Stilled Life: The Ceramics of Kelly O'BrianT

By Peter Held,
Former Curator of Ceramics,
Arizona State University Art Museum Ceramics Research Center

Detail, The Things We Carry- 2017

Detail, The Things We Carry- 2017

With contemporary society awash in current unease and migration, artists are becoming increasingly reflective of displacement on individual and collective psychologies. Particularly urgent and timely has been the examination of a “sense of place,” exploring an aggregate of geographical, cultural, and familial histories past and present, rooted and uprooted in our current times.

Kelly O’Briant has ranged far from her North Carolinian roots, exploring and expanding her craft, while meditating on issues of universal concern. Recently she has been in residence in Jingdezhen, China, the porcelain capital of the world, known for its centuries-old ceramic production and skilled craftsmen who facilitate working processes for international artists.

Migration, rootlessness, and the quest for home has become a compelling theme in contemporary art. The Museum of Modern Art exhibited Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series in 2015, followed a year later by Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter. In the summer of 2017, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art mounted the work of forty-two Latino and Latin-American artists in the exhibition Home-So Different, So Appealing of which Peter Schjeldahl wrote in The New Yorker (June 26, 2017), “…a primordial idea: home, where you hang your hat, if you have one, and where the heart is or, for some grim reason, fails to be.”

During her residency at Jingdezhen, O’Briant completed the work All the Good Things, consisting of a meditative assemblage of 150 gold-lustered bowls containing porcelain seeds.  Not unlike Ai Wei Wei’s Sunflower Seeds project, which argued for human compassion during a period of uncertainty, All the Good Things embraces optimism in the face of impermanence. While the significance of gold is an important part of the Chinese culture, associated with abundance and high status, O’Briant explains that the seeds represent her migratory travel and work experiences marked by the generosity and gestures of gratitude of those encountered along the way.

The Things We Carry, also completed in China, is composed of twelve porcelain rooftop homes, embedded with household objects impressed on the exterior surface. O’Briant has remarked that, “reminiscent of the traditional still life, these installations capture a moment of intimacy between everyday objects and their users; illustrating patterns of communication habits, story-telling, and community.” Such rumination was accelerated by her observations of China’s historic neighborhoods undergoing demolition and rebuilding, resulting, sometimes in the blink of the eye, in individual displacement resulting in a society unhinged from its history. 

Impenetrable without entrance, they act as a collective memory bank, traces of utensils and textile designs formed in the walls of an illusionary dwelling are a distillation of the artist’s untethered nomadic journeys and her desire for secure anchorage. The use of repetitive forms, monochromatic glazing, and familiar objects place O’Briant’s installations in both the concrete and metaphorical realms.  

Balancing the qualms of recent moves, the artist finds reaffirmation of belonging with her passion for her chosen material and the closely-knit community of clay workers worldwide. Like all good art, deeply felt conviction is buoyed by well-honed craftsmanship, resulting in shared experience for fellow travelers.