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Painter, Poet, Father, and Son: Bart O’Reilly

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One experiences Bart O’Reilly’s paintings and poems with all the senses. There are familiar scents, visceral textures begging to be traced by curious fingertips, and passages that seem to be whispering, “I deserve to be heard aloud.”

With an economy of brushstrokes blurring muted color fields or choice words, the Baltimore-by-way-of-Ireland scene-setter can provoke a chill reminiscent of a damp Dublin day, with the smell of winter wafting on the breeze.

In his first publication of poems and paintings, My Father’s Work Shed (published by Wipf & Stock, 2021), O’Reilly shares intimate perspectives on memory, place, home, family, childhood, and fatherhood—all through a lens constantly shifting focus and framing. With an attention to detail and subtle tweaks of rhythm and mood, it’s a collection of works I’ve found myself revisiting over and over again, experiencing it differently each time.

I spoke to Bart O’Reilly over Zoom about his history, complimentary practices as a painter and writer, and the decade-long process of publishing his first book. Our conversation has been edited and condensed—because we could’ve gone on for hours.

 

Bart O'Reilly by Elena Volkova

Michael Anthony Farley: So when did you move to Baltimore? I’m from a big Irish family myself, and always so curious about how we seem to end up everywhere…

Bart O’Reilly: When I was a student in Dublin, I got a J-1 visa to just come here and work and travel. And we ended up in Ocean City, Maryland in ‘98, I think. And then in ‘99 I went back and I met a girl who’s now my wife. She lived in Ireland for a couple of years and then we decided to move to Baltimore because she had a teaching certificate and she wanted to teach here in the school system. So I was like, “Sure, I’ll go and try and be an artist in Baltimore.” And I kind of loved it! I knew nothing about Baltimore. I just knew that she was from near Baltimore.

This sounds suspiciously like the plot of Matt Porterfield’s film I Used to Be Darker! It’s about an Irish girl working in Ocean City who kinda runs away from home to Baltimore… 

I haven’t seen it but I love his other films! Ocean City was full of Irish people in the late nineties. I feel like I should have stayed in New York or done something cool, but we followed the money. We heard there were jobs in Ocean City, so we’re like, “Okay, we’ll go down and get a job in Ocean City.”

But I got here to Baltimore and met up with a few other artists. I got a studio at Load of Fun, that’s where I started in Baltimore. And then I ended up going to grad school at MICA.

And from there, the work in My Father’s Work Shed evolved over quite a bit of time… 

I wrote those poems over the course of ten years. It wasn’t like I sat down to write a book, but definitely the quantity of poetry sort of increased around the time of my dad getting sick. And a lot of it touches on that obviously, but some of those poems go back to like 2012 when I was at MICA.

 

"Fresh Marks the Shallow and Trails into Light," Acrylic on Raw Linen Collage, 2017

I was thinking about the fact that the book is the accumulation of about a decade worth of work! And I wanted to ask how you went about organizing and editing all that content into something that came out so coherent

Oh, you think it’s coherent?

Yeah!

That’s good! I have a friend in Dublin, Fred Murray—he’s my best friend, stilland he’s a graphic designer. He’s been collecting my work for a while as well. So he’s been saying to me for a long time, “We should make a book of your poems and your paintings!” And I, as you do, you say, “Sure,” but you never do anything about it. And then, when my dad passed, I saw them all at the funeral. Another friend of mine, Ian O’Riordan, was visiting New York from Dublin, where he writes for the Irish Times. I went to visit him in November of ‘21. And they were both like, “You have to, you have to do the book” ‘cause I was posting the poems on social media, and people were reading them.

But how did I put it together? Hmmm… I kept changing, you know? I had a lot of issues trying to decide what paintings should be with which poems; which poems should go in. It was a back and forth over maybe six months of me emailing Word documents that turned into a PDF. I kept having him read it and give me feedback and then I’d shuffle things around again. And so it was a collaboration in that sense.

This is your friend who wrote that great introduction?

No, Mark Joyce wrote the introduction, a painter in Dublin. And he was my teacher at The National College of Art and Design (NCAD) in Dublin. He’s a couple years older than me, but he was one of the younger professors when I was an undergrad and I’ve been close with him just over the years, just as an artist. He got the book when it was almost finished and then he wrote the intro.

