SHAUN O’CONNOR

Interview by Amelia Shaw. Portrait Photography by Davis Hawk. Video profile piece by Sam Scoufos.

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Amelia: Describe your path to becoming an artist.

Shaun: Since as far back as I remember I have always had an inclination to fix, make, draw, write, paint, customize or alter things. I would pour over images and objects I collected as a kid and think about how they were made or what they might mean. I was fascinated by the power of images and how they often seemed to take on a life of their own.

I suppose that way of thinking or connecting to the world stays with you. I’m a visual person, that’s how I think.

I was always most interested in art class at school it just made the most sense. I would always have different creative projects going on at school and at home like making drawings, painting, writing graffiti or building skate ramps etc.. Even when I went to art school I would have the work and projects I was asked to do in class and then I would have other art projects going on like tagging or making zines or prints which was usually the stuff I really wanted to do.

I’m first generation Australian and from a working class family so making, fixing things and working with your hands was just part and parcel of my home life. I was always interested in creativity but in high school I didn’t even know that being an artist was a career choice, I thought that was something that only existed in Europe or history books. Given my obsession with lettering and writing while in high school I figured my only option was to become a signwriter as it seemed like an honest day job that was sort of close to what I was interested in. At that point though traditional signwriting was dying a fast death with the advent of digital media and vinyl cut lettering etc so I didn’t really know what to do, maybe a graphic artist, film school? I was introduced to graffiti writing culture through books like Subway Art but also skateboarding magazines like Thrasher led me to check out other types of art that connected with those movements like punk rock, hip hop, pop art, tattooing, comic books and custom culture etc.

Eventually I went to art school in my early twenties where I received a graduate art education. It showed me how to sustain a professional studio based art practice through research and process etc. I really immersed myself in the studio and worked as hard as I could while I was there and began showing my work with artist run galleries around Brisbane. Art school was a huge learning curve as it really helped me to consolidate a lot of my ideas and interests but also introduced me to new ways of going about things… I finished art school in 2001 and have continued making and showing my work independently ever since.

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A: Was creativity part of your childhood?

S: Absolutely. My best friend and I were Lego obsessives and would spend days constructing all types of huge installations that would take days to build and dismantle.   It would get intense to the point where we would get into fistfights over who could use particular rare or one off Lego pieces in the set.  When we weren’t doing that we’d be in the backyard or garage fine tuning or painting our BMX bikes. My father is a builder who was always making or fixing things so I was always around workshops, building sites and materials, tools etc.  I learnt to visualize and build things with my hands from a young age. At home I always had access to an abundance of art materials and stationary that I would make daily use of. My grandfather is a collector war era jazz records and he had his own weekly radio show and so I would spend a lot of time hanging out with him and listening to his records or working on different projects in his woodshop.  My grandmother was also an amateur oil portrait painter who would help me out by giving me vintage sets of oil paints and old art books to use when I was in art school.

When I was twelve my parents took us on a family trip to Sydney where I discovered hip hop style graffiti for the first time. I was immediately hooked. I would invent new words and just sit in my room and write the same thing over and over again in an attempt to refine and replicate the style of cryptic writing I’d seen on the street. Thinking back it was like some kind of weird ocd therapy… Up until then I’d only seen fairly shitty graffiti in my home town. I remember “REBELS” (sic) sprayed in yellow in a bus shelter across from school and “SID LIVES” sprayed on a warehouse around the corner from my grandmothers shop, maybe some old political stuff. My first tag was “RAD” (seriously I’m not kidding) in dope 80’s 3-D type bubble letters…

 

How has Skateboarding and BMX influenced you as an artist?

In the mid to late eighties my buddies and I were race and freestyle BMX fiends and the BMX magazines at the time started to occasionally cover skateboarding.  I think I had a red plastic banana board at this point but seeing my first Powell ad that listed all their product just blew my mind. It was around this time I also saw a pic of Rodney Mullen ollying over a milk crate.  We didn’t get it, how the fuck did he get there and how is the board stuck to his feet? It was like discovering the new era of skateboarding because before this time all we knew about skating came from the seventies Russ Howell book in our school library with surfers doing barefoot handstands and gorilla grips and stuff. We were stoked on this new thing and so BMX kind of led me into skateboarding like I think it did for a lot of kids in the mid to late eighties. My best friend and I eventually hooked up pro setups and it was on! I had a Vision Hippie Stick and my best bud had the Vision Gator. I feel like those graphics are forever etched into my brain.

