Helen’s Studio

To kick off our Art in Isolation series, I wanted to share with you some emails from an artist I’ve admired since I first saw her work in Chicago and later had the pleasure to work with at Penn State. Helen O’Leary is a brilliant maker of things, a Guggenheim fellow and Rome Prize winner, who learned from an early age on the farm in Ireland where she grew up how to make crude things into marvelous things, whether they be scraps of wood she’d later form into complex, three-dimensional, jigsaw-y paintings, or mere words that her mother required all her daughters (no men allowed on that farm!) to make into something to entertain one another at the dinner table. Here is some of that email exchange, begun in the first weeks of quarantine and still going on.
— Your Editor, Julie

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How are ye doing, it is so damn weird isn’t it? This cell phone Zoom intimacy thing is madness; we will all get square heads out of it. I have no excuse not to tidy the barn. The first month I kept thinking it was provisional and I’d be back in our lovely house in Jersey City in no time, but now…5 hens later and a million plants ordered (my lovely student farm) I think life is forever changed.

Are ye feral yet? We definitely are. This morning Dan had a moment of realization that he should clean himself up for a Zoom call. I told him he was grand, as indeed, to my eyes all of this informality is just rounding the corporate corners off of everyone, and he, for a moment, believed me. He opened photo booth, and said, Jesus, no, I have to clean myself up, and has gone now on a long odyssey of a search for an extension cord so he can shave near a mirror and find a non- crumpled shirt. Good luck with that, is what I say.

We are, I repeat, feral, living in the barn, somewhat on top of each other. The barn is rustic, I never had a real kitchen here: studio downstairs, library in the stairwell and living upstairs…bohemian rustic. This little Nirvana was built as a bolt hole for one, not two, and it was shaped to my notions of do-ability and practicality.  Remember it took me years to accept the necessity of plumbing or a toilet and I only recently got a small fridge.  We have an Instapot and a little oven thing…it is a lesson in less, a lot less. Like children, who know every last bump and curve in their houses, we now notice every fault line in our immediate surroundings. We have become scholars of our own walls.

Dan is building a hen coop, I am building veggie beds. I whittle on my bandsaw and imagine very creative hen roosts out of our bits of wood that I’ve accrued throughout the years. I’m rooting away in the studio, lifting stones and prematurely planting soon-to-be-dead seedlings in the garden and minding hens. And then, in the middle of the ‘historic’ pandemic, the ‘historic’ polar vortex blast hit. My smug euphori: ‘why doesn’t everyone protect their plants with beer glasses’ didn’t last long, the garden is now a limp disaster. Two tomato plants survived, the one covered by the blender jug and the one in the double boxed bucket, all the other ones are once again compost. I thought using my supply of bubble wrap was a particularly genius detail, but no. So be it, I garden much like I paint, with a lot of shrugs… I keep forgetting where I have planted seeds and am sure I have planted one bed several times. I have stakes everywhere now, a Ucello battlefield, but have been consistently lazy with writing labels, thinking I will remember the lay of my land. How hard would it be to pencil in the name of the damn plant?? Anyway, no surprise, my garden is chaos. My news ration is still working, but things slip through. While googling ‘how to fertilize tree peonies and will they grow in the shade’ I for a minute linger on the Washington Post main page and get enough in two seconds to know the world is bad. Another google search of ‘why is my rhubarb scrawny’ leads me to the front page of the Independent, and it goes on, never a goal, always a meandering internet side jog.

I sound like I have a much better garden than I actually have, mine is scrappy and much neglected, like everything and everywhere I half-live, it is half-loved.

— Helen

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Helen my dear,

I read your emails with the same JOY as I read my favorite books – love love LOVED that description of your garden and gardening (despite your dead seedlings!) and your sculpture-turned-henhouse move is brilliant — perfect for the times!  The art world has changed so much, we’re obliged to rethink everything– how’re you thinking about that? And what are you doing with your days? What about teaching next fall??


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I dream of Leitrim (Ireland)… it is becoming a bigger and bigger dream, and the life of less is now becoming the marker of success — we will all emerge from this as larger versions of ourselves, with the determination for a different life. I see myself on that damn mountain, with a run of chickens and a few drills of spuds as now the bigger prize. I used to see it as a retreat, now I see it as a goal.

I almost went for a walk yesterday with Jean, my first organized social distanced walk, got my mask, coat, etc, found the car keys and the car wouldn’t start!  Battery dead, so that was aborted.

I have been doing things I shouldn’t do, taking drives into deep PA, looking for Trumpian hand-written signs and just ‘getting to know’ my neighborhood. It is the opposite of perspective as we know it; the signs get bigger the further away I go. I am at a distance to this landscape, always have been and now is my time to learn it. It can be a dark place, I have lived here for so long, but haven’t readily journeyed beyond the studio or the university. Now with a phone, camera and a flask of tea I find towns on the map for the next adventure into our new reality. My next one is a town called Ullysess, PA, the white nationalist centre of the east coast; it is the heart of darkness.

There is talk of classes happening on campus in the fall, I don’t know what that will look like, with shared bathrooms etc. and non-automatic doors, everything fingered and spat upon…none of these schools were built with social distancing in mind. We ambled around campus yesterday, it was so surreal, a ghost town with occasional clusters of robed graduates and their masked families taking photos outside of shut buildings. (I kept thinking of the Mary Celeste ship that was found abandoned 400 miles off the Azores, with six-months supply of food, a lash of alcohol, no evidence of a struggle, and one missing lifeboat. As a child I was fascinated with the mystery of how an entire crew could disappear without a trace.) There were signs on some of the engineering buildings in big bold font announcing that you needed to be self-quarantined for 2 weeks before you could enter, but they were all locked anyway. I found the sign saying Heller had written Catch 22 here, a fact that has always made me smile.  He is supposed to have said it couldn’t have been written anywhere else.

We found the most magnificent trees, one gigantic Japanese maple all propped up with timber, one tree sacrificed for the continuance of the other. Who gets to be the timber, and who gets to be the tree? Isn’t that the question of the moment?

Off to count my chickens,