I think you mentioned that you toyed with the possibility of self-publishing, but then you ended up publishing through…

…a place in Oregon called WIPF and Stock Publishers. I’ve always had this slight inferiority complex as a poet ‘cause I was trained as a painter. I feel like it’s important to sort of say this, you know when you go to art school and you choose a thing—you’re into like painting or sculpture or installation or whatever it is you’re doing—I feel like you get put through the paces with what it means to do that and really get questioned on your process. And not just about learning skills, but really, just really dig deep into why you’re doing this and what it’s about for you. I was always that way with painting in art school, but the poetry was a self-taught sort of a thing that sort of happened on its own… ‘cause I kind of hate writing artist statements… so I’d write poems instead. 

I just felt like I would self-publish ’cause I didn’t think any poetry press would publish it ’cause I didn’t feel like the poetry was in dialogue with “the great world of poetry,” whatever that is. It seemed like I didn’t know enough about it. So my plan was to just put up a PDF on Amazon and publish it on my own. And then, the way things get bigger when you’re doing them. 

Someone said I should get a photo taken for the back of the book. So I had a photographer friend in Baltimore, [BmoreArt contributor] Elena Volkova, take my headshot. I was telling her about self publishing and she said, “Well, you know, it deserves to at least be seen by publishers. You should send it to some publishers. It deserves more than being self-published.” And so then I just got online and did some research and sent the manuscript out to probably ten different places. I heard nothing from nine of them and one of them got back to me—and I just was shocked that they got back to me! But I think that the fact that I sent them a finished product (almost) was helpful. It was already designed. We even had a front cover designed.

 

“Mine are Much Closer,” Acrylic on Raw Canvas, 2021

It’s funny to me that you would mention training as a painter and feeling that was distinct from your poetry practice. Something that really struck me as a viewer/reader was a similar… God, what’s the word? … almost gestalt theory common between your paintings and your poems, where in both there’s this really interesting play between representation and abstraction where you include specific details and allusions but kind of force us to be more active readers, if that makes any sense. I appreciate that both operate similarly—you’re giving the reader a mood or details to assemble a scene. I think it’s a really, really lovely effect.

I guess the abstraction in the poems is unconscious almost, whereas in the paintings, it’s, like I said, kind of learned. I learned. The only encouragement I got in undergrad for any kind of writing was—and it was great, it really meant a lot to me—a professor said, “Your titles for your paintings are very lyrical and poetic.” 

And I remember thinking, “Oh, that’s, that’s nice to know.” I think if I hadn’t gone to art school, I probably would’ve went to Trinity or UCD and done some sort of literature beause I always was interested in that. In Ireland you do a pretty rigorous exam at the end of high school called The Leaving Cert and my favorite subject was actually English over art. I enjoyed English, I read a lot of poets. And so when the professor told me my titles were lyrical, I was like, “Oh, that’s kinda interesting.” I guess my paintings were lyrical too, even though I didn’t know what a lyrical painting meant when I was twenty, you know?

In graduate school at MICA, I came up against this challenge to my whole painting practice. I had a professor who was really interested in sculpture and installation and sound and the written word. And he had me do everything except paint. So when I had that challenge to not paint for a while I took that on myself.

I could have painted and told them to deal with it, but I stopped painting and started making videos. When I started making these videos, I started doing spoken word poetry over the imagery. So that’s how the poetry started. The poetry just began as like sitting in my studio making lists of things that were in the studio. That’s how I started writing. 

And then I had my first child, Eoin, in 2007, and then I had another son, Ronan, in 2011. I think the first poem was 2011 or something. It’s called “Soy Son.” And that was written by just taking Eoin for a walk in a soy field in winter. And I just put my iPhone on voice record and recorded the walk and the conversation I had with him. And then after making all these kinds of really abstract list poems about studio things and esoteric things about minimalist art, I put my headphones on and just start writing down what I heard in the recording of the walk. And that became the first poem that was about family or had an emotional content that wasn’t just, “Oh, the wall’s red. There was a crack in the window.” You know, that kind of stuff. And people responded to that one for some reason.

 

“Father’s Own (Moon and Stone),” Acrylic on Raw Canvas, 2021

I’m glad you segued between your painting practice challenging you to make less “painting” paintings and that particular poem because I really love the relationship between “Soy Son” and the accompanying painting, “Fresh Marks the Shallow and Trails into Light.” Although the printed versions are gorgeous, obviously a reproduction never does justice to a painting. But with your work especially, there’s so much experimentation with different types of surfaces, textures, and materials. I’d imagine that translating them into photography was really difficult. 