Skateboarding has been a huge part of my life, it really changes the way you perceive and interact with the world around you. As a suburban kid in the middle of nowhere it really opens you up to a whole underground culture of subversive art, music, politics and ideas. You start to re-think and reconsider your shitty environment and everything around you. You become part of a large international community of outsiders and you begin to think critically and independently at a young age. It’s like going to art school before going to art school but even better because it’s totally sincere and honest. Through skateboarding you meet a loose community of weirdos and you start looking at the world anew.  At twelve or thirteen you’re examining the shitty suburban architecture around you and you’re reinterpreting it, designing and building backyard ramps, sharing ideas and dealing with authority and the politics of people who don’t understand what you’re doing. In general I just feel that skateboarders are just wired a little differently than most. It’s just something that moved me in so many ways from the get go.

 

What other influences have been vital to your artistic expression?

I like looking at at different types of outsider art for want of a better term. Like folk art, prison art, hobo art, traditional sign painting, custom culture etc.  I like watching documentary films, history, science fiction.

www.shaunoconnor.net

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Shaun O’Connor is an Australian-born Brooklyn-based visual artist.

Shaun O'Connor- Artist

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Basswood, modified found objects, resin and enamel
2014
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Cardboard, thermal adhesive, resin, lacquer and spray enamel
2011

Why did you gravitate to New York/Brooklyn?

I met my wife here and we both work in creative fields so we decided this is where we want to live and work. We love our neighbourhood and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

 

How does living in Brooklyn impact your creativity and your work?

I like the people here, the vibe and the work ethic, it feels good to be surrounded by creative people non stop. I like the architecture and the history of the city itself, I like how things here wear down or wear out it’s like a patchwork. My work feeds off whatever environment I find myself in and so I really like this city it just works for me.

 

Has there been a point when you’ve decided to take a big risk to move forward?

Probably moving to NYC in 2008 to be with my wife. I moved here the week the financial crisis happened.

 

Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something outside of yourself?

I feel invested in making work that connects with concepts that are hopefully larger and more interesting than my own ego. You strive to make work that speaks for itself and hopefully connects with a range of people in different ways.

Last year I was invited to make self portrait for a museum show. Making a self portrait is really not something I would usually consider doing so with that in mind it seemed like a challenge.  If you saw the work displayed outside the self portrait exhibition you would only know that the work is a self portrait if I or someone else told you. It’s a sculpture I made of a hand drawn heraldic style ribbon/scroll that contained no script or words so I decided to  reverse the two colors it was made up of.  The black outline became the fill color and the original cream fill color became the outline etc.  I’d been reading a lot about Rauchenberg’s erased DeKooning work that he made so it was kind of playing with that same idea.  It was also a really fun work to make.

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Cardboard, thermal adhesive, resin, lacquer and spray enamel
2011

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Plywood, construction adhesive, resin, lacquer and spray enamel
2013

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Infinite video loop
2008

Are you creatively satisfied?

I think so, yes. I try to trust my instincts and I work with what I have in terms of budget, time, materials,limitations etc and not angst about anything too hard. I’m also a big believer in finishing things.

I’m most satisfied when I’m in the studio working and things are on a roll. I’ll often begin with a specific idea or concept but much of the thinking is often in the making itself. You work through ideas and eventually new and hopefully interesting things start to emerge, when that’s happening there’s really nothing more satisfying.

 

Is there anything you’re interested in doing or exploring in the next 5 to 10 years?

Travel, eat more real food, build a cabin upstate.

 

What advice would you give to a young person starting out?

Find your own joy and satisfaction in what you do, collaborate with your friends and peers on getting your own thing going rather than waiting around for permission or opportunity.  Never stop researching.

 

What does a typical day look like for you?

I wake up, feed my cat , cook and eat breakfast with my wife.

Check my email, if the weather is mostly good get on my bike and go check my mail box, stop at the hardware or art store then head to the studio which is about a fifteen minute ride from home. I’ll often ride a different way to or from the studio so I can explore parts of the neighborhood I haven’t ridden through before, maybe film or take some pictures or collect some materials on the way. When I get to the studio I divide my time between editing images, cleaning or organizing the space and working on new paintings and sculpture, read, make lists, maybe work on any bike projects have going on. I might drop in on my buddy Joao who has a studio down the hall.  Usually ride home around 10 or 11 or maybe stay later or sleep in the studio if I’m working on a deadline.

