Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Mind Body Spirit Artist Series: Deborah O'Keeffe

I was walking through the artist booth area at our local "Art in The Park" last month - chatting away, not paying much attention to what I was doing, when I happened glanced over to my right and was totally thunderstruck by Deborah O'Keefe's amazing work.  I was immediately drawn in to her tent (something that rarely happens to me) and I went back to her booth 3 times that day, the third time with my poor husband and his wallet in tow.  Deborah's story is a fascinating one, and the process she uses to create her stunning collage pieces is quite interesting.  I thank Deborah very much for this interview, and I hope you will enjoy reading about her wonderfully amazing work!

                                                                                                      ~ diane fergurson

Mandala:  Gran Cirque
MBS 1:  Tell us a little about yourself.  How did you get started in art.

Deborah:  My story shows--as many of our stories do--how one thing leads to another.  Creating has always been important to me.  As a young person I gravitated toward finely-detailed handwork such as embroidery, sewing, knitting, and quilting.  I also involved myself in some very complex doodling projects (remember paisley?) during high school biology lectures.  Music was also important to me, and for a time I considered majoring in piano performance in college, a goal I scrapped due to extreme performance anxiety, pursuing instead undergrad and graduate degrees in religion and Biblical studies.  Following the completion of my M.A., I worked for 7 years as an assistant editor on the staffs of two different religious weekly magazines.  That very disciplined apprenticeship in writing and editing eventually led me to move out on my own into the field of creative non-fiction (a memoir) and then fiction (two literary novels).  For more than a decade I wrote on my own, every day, all day, an enterprise I interrupted for a couple of semester stints teaching college writing and literature.

Guardian Angel

As a balance to the writing life, I found myself turning to collage.  In school I had always steered away from art classes because they seemed too subjective and unpredictable in outcome (i.e., grade) for someone as protective of GPA as I was.  But on my own, after years of visiting art museums and enjoying friendship and conversation with many visual artists, I began creating mosaics out of paper.  My love of quilts and the tile mosaics of antiquity, plus my enjoyment of making something out of nothing, seemed to find fulfillment in this enterprise.  Furthermore, the materials were all accessible to me--paper, scissors, Elmer's glue (and PVA), various salvaged substrate, and polyurethane varnish.  After my first novel was rejected by at least a hundred publishers and agents (really, it's not that bad!), I decided to print it in book form, folio by folio, and bind it into a book.  Thus in a period of a year I created 7 individual, handmade copies of The Matisse Bag which I embellished with beautiful papers and many small collages.  That project, which I had turned to in order to feel a sense of closure with the novel, opened me to the realm of book arts and altered books.

After completing my second novel, The Virgins of Manhattan, I attempted to begin writing a third book.  By then I was spending my evenings collaging altered books.  After about six false starts on the third novel, and with a divorce in process, I decided to move in the direction my creative energy seemed to be taking me to pursue visual art.  It was a difficult, frightening time for me.  During the 10 years of my marriage I had left the regular job market to write and occasionally teach, and had depended on my husband's income for economic stability.  When our marriage ended, with limited saving and no income, I found that a 50-something woman with a humanities background was not exactly a hot commodity on the job market.    Soon job-hunting seemed like a futile waste of my time.  I decided to treat the creation of book art as my full time job, to be careful with my savings, and then see what would come of that.  As fearful and distressed as I was during that time, after an hour or two of collaging I would calm down, feel optimistic, and find myself thinking more clearly. That led me to make a series of good, intuitive decisions which ultimately enabled me not only to survive but to grow creatively in every aspect of my life.  In retrospect I see that when I was making art I was in my "best mind"--positive, creative, hopeful, resourceful.

Since that time, early 2006, I have continued as a full time practicing collage artist.  I am self-taught, but highly mentored by the art I see and read about, and by many good conversations with artist-friends for whom I have much affection and respect.  For me art is not only a career, but a spiritual path that involves all that I am and who I am becoming.

Poesis Lyrica
MBS:  This is interesting, because for anyone who has seen your work up close your collages are made up of very, very, very tiny cut up words.  There is such a connection between writing and making visual art.  So many people I know, and also have interviewed, not only paint or make fine art, but they also write.  What are some of your thoughts about the connection between the two?

