The 2nd Time Around with Catherine O’Connell
By Katelyn Wood, Arlington Arts Center’s Curatorial & Exhibitions Intern
Building up to our summer exhibition PLAY, I reached out to Catherine O’Connell to gather some insight into her work and thoughts on the idea of play in the arts. Amongst the exhibiting artists in Play: Tinker, Tech & Toy, Catherine uses painting, drawing, collage, and sculptural installation to transform collected materials into miniature sculptures. Fascinated by her ability to manipulate such disposable and overlooked materials, I was curious to find out what makes this artist tick and how she brings play into her practice.
Do the miniature sculptures go through multiple iterations before arriving at what they are?
Absolutely. The materials go through multiple phases of manipulations, then they are combined with additional components, and then the whole piece will go through numerous transformations as a whole. The building, deconstructing, and rebuilding allow for discovery and are part of the fun; it’s part of the play.
Does the original function of the materials inspire you to transform them?
The intended function of these materials often informs the process but often by pushing in the opposite direction. I enjoy playing with the functionality of the collections to see how that can be spun. For instance, a tiny gelato spoon, meant to hold a light, sweet bite of dessert, might act as a supporting leg or cradle the weight of a structure. Printer codes, designed to identify the ink used in packaging, will be extracted and highlighted as beautiful little moments that are often overlooked. Traditional sculpture was used to decorate and enhance important architectural spaces, and communicate stories or status. It is fun to see these materials, far from serious or precious, morph into a miniature and somewhat absurd version of a confident yet uncertain sculpture.
Ideally, what kind of response do you hope to get from these works?
I love watching viewers physically zoom in and, without hesitation, develop an intimate relationship with the work. Whether they are trying to figure out the quotidian materials that the piece is constructed out of or equating them to toys or miniature models that spark youthful memories, it is a moment of playful reflection. These sculptures are all about telling stories; stories about the materials and how we consume and consider those materials, about the history that every material travels with, about the real-world references that the structures point to, and about the ways in which they interact with one another in this “playground’’; all attempting to reclaim a space and new identity as a hybrid.
I also asked Catherine about her thoughts on the concept of play, a popular conversation throughout news media and the arts.
How would you define play?
(I just want to note that I’m listening to a boisterous and joyful game of tag being played in the playground right outside my window as I answer these questions.) Play means problem solving, iterating, and doing so with freedom and honesty. With play, we explore and find ways to expressively interact with others and the world. It is a way to try new and potentially unconventional and wild ideas without concern for judgement. Play is also that moment when everything else falls away and you are immersed in some sort of “wonder.” It’s vital for development, and helps us establish rules (often unwittingly) and learn how to navigate a structured world, while also providing space for fantastical, imaginative escape and thought.
How does play factor into your material collecting process?
I collect materials that catch my attention. They find me, and there is a genuine excitement about the potential to uncover a new or more elaborate identity in them. The shape of the material might remind me of an architectural detail or a dynamic shadow, or the original function of the material might be compelling and/or humorous, but the “unmonumentality” of the “ingredient” is key. For instance, the plastic sushi grass, or haran or baran, that might separate ginger and wasabi from a spicy tuna roll, is a synthetic decoration that serves a one-time purpose. I find these material moments whimsical, and a little sad. Baran is mass produced, and then it’s tossed. It may sound silly but I find materials such as this, beckoning for a second go round.
As play serves a multitude of roles in the arts, it is being increasingly used as a form of criticism about the stifling of free play in contemporary society. NPR’s Eric Westervelt recently published an article highlighting the importance of free, unstructured play in child development. Despite play’s impact on children’s social, emotional, and cognitive growth, Westervelt recognizes that, “Hurried lifestyles, digital distractions, and overprotective parents have all helped create what some are calling a national play crisis.”
This crisis refers to the limitations of stringent, regulated play and the negative effects that can carry into adulthood. When asked about her thoughts on the ‘national play crisis’ Catherine said, “There is such honesty in play, which presents space for innovation.” She went on to explain that play “allows us to think creatively,” and believes that employing play in adult life can lead to better productivity and innovation.
Artists are responding to the national play crisis through the work they create and the way they exhibit that work. Challenging the conventional institution, artists have taken it upon themselves to generate new ways that art can be shown and experienced. When asked what effects play has had on the art institution, Catherine notes that the idea of play has entered into a more sophisticated conversation.
She states that, “Well-known and respected artists speak openly about personal connections and adaptations of play in the studio. I hope the momentum continues to grow. I think it can open up connections and create access for broader audiences.”
Reflecting on her work in the show, Catherine claims, “We often create work to begin a conversation and to construct a reason to slow down, contemplate, talk, and invent a story,” PLAY: Tinker, Tech, & Toy is a great opportunity to contemplate the notion of play and open up new conversations about play’s role in the arts.