Mike Carney interviews William J. O’Brien

So Bill, when did you get started making art?

I wasn’t necessarily always an artistic child. I played outside a lot as a child and I feel as if that laid the groundwork of me becoming an artist more than necessarily formally making drawings as a child. It was only when I was in High School, after getting kicked out and being home school. And one of my requirements for home school was to take an art class. So, I took an art class at a community art center and that’s when I actually started making art. So it wasn’t something until later on when I actually became an artist.

When you were making art at the art center did you consider yourself an artist?


Then at what point did you decide that art was something to pursue or a career move?

In undergraduate, I was a math major, but kind of a failed mathematician and I wanted to sort of foster this interest in art. But It wasn’t until I made a conscious decision to leave my interest in math and become an art major that it became something that I considered an avenue to pursue.

Gotch ya.  Was it at that point in your undergraduate studies that you knew that graduate school was going to be the next step?

I really wanted to go to graduate school, but I so really felt like a strong feeling that I wanted to continue my production. And it ‘s so challenging and difficult to do that outside of school. My first interest in going to grad school was when I was 21 I think was really brought about by a desire to continue my production and not really knowing what grad school really is for. And I applied to grad schools and didn’t get in anywhere.  I actually applied to SAIC’s post-bac program and got rejected. So, it’s really funny that I am a professor in ceramics now because I was rejected from the program when I was 21. So now 17 years later I’m now teaching in the department but I never thought I would ever come back in that way.

What do think grad school is for if it’s not just for a continuation of production like you said?

I think grad school is rare opportunity to sort of open yourself up to experimentation, also redefining and focusing yourself in a way to gives you the confidence to continue with your production and hopefully gives you the sense that you can exist outside of the institution and make a living that way. Not always does that happen when you are in grad school. But I think a big part of that is really allowing you the space for experimentation but also the space of focus to really learn what it is to be a studio artist and produce. I also think it’s a rare opportunity, so when it becomes time to actually go to grad school, I think it’s important to have some life experience present, so that you can really appreciate that time. You see, because it is a terminal degree, so you can’t go any further than grad school and an MFA, so it’s really only two years that you are going to have to allow yourself to do that. So, thinking about when would be appropriate to do that is important. Also, I think a big part of it is really like the scarecrow in the wizard of oz. Many times a lot of us just need a credential or a line on the resume to really validate what we are doing. So that becomes part of it as well

So, validation outside of one’s self to keep moving forward? 

Yea, that and a credential.

So, you graduated from SAIC in the Fibers department with an MFA, you become a practicing studio artist, where in that timeline di you begin to think that teaching was something that you wanted to?

I always knew that I wanted to help the world. Before I went to grad school for art, I was seriously considering becoming a social worker because I really knew that I wanted to have a direct relationship with someway of helping people with what I did for a living. I really felt conflicted about the idea of  going to grad school for art because I felt like it was a very self involved  pursuit and I was really unsure as to whether or not it was worth it to do that  because I really did want to have some involvement in helping the world. I also knew that in my own art practice I chose ceramics and drawing as my focus is because I wanted to make sure that the work I made was accessible outside of the art world and has an ability to be more accessible to different kinds of people. I never really thought that I was going to become a teacher. I actually got fired from my job and I sort of fell into this journey of becoming a teacher after that. But I think the fact that I do genuinely have an interest in helping people and now that I have become more established, I certainly want to help my students go further in their careers as something that is important to me. Not just to be only involved in my own progress. Because I do think that there is a long history of more established artists helping other artists get going. So that’s something I’m interested in.

Has teaching cracked up to be what you expected or had hoped it to be?

It’s not what I expected in the sense of maybe encountering unexpected obstacles in terms of my own relationship in working in an institution. But I also think that something has been really surprising and nice about working at the art institute is that I have really genuinely encounter gifted and talented artists that I would have never thought to have come across while teaching, who in many way have served as colleagues and not just students, and that is something that has been unexpected and I have enjoyed. Also, I would never have expected that I would really be able to help people with their career and that is something that I think is starting to happen that I am really excited to see. I also think that every artist always has a battle with authority and rule following and so obviously being in an institution, it proposes this tension between wanting to feel a sense of autonomy, but then also having to acknowledge that you exist within the institution, so that dynamic is something that I would say has been challenging.

The way you talked about it, the relationship that you have been able to create with some students almost, at points, has served as a give and take?

Yea, I think there is that saying, when the student is ready, the teacher presents itself.  Many times I think students think they are ready for education but they actually are not. So, there is this sort of truth to the idea that both parties have to be open and receptive to one another to have a good conversation of learning to take place.

Why SAIC for you? Is it a direct correlation to you having done your graduate work there?

No, not really actually. I think the School of the Art Institute is a really wonderful place in the sense that is a real school where real artists come out of that are successful in the world and in the art world there is a long history of artists coming out of this school that really do have life long careers. I hope to be a part of that history , but I also feel like this school genuinely has real dedicated artists present, and that is something that has always kept me wanting to stay, is that it is a real honor to be able to work with people that are genuinely invested in what you are doing as well. And I think the school really does foster and encourage that kind of atmosphere and exchange.

Do you feel like the teaching aspect directly informing your practice and the art you make?

I would say my art practice informs my teaching, I don’t know if my teaching informs my art practice. I think that the things that I value and I really identity as being important for my art practice I try to incorporate in the way that I teach and instruct those things to my students. Because I think often times teachers have a disconnect from what they do and what they teach. For me it has to be a genuine reflection of what is going on in my world to effectively translate that to a student. I also feel that I prefer to be in the trenches. I really want to be a part of the making process. As in with my students its really important to be involved and allow myself to show my own vulnerabilities to my students as a show of respect. But that is also why I am a big advocate in making art while I’m teaching as a way to demonstrate that I am willing to fail along with the. So, that certainly fits into my teaching philosophy.

I’m thinking of when I saw a piece of yours break a few weeks ago from falling off of a shelf. When you think of being at School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and then being in Chicago, do you think it’s a good place for an emerging artist to be?

I think it’s really important to go to grad school where you want to be in the art world and the art community after that. I think Chicago is a really good place to be if you are a working artist. And there are a lot of really talented working artists here. I think there is always this tension of feeling the need to be in New York or LA to be successful. But over the last ten years I think that New York has become a place that isn’t necessarily a place for an emerging artist. And I think that Chicago has really come to the foreground because it is still a place where you can afford to live and work. And those two things make a good place to emerge out of, definitely.

What’s coming up in your future?

I am having my first career survey open at the Museum of the Contemporary Art of Chicago in January 2014. With my first monograph catalog accompanying that.

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