Deborah: I do use some words in my collages, although mostly I am working with non-verbal images. When I incorporate words into collage I am especially interested in languages I do not understand or even read phonetically--what I think of as "character" languages such as Chinese/Japanese and Korean, Hebrew, and Arabic.  They are beautiful to me as symbols, apart from my understanding of their meaning.  I also enjoy using words from languages which employ some recognizable images from our alphabet, such as Greek and Cyrillic.  For me some beauty, mystery, and breadth is evoked when I incorporate those symbols into a collage.

With regard, however, to the relationship between writing and other art forms, I wish to first observe that artists are often broadly creative.  For example, Kandinsky not only painted, but played the cello and also wrote.  Carl Jung was not only a great psychoanalyst and researcher, but a prolific writer, art historian, and visual artist.  People are what they are, and may exercise remarkable gifts in more than one discipline, depending on their abilities, interests, and the direction their energies take them. Furthermore, I believe the variety of disciplines one pursues may stimulate and inform each other in synergistic ways, so that one art enhances the other.  When I was writing full-time I found that visual art provided a welcome relief from the life of words.  Furthermore, as a writer, I became acutely aware of the limitations of language to express human feeling, truth, and the subtle shades of existence.  It seemed to me, then, that art was able to complement language and also go beyond it in providing elastic, non-verbal symbols that could speak to people in very personal ways.  Now I find, however, that words, if they are not imposed, but flow genuinely from me as I am creating a piece of art, may enhance the significance of the artwork, or place it in a context that inspires meditation in a particular direction.  Some long-form writers--I think of Herman Melville in particular (who was, by the way, a great art appreciator and collector)--turn to poetry in their later years.  I feel that my turning to art after so many years of writing non-fiction and fiction was perhaps my way of turning to poetry.  To me art is, in a way, poetry.

There was a time, also, when I was writing full-time, that I felt very sure of myself, of the nature of life and truth, and of my words about those things.  I now feel a different kind of confidence, or perhaps could better be described as a comfortableness or at least acceptance of how great is the mystery of life and human experience, and how little I truly know of it.  I feel now that my best place in the expressive arts is to be as open as possible to the depths of my being, and to impose as little as possible, to avoid preaching.  Of course I do impose something, for I decide to go in a particular direction with a piece of art, and I continue making decisions as I work to complete a piece; art is nothing if it is not doing.  One of the cardinal rules I learned as a writer was to show rather than tell. For me, then, making art is my best-yet fulfillment of that rule.  Furthermore, the making of art is carrying me into areas of exploration that are beyond words and beyond myself.     

No One's Perfect
MBS:  How do you feel that your spirituality connects with your artwork?  Through inspiration?  While you are creating it?  As perhaps even a subject matter?

Deborah:  Here is where I meet the mystery.  On the one hand, I might say that the conduit between my spirituality and my artmaking is largely unconscious.  On the other hand, and perhaps more accurately, I think there is no separation, that every aspect of my life, including my artmaking, involves and expresses my own spiritual self and commitment.  I do not attempt to make overtly religious art, but my passions for nature, symbol and sacrament, literature, and the Mystery do somehow come through.  Also, it appears to me that my belief in faith, hope, and love, along with the need to wrestle with the darkness in order to protect and promote those qualities, is somehow communicated through the art I make in various ways that are either unconscious or so familiar to me that what I am doing seems simply normal, natural, and routine, not "spiritual" or religious.  Art-making is for me a spiritual path in which I am learning to "walk by faith" (a Christian metaphor I grew up with) not only by following a financially risky vocational path, but by approaching each new art project with openness to a living process rather than unduly imposing myself--my ego, my cleverness, my pre-determined plan.

