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Beg The Question: Get to know Hattiesburg Artist Blake O’Brien

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A painting is often viewed as the end product, the final pretty picture, and not the process or thoughts flowing from the artist’s mind. For Gulf Coast native Blake O’Brien, the method is the art, streaming directly from his subconscious. A recent University of Southern Mississippi graduate and winner of the Mississippi Collegiate Art Competition, Blake works with oil, ink and charcoal. The result is something dark, secretive and unanswered. Thankfully, the artist answered DIME’s questions since we can’t get enough of his work.

K: How did you get introduced to and involved with art?
B: Well I’ve drawn casually my whole life. When college came around, I wasn’t really sure what to look for. I decided to go to USM just because it was where my friends were going. Initially, I considered Graphic or Industrial Design, but my sophomore year I took a painting class with Janet Gorzegno, and shortly after with Jim Meade. I was introduced to a completely different way of thinking. I learned what painting is truly about, and I became obsessed. Little else interested me after meeting these professors, and fortunately my parents supported the decision to change my major, despite the probable career instability.

K: What would you say your favorite piece is?
B: I don’t know. At this point I’m really not a fan of any of them. I think that’s because I don’t want to be creating individual paintings, but rather a consistent, more holistic stream of work. Right now, and for a long time, I have been making one painting at a time, with a completely different idea for each. But a good painter makes paintings which all work together in the sense that they are collectively one idea that is seriously investigated over a long period of time, and that’s how you get good at things in any field. But right now I’m in a state of flux as a young artist, in which I’m trying to find my “voice” or “style”, as they say. So I really just don’t like my paintings, but I think that’s healthy for an artist because it encourages improvement.

K: Are there any projects that you’re working on right now?
B: Well, I’m always painting, just to keep my hand in, but I recently went on a family vacation to Gatlinburg and found some pretty major inspiration. My grandma passed away around two years ago, and her best friend (also named Linda) came on the trip. We brought a box of old family photos from my grandma’s attic to ask her about. She couldn’t help us identify very many people, but they have grown to be extremely useful for me as starting points for paintings. I assume many of the figures in the photos are members of my family that I never knew, and I think that gives them a weird connection to myself. I’m not very sentimental, so I think it’s interesting how I like these just for their visual energy, and really don’t care much about the family connection. Anyway, I’m doing a series of large paintings made from these photos. I use the word “from” because they’re used as a starting point. I move from the actual image and create a scenario and composition of my own, inspired by that initial point. I’ll have a one-man show of the series at Saladino Gallery in Covington, La., opening October 8th.

K: Who would you say your favorite musical artists are?
B: My favorite band is Radiohead. I think their music has a syntax between form and content, which is what I want in painting as well. Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, and Paul Simon are some of my favorite songwriters. Recently, I’ve discovered The National, so I’ve been listening to them a lot also. Music is really important for me, it’s kind of my first love. I was deeply into music well before I learned about real painting, and now I almost always listen to music while I paint.

K: Who are your favorite visual artists?
B: So among visual artists I think Matisse and Picasso have been the most influential. But it changes all the time, I always become infatuated with new artists that I discover, and then for a few weeks I let them influence my work in a superficial kind of way, and then I discover someone new and it repeats. Lately I’ve been all about Danny Fox and Rose Wylie, but a few weeks ago it was Peter Doig (for probably the tenth time) and Sean Scully. I’ve had some serious one-way relationships with Michael Borremans, R.B. Kitaj, Georges Braque, Anselm Kiefer, Max Beckmann, Georges Rouault, Marc Chagall, and many others. I think in my case I actually enjoy paintings more than say, nature or the figure or some “real-life” thing. Almost all of my inspiration comes from other paintings. So I love a lot of artists, but it’s hard to verbalize why. It may be some kind of metaphysical connection or energy. But it can’t really be talked about because it can’t be put into words because it isn’t words. It’s visual form — color, shape, etc. — and that is the language. That’s what a lot of people don’t get about art. It isn’t a verbal message translated into semiotics or something.

K: I see that your art is a little on the darker side. What channels that and makes these images come to mind as you’re drawing them?
B: For a while now I’ve been really interested in black. A lot of people consider my work to be ominous, but I don’t. I just like black paint. It’s has a rawness about it, and you can get a lot of contrast with it, which I like. I like my work to have a bit of a visual punch, to catch your eye and keep it there. In school, I had to define a visual problem to work on and what I was good at was dark/light contrast, so I just sort of stuck with it after school. But now I’m trying to incorporate other elements and maybe sort of modulate into something else entirely over time. As for what may channel the images that arise, I’m not sure, but that’s probably why I work actually. I’m interested in beginning on a canvas and having no idea where it’s going to end. I wrestle with the image for a long time, and change it all around until something shows that I like. So I’m into the process of creating, and finding something within that I wouldn’t have known was there otherwise.

K: What is your favorite movie and why?
B: I think my favorite movie is Birdman. It kind of parallels with what my favorite bands and painters do. There’s some kind of abstract representation of the human element and existence that appeals to me, and I think that’s a common thread among the artists that I like. But anyways, I love movies. All of Wes Anderson’s are great.

K: What art exhibits have you attended that stand out to you? Why?
B: Last summer my mom and I traveled through Europe for a month, so I got to see a massive amount of incredible art. I went to something like 40 really major museums, it was an amazing time. But I think among everything I saw over there the Picasso Museum in Paris may have been my favorite. I also saw a big retrospective of Bonnard’s work at Musee D’Orsay, also in Paris. Bonnard is a painter whose work must be seen in person because good color doesn’t transfer right in a reproduction. It was beautiful. I could go on about a bunch of shows but I’ll just stop there.

K: Name something you absolutely couldn’t do without.
B: Coffee.

K: If you had to listen to one song everyday for the rest of your life, what would it be?
B: My favorite song is “Go to Sleep” [by Radiohead] so probably that one.

K: So you’ve graduated and you’re out of school. What now?
B: I would like to go to graduate school, get a masters degree and be a professor for painting.

Written by

Kendra Smith-Parks was born and raised in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. She moved to Hattiesburg three years ago to pursue writing and become a journalism student. Now residing in Hattiesburg permanently, she is a full time student at Southern Miss. Dime is lucky to have her as its very first journalism intern. In the meantime she is probably eating ice cream, waiting tables at Cotton Blues or drowning in homework. You can catch her at your local restaurant or music venue around the Dirty South.

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