Yeah, yeah… That was! 

Could you talk a bit about some of your decisions you make with surface and material and different strategies for paint application?

That’s a huge thing. I’m so glad you picked up on that from a book with reproductions of the work. That’s like almost an obsession at the moment. I’ll go from raw canvas where I won’t do anything to the canvas and just put acrylic directly onto the raw canvas in a staining technique. Like Helen Frankenthaler or Sam Gilliam or Morris Lewis, one of those color field painters. And then I’ll go use canvas with just acrylic gesso. Then I’ll paint on panels sometimes. And sometimes when I paint on panel, I’ll use the traditional gesso like rabbit skin glue and marble dust. So sometimes I’ll only know when I start a body of work that I want this surface.

I’m just fascinated with the way the paint absorbs into different grounds. You know, you can use the same color on raw canvas that you use on a primed canvas and it’ll just look totally different. So I’m constantly exploring that. I have to say that the raw canvas has been kind of the easiest one. And sometimes I’ll say to myself, “Why don’t I just do the raw canvas all the time?” ‘Cause people seem to respond to these raw canvas ones. But I don’t know where that comes from really… It might be part of a sort of the abstract part of me that just wants to see how the material behaves and not worry about the content at the start of the process.

They all start in a process-based kind of approach. And the landscape, the allusions, are obviously there. But I don’t set out with a particular memory or place in mind when I start painting. I start out with an interest in the surface and then color. Whatever I do in the process, it might take a while. It might take six months, but six months later I’ll say, “Oh, that painting and that poem are about the same place.” So kind of like the way a Rorschach inkblot suggests something to you—if you didn’t make the inkblot yourself—it would still suggest something to you. It takes me a while to get a bit of distance from the painting and say, “Oh! Oh, that reminds me of that pond up behind my house where I grew up…” Or something like that. It never starts with, “Oh, I have to paint this pond.” ‘Cause anytime I do that I fail.

I think that there’s this common interest between the paintings and the poems in texture, you know they say oil painting is about—oh God, who said this? John Berger or someone?—that a really good painting is about replicating the sensation of touch more than seeing.

Yeah, I know that quote.

There’s a poem where you talk about being—I wanna say it’s in the kitchen of an aunt’s house?—and her tiles, and I felt like I was there. In both your paintings and poems I think surface and this implied sense of touch are really the unifying chorus…

Yeah, I think it’s called “Sundials.”

 

"To Sear the Softly Squalling," Oil on Traditionally Gessoed Panel, 2020

I was surprised by your poems because at first I assumed that—based on the introduction about the Dublin Mountains and a cursory glance at your paintings—I expected that there would be a stronger link to “landscape” in a more traditional sense. And then I was so pleasantly surprised by the way that you treat the textures of domestic space as a landscape—not necessarily your own domestic space, but the idea and texture of intimate interiors.

I just love that line, “there’s a part of the architecture that dreams of being outside.” I feel like with all of your poems I could be reading instructions for—or even visualizing—stage setting for a theater or a screenplay. And I really love the way you can capture a landscape sensibility for an intimate scale of space. Does that make any sense?

That’s interesting because I guess I grew up inside a lot. I wasn’t so much the kid that went out and ran in the mountains with the other kids. I was a bit more introverted and I’d stay inside drawing in my room. I would go out and enjoy it, but a lot of my early experience of landscape was through a window. And then my mother and my aunties in particular had, you know, the way maternal figures in Irish families tend to—well, not all, I can’t generalize about everyone… I’m saying the ones I had—my mother and my aunties collected a lot of decorative things.

[Laughs] Oh God Yeah!

The graphic designer who did the book, Fred Murray, calls it “bric-a-brac,” like, just useless stuff that looked nice, you know? So my aunt’s house was full of little porcelain cups for the tea and the decoration for them.

A pattern on every teacup, and a saucer and doily under every teacup… 

So I guess my imagination—when I go back and remember them—I remember that as much as the landscape. Or I remember the landscape through the window of that space. Part of me wishes I could do a series of interior paintings and I haven’t quite done that yet. 