With regard to the artistic process, Henri Matisse, in his cut-out book, Jazz, said, "You must present yourself with the greatest humility, completely blank, pure, candid, your brain seeming empty in the spiritual state of a communicant approaching the Lord's Table."  I also think of the sculptor, Henry Moore, who decided not to read an article offering a Jungian interpretation of his artwork because he did not want to become too conscious of what he was creating when he made art and risk having that consciousness interfere with the purity of his process.  And then there is this somewhat inelegant but humorously articulate poem by Ogden Nash which I found in my college literature anthology years ago and for some reason have never forgotten:  "The goose that laid the golden egg/Died looking up its crotch/To find out how its sphincter worked;/If you would lay well, don't watch."

The most important way, however, that spirituality and art connect for me and for those who exercise creativity in any activity or profession, is that creating puts one in joyful communion with the Creator in a place where we may meet on a graciously level playing field.  So much in spiritual discipline is necessarily remedial:  repentance, forgiveness, the struggle for peace, harmony, unity, crying out for help or resolution of a problem.  It seems to me in many aspects of my life I am simply, as the Shaker hymn says, turning and turning to come 'round right'--to where I needed to be all along.  But there is, then, the creative, positive experience of adding something of value, of bringing into being what did not exist before through art or some other means.  For me creating is joy, an experience that draws me into my "best mind," and proffers the privilege of fellowship with the divine.

The Marriage of Sol and Luna
MBS:  How do you create your pieces?

Deborah:  There are various ways a new piece may come into being.  From a technical/material perspective, however, I almost always work with small, hand-cut (scissors) or torn pieces of paper--mostly recycled from a variety of sources--which I glue into some pattern, usually abstract or symbolic, onto various substrate (wood, books, found metal, CD assemblages, stretched canvas, matboard, or layers of watercolor paper.  (Virtually all of my substrate is recycled or salvaged material.)  I use Elmer's Glue- All for most of my work (buy it by the gallon!), and occasionally PVA, an archival white glue book binders and book artists often use.  I use a small metal stylus, touched to glue I've spread on the substrate, to pick up the small pieces of paper and maneuver them into place in the collage.  When the collage is finished I varnish it with 3 or 4 or more coats of polyurethane varnish.  Occasionally I use polycrylic varnish if I do not want any yellowing of the colors.  Mostly, however, I embrace the slight yellowing of the polyurethane, which antiques and warms the colors of the collage and helps to further coalesce the piece.

From an artistic/aesthetic perspective, I am often inspired by particular materials at hand that I would like to work with.  Sometimes I set down a larger focal piece or pieces in a way that interests me, and then begin to collage around what I have laid down.  Other times, when I am creating a mandala, I may simply begin with a center and begin to work in concentric circles.  And yet other times, I may even draw some lines to establish a basic structure for the collage.  Often I will make a rule for myself that I follow, for example, collaging in a particular color scheme, or in a particular pattern.  I try, however, to be open to what is happening in the collage, and to what is occurring in my mind as I am creating it.  Sometimes I come to a point in which I've been following a pattern and something in me tells me to break the pattern or rule I've been following in order to surprise myself, to experiment a little.  Building on what I've done before, I then try to do something different.  So I am in a continual process of trying to subtly overthrow what I have done in the past.  For me the art I do is a continual exploration of possibilities.  I always feel that I am reaching for something I will never fully grasp, but the journey is satisfying enough that it gives me more pleasure and satisfaction than distress and frustration.  I do return to familiar patterns, such as the mandala form, at the same time that I attempt to tweak that pattern and find something new in it that excites me.  Of course sometimes I am more successful than others.  Sometimes I create pieces I don't much like at the beginning.  If I don't sell them immediately and they stay around long enough, I often get used to them, maybe even like them, and may even begin to see that their virtues are more than I originally believed.  In any case, those pieces that seem less successful to me are often stepping-stones to to pieces that seem more successful.  But when I talk about what is a successful piece and what is not so successful, I also feel that I am making a judgment I am in no position to make, and that someday I may see it quite differently.

One more thing about my process:  I am continually inspired by nature.  I do not try to copy what I see in nature, but I do try to work the way it seems to me nature works.  For example, I appreciate the repetition and variation that goes into the way a spider spins a web, or the way a bird builds a nest.

MBS:  Do you have a favorite material that you like to use or a particular format you favor? Do you work on more then one piece at a time?