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Cardboard, thermal adhesive, resin, lacquer and spray enamel
2011

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Enamel, spray paint, corrugated plastic and wood
2014

Are there any albums or musicians that you’re listening to right now?

A lot of Doom/stoner stuff; Sabbath, Sleep, Saint Vitus… I like the Smiths a lot and sometimes don’t really listen to anything else. I like grimey NYC hip hop like Mobb Deep, Prodigy.  This week  the Minutemen, The Evens, Nick Cave, J Dilla. I can get stuck on one album for months or sometimes just listen to movies while I work in the studio.

 

What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?

I hope to create beautiful images that resonate with people in meaningful ways.

 

Did you have an “aha” moment along the way when you knew you wanted to make a living doing art?

The first time I went to art school I dropped out after a couple of months. I had just moved cities and out of home, was broke and just wasn’t feeling the school I went to.  Their whole vibe felt dated and skateboarding with my friends, smoking weed, drawing, tagging, taking photographs, building ramps and collaborating on art projects in our share house was far more interesting.

It was not until I ended up working in a shitty book factory making art books that I realized I could not do that for any extended period of time without wanting to end it all.  It was at that point that I decided to enroll at a different art school that was a little more to my liking and closer suited to the way I work. I knew this was what I wanted to spend the majority of my time doing at whatever cost.

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A few years back you were involved in A History of Brisbane Skateboarding in Brisbane, what inspired that and how were you involved?

In 2011 I was consultant curator on The Stoke- Skateboarding in Brisbane. I had curated some smaller scale art shows around Brisbane and of course had been involved in Skateboarding for a long time. I’d been throwing around the idea of putting together a skate exhibition and then out of the blue the Museum of Brisbane approached me and asked me if I’d be interested in putting a skateboard show together. I had exhibited and worked with the museum in the past so they were familiar with my background and interests. The timing was perfect, I couldn’t believe it, I had been seriously researching this idea for some time but just needed a venue. It was like all my interests had culminated in one project; skateboarding, contemporary art, curating, collecting and social history. I was stoked to be offered this opportunity to say the least. At the time it seemed that the Sydney and Melbourne skate scenes had been documented through various large scale projects and received a lot of attention but Brisbane had yet to share it’s story in any kind of in depth way. This was a the perfect opportunity to put a story together. Some two years later and with much work The Stoke opened to the public.

In my proposal to the museum I floated the idea that we should build a replica of the famous Moorooka Skate Shed plywood bowl in the space thinking that there was no way that the museum directors would go for it. To my surprise they loved the idea and actually pushed for it. We employed the skills of master shipwright and ramp builder Guy Davis who was the original architect of the Moorooka Skate Shed bowl some twenty years earlier. The new museum venue had fairly low ceilings so the bowl was a scaled down mini version of the original. Guy’s craftsmanship is superb and it really was a beautiful large piece of plywood sculpture that occupied the center of the exhibition space. Visitors were invited to skate the bowl daily and when it wasn’t being skated it would double as a theatre/lounge where people could chill and watch skate videos. We showed board collections, profiled skateboarders through photographs, video interviews, zines, media and talks. The exhibition would not have been possible without the input of Andy Mackenzie who was the owner of Brisbane’s Moorooka Skate Shed back in the day, KWALA skateboards distributor and all round encyclopedic source of Australian skateboarding history. Andy has an extensive historic collection of boards dating way back that he generously lent for the exhibit and was basically the linchpin that held it all together. He also asked Mike Palm from Agent Orange to design the logo for the exhibition in the classic Agent Orange exploding style orange font which he kindly did. Amazing. So many other Brisbane skateboarders also gave their time, skills, stories and loaned their stuff for the show for which I’m eternally grateful. It was a huge undertaking that really exceeded everyone’s expectations including mine. Just being in the exhibition space the opening weekend and seeing a twelve year old skate rat in a Slayer shirt walk in, stop dead in his tracks and see his jaw drop to the ground really made the whole project worthwhile.

 

Before you moved to New York how did Brisbane support you artistically?

I would show with various artist run and contemporary art spaces in and around Brisbane and several projects with artist run and commercial spaces in Sydney and Melbourne. During this time I worked as a Museum Preparator installing and handling artworks. I worked for some time for a university art museum but also moved around working for other large art institutions and sometimes freelance stuff. It’s great work you meet a lot of cool people and get to handle some beautiful things.

 

Who is your mentor?

My cat.

 

Video by scoufos.com