You mentioned that poem about my auntie’s sundials, but then my poems mention my mother’s decorations as well. One of the first poems I wrote was written sitting in my parents’ house looking at this stuff and saying, “Wow, this really reminds me of her. She might have passed away, but she’s still here with all this stuff… she left all this stuff here…”

Like what do you leave behind in the world? I guess I’ll leave behind a storage unit full of paintings or something. But my mother left behind all this decorative stuff that she collected…

Just yesterday I was trying to explain the Irish horror vacui in domestic space! Like, our families fill every surface with something! Every plate has to have a print… wallpaper on every surface! And it’s so funny to me because I’m such a minimalist! I hate having decorative things! But your poems just remind me so much of being a child and being in family members’ homes. In childhood I remember the strange sense of interior spaces having this weird double connotation of claustrophobia but also possibility and play…

Yeah. Like you almost want to get outta them in a way.

And you capture that so well! I just thought so much about my own childhood and family and things while reading your book. And I don’t know how much of that is cultural or how much of it is that you have this ability to like to capture something so specific that the specificity then becomes almost universal because it’s so salient and real…

That’s nice to hear because when I was writing them I was mainly sharing them with friends and family who were relating to them. And I was like, “You know the only people who are gonna enjoy this are people who knew me… people who grew up with me.” I felt that way ‘cause they’re so specific, but it’s nice for you to say that. I guess putting the book out, I’ve realized that people have related to it who knew nothing about my past. But you know, your sister’s always gonna like the poem you write about your mum and dad. Right?

[Laughs] My sisters might not! But I was just visiting my family while reading your book, and on my last day I wanted to absorb as much of it as possible, because it made me think of my own relationship with my parents so much I wanted to leave the book with them. But I’m such a “book” book readerI love having the physical object—so it was bittersweet to leave it with my father to enjoy. He loves poetry too, and especially Irish poets, so I know he’s really going to appreciate your work and the ways you play with language. 

Can you talk about how you apply rhyme or rhythm or not in your poetry? Because I always found myself caught off-guard when the rhythm of a poem would change or shift or suddenly would emerge out of something that was less structured. I really enjoyed that as a reader, but also wanted so badly to be hearing them read aloud. 

I think they’re still kind of spoken word poems. When I’m writing them, I’m hearing my voice in my head saying them. Some of the rhymes are to do with the way I pronounce a word more than it being a genuine rhyme. So it’ll kind of be a half rhyme. Then when I’m really feeling like I’m in the zone with the poem—and this doesn’t always happen—but sometimes I have this idea that I’l actually control the reader through the rhyme.

I’ll sort of say, “Hey, certainly, look: now I’m rhyming, but I wasn’t rhyming at the start.” So I use it to change the mood of the poem. That’s one of my favorite games to play in poetry… the sort-of half rhyme or rhyming words that shouldn’t really—you wouldn’t necessarily think of rhyming. But if you start in a prose format and then end with a poem that rhymes, it’s almost like poems-within-a-poem. So I kind of like that idea.

I think that also relates to your paintings. Especially in some of your compositions, there are really lovely moments where the texture or size of brush strokes will shift and almost zoom the viewer’s attention into a detail set across a very lyrical background. I suppose that’s actually kind of a nice summation of both the book in terms of both text and imagery?

Yeah, the space of the paintings kind of comes from growing up in the mountains. Like the view of the city from the mountains was expansive. So that’s always been the sort of space—but then where you can zoom in on the potted plant on your table or whatever. Not that I put potted plants in the paintings! But you know, that wide view and then the closeup. That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought about that, but maybe the certain parts of the poems are closeups.

Maybe there’s a bit of a cinematic eye or to both? It’s interesting that so much of your practice grew out of experimenting with video. It’s almost like you’re filling in the sensory gaps that cinema can’t quite capture, using other media…

Yeah, I always think I’ll go back to video one day. I definitely enjoyed the video camera when I came out. When I was in undergrad my parents bought me a video camera as a present when I graduated. I had so much fun with that…. just filming moths on the walls, you know, stuff like that. 

Speaking of gifts parents give you, I keep coming back to this one line in “Perhaps I Ought.” I think it’s a nice sentiment to end on:

 “I always think of how I needed a father, but rarely of how you needed a son…”  

You just capture the complicated dynamics of family so well…

It was definitely a complicated relationship with my dad and I never had that thought—it never came to me until he was passing, when he was sick—it was like, “Oh, he needs me as well.” 

I think a lot of Irish people have complex relationships with their families. And for a lot of Irish sons, it’s with their father. You know, as a kid it seems like they’re always there for you, they’re your dad.

 

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