Deborah:  My favorite material is paper.  I seem to gravitate toward rich colors and textures, but I also try to mix it up, to see the possibilities in quiet, subtle colors, or in an almost colorless scheme (whites, ivories, and tans).  I love natural-seeming materials, such as old papers that have become very grainy, stained, fletched, and/or absorbent.  The form to which I seem to continually return is the mandala form.  I love beginning a piece in the center and allowing it to generate from that point.  To me it is like watching something grow.  At each point in the development of a mandala, once I have completed a ring, I am looking at something that has its own provisional wholeness.  As the mandala grows it grows more complex and the resonances of the colors, textures, and patterns becomes more rich and interesting.  But it is like watching a human develop.  A 7-year old child is as much a whole being as is a 27-year old or a 72-year old, but perhaps not as experienced or complex. Often a piece that is largely generated from the center outward possesses a special kind of energy.

Usually I work on one piece at a time, but there are times when I may have two or three (usually smaller pieces, often in different stages) going at once.  

In the Beginning Was the Sound
MBS:  What is a typical work day like for you?

Deborah:  I work every day in my studio, which is in the unfinished basement room of my house, a large room that includes the washer and dryer.  First thing in the morning I take care of my e-mail, deal with pressing business (e.g., paying bills, etc.), and then I begin collaging.  Usually that is interrupted sometime in the morning by the walk I take with my husband when he goes to his office. I walk part-way with him, then return home and work in my studio till he comes home around 6:00 p.m.  During the course of my work day I often jump up from my chair to warm up my coffee, check the mail, tend to the laundry, or get a drink of water or a snack.  Other than these small breaks, I work straight through unless I have errands to run to the post office or bank.  I am either collaging, or preparing the substrate for a collage, or varnishing.  The most time consuming part, of course, is the actual collaging, which is quiet, detailed work.  I almost always listen to music while I work, usually classical music I stream through my laptop, or a CD.  At the end of the day my husband calls me when he sets out from his office and I walk to meet him part-way.  Sometimes I go back to my studio for a little while to tie up loose ends, but I rarely work again after supper.  Sometimes on the weekends I will work a little in my studio if I am home and my husband is doing something on his own.  I have been keeping this sort of daily work schedule for nearly 20 years, first as a writer and now as an artist.  I learned that if I did not set my work schedule in a serious way no one else was going to set it for me.  Early in my career as an independent writer/artist, I learned that it was even more important for me to keep a strict schedule in that work than it had been for me to show up to the 8 - 5 editorial office jobs I had once held. The work that no one else is asking you to do will never get done unless you yourself are serious about doing it and then do it.

Question 6:  What has your online experience been like?  Do you have a website or blog?  Do you sell online?

Deborah:  About a year and a half ago my husband presented me with a Wordpress blog site, all set, named, formatted, and ready to go.  Since then I have posted many, many images of my artwork, with titles and prices, and about 15 blog posts.  People cannot purchase work through the site, but they can contact me via e-mail and purchase a piece directly through me.  I use the site in conjunction with the weekend art shows I do.  Occasionally I sell pieces to people who have gone to the website, but I believe in all cases, those people have first seen my work at art shows.  This year I have been so busy doing art shows and creating work for them that I have been regretfully neglectful of my blog site.

Globe 2
Question 7:  What are you currently working on?  Do you have any shows or anything in particular coming up?

