. Get organized, learn how to market, and don’t be afraid of money.

4. Keep going:

A steady pipeline of opportunities will eventually pay off and mitigates rejection. Take risks and keep growing.

Kelly O'Brien uses Artwork Archive to track her artwork, create professional reports, and manage all the moving parts of her art career. 

You can make an online portfolio, catalog your artwork, and generate reports like inventory reports, tear sheets, and invoices in seconds with Artwork Archive. Take a look at Artwork Archive's free trial and start growing your art business.