Deborah: Right at the moment, about 12 inches to the right of my laptop, sits a small collage I started last night while my husband was taking a short, after-supper nap.  I've incorporated into the piece a large amount of a mostly red, nearly full-page ad from my husband's Wall Street Journal, plus a line of music, material cut from the inside lining of my utility bill envelope, a half-rusted, half painted disc of metal about the size of a quarter (but NOT a quarter), some scraps of red and black papers from which I once cut or punched small circles, had been cut or punched, and miscellaneous other papers.  I created a large portion of this collage this morning while listening to a recording of the Dalai Lama's recent presentation at William and Mary College, in Williamsburg, Virginia.  It is quite a surprising piece to me.  For the next 8 or 9 days, I am devoted to creating small-ish collages for a show I am doing in Tampa, Florida, the weekend before Halloween.  After that I will be creating work (i.e., replenishing) for a show in Savannah, Georgia, the second weekend of November.  My last scheduled show for 2012 is the weekend after Thanksgiving, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, on Manhattan.  Somewhere in all this, I also need to prepare 7 or 8 small/medium pieces for a group show in November at Gallery 549 in Lafayette, Louisiana.  (I've been showing there since 2006; the artist-owner of the gallery, Donald LeBlanc, was the very first person to show and sell my art, in the fall of 2006; he is a friend, an artist whose work I appreciate and respect, and best of all, I trust him. When one has such a relationship with a gallery, even if the sales are small, it is worth nurturing.)  So I will be very busy till early December, at which time I'll be able to shift gears and create a couple of Christmas presents: a piece of space-related (i.e., planets, stars, galaxies) book art for my sister-in-law, and also a larger, preferably long, horizontal above-the-window piece for my husband for Christmas.  But don't tell!

 Question 8:  Any advice for those who would like to (seriously) pursue an artistic path?

Deborah:  Because making art is for me a spiritual path, the advice I have to offer is largely spiritual. I believe it is important for any person, whatever path they choose, to find what it is they are passionate about doing and then commit to doing and developing that.  Joseph Campbell said (I'm paraphrasing here, from memory) that the world is a wasteland of people who have stopped listening to themselves, and that the best thing any of us can do to improve the world is to find where our life is and then be alive ourselves.  "A vital person vitalizes," he said.  "Follow your bliss," he said. Following that is not always so easy.  It will take you on a life-journey that will discipline, develop, and transform you and your art, and influence and inspire others.

With regard to audience, don't pander, but do reach out, communicate.  For me, not pandering meant to not turn mandalas into clocks (which someone once suggested I do) because they might be useful and sell.  I did not like the idea, which seemed to me like a sell-out of what was truly driving me as an artist and a devaluation of my art.  For me, communicating means creating original, quality work on a variety of scales, and therefore in a variety of price ranges, so that people at every economic level can afford to purchase a piece of my art if they want it.  It is good for them and, of course, it helps me too.

My good friend Mare Martin, a very fine and experienced painter and print maker, told me over the course of several coffees and meals together, three things I often think of when I am working:
1.  "I always work with my mistakes."  (She did not say "erase" or "get rid of" or "throw away"; she said "work with."  What one may think of as a mistake may in fact be the fortuitous accident that brings energy and originality to a piece, if you work with it.
2.  "Don't listen to that voice in you that says, 'Why are you doing this?  No one needs this.  It's already been done.'"
3.  "I try to push a piece to the point of failure."  That's where the discoveries happen, where the new ground is broken.
Another friend of mine, also a painter, once said to me "No one painted more bad paintings than Picasso."  What he meant was that Picasso was not only incredibly gifted but incredibly prolific, and out of that abundant work emerged many, many masterpieces.  I believe that the works of mine that I judge as inferior (and really, who am I to judge?) are part of the artistic process that prepares for and generates the "masterpieces."  

Don't be discouraged if not everybody likes or understands your art, because not everybody will.  Be true, grow, and you will find and develop a community of individuals to whom your art speaks.

Finally, if you want to make a living as an artist, you will probably need to be as creative with your finances as you are with your art.  For me, that has meant living as simply as I can, taking risks (i.e., when the time was as right as it was going to get, quitting a part-time job to make art full time), and as much as I dislike saying this, accepting a certain amount of debt for a limited time--something many new business owners have to do, with the hope their enterprise will become profitable and enable them to pay off the debt.  The history of art, music, and literature is abundant with impoverished (either temporarily, or for a lifetime) luminaries.  Of course a lot of money can be and has been made in art.  But if you'll notice, most of the six-figure art sales at Sotheby's are for the work of dead artists.  Although that seems to be where a lot of the money is, it is still an advantage, in my opinion, to be a living artist, which is what I hope to be for a long time to come.

Thank you Deborah!

You can read more about Deborah and her work on her blog at
You can email her at

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