Piper O’Neill: Paper Dolls, Blood Roots

Posted on October 05, 2012, 4:47 pm
31 mins

Piper O Neill wears a pattern paper blouse of her own creation

Piper O’Neill wears a pattern paper blouse of her own creation.
Photo by Emery Studios.

It is difficult to succinctly describe the work of any artist without resorting to adjectives and phrases that are reductive and unworthy, even if one is immersed in the art world and knows the lingo. Most any attempt to describe the work of visual artists in conversation is painful, and yet we can’t help asking for a description when we hear an unfamiliar name. If the method and medium are peculiar, one can at least explain something besides general categories and philosophies, but this can be superficial and tedious. We all know that it takes time in the presence of a good work to get to know it, even if there doesn’t seem to be a lot going on.

In Piper O’Neill’s works, there is a lot going on, but there is a consistent language and cohesion to it all. The ubiquitous female figures and the use of stitching and pattern paper as part of her works will instantly attract the use of words like “feminist” and “feminine,” which can be off-putting to many people—thereby proving why we need distinctly female voices in art as much as ever. I have known O’Neill’s work for a little over a year now, and when I am asked by others to describe it, I always lead with the phrase, “She has a very strong anima.” In doing so, I am not trying to be grandiloquent; I am avoiding the feminist/feminine labels because I find them unsuitable. The energy behind these works is feminine, certainly, but of a universal nature. Piper’s female figures are girlish in stature, but they are worldly—perhaps even world-weary. We find in them a fusion of Maiden and Crone, figures that are archetypal and dwell in all humans alongside the other primal life forms that inhabit O’Neill’s world—insects, plants, and serpents.

I suppose one could best characterize O’Neill’s works as uncanny; the subjects and materials are initially perceived as familiar, even nostalgic, but become strange and eerie upon closer examination. O’Neill’s girls might even seem reminiscent of Rhoda Penmark, the young psychopath of The Bad Seed, but their presence within the works is not hostile, just haunting. Even the giant insects that often accompany or surround the girls don’t seem malevolent. At worst, they seem only to be misunderstood. And after you have spent time with the works, they become comforting and familiar again without losing their unique character.

Piper O’Neill’s own manner might be described similarly. She is a striking beauty and her light, spirited eyes bear no trace of weariness, let alone malice. She is poised and personable—completely without pretension. Speaking in relation to the haunting, liminal aspects of her work, I asked her if she had a favorite supernatural creature, to which she replied:

“I love vampires. There: I said it.”

Her favorite drink is even a little liminal (and unnerving to a hard liquor fan like me): “Rose champagne. I even mentioned it in my wedding vows.”

Indeed, when we sat down to chat, that is what she ordered. I didn’t hold it against her.

Blood Roots by Piper O Neill

“Blood Roots” by Piper O’Neill, 2011
Colored pencil, ink and pastel on collaged tissue paper [36 x 36]
Image courtesy of Winston Wächter Fine Art

But let’s start at the beginning: Every artist has an origin story, and I was particularly interested to hear O’Neill’s because of her ubiquitous girls and nursery-like figures. She had the unfettered childhood one might expect of an artist-to-be, but certainly not in a cosmopolitan center. Piper spent her first 18 years in Ouray, Colorado, a small mountain town that was a booming mining community in the 1800s, “complete with Chinese laundries, a red-light district, and a one-building school house,” she explains. Her graduating class had 12 people in it. Growing up in a remote hamlet might sound stifling to many people, but O’Neill thrived.

“I spent my youth in a very happy pursuit of constant creation, exploration and validation of the world around me through the art I created,” she explains. “My childhood world was very orderly and nurturing and firmly ensconced in Catholicism, thanks to my devout parents. It was steeped in traditions, family dinners and many, many hours making things with my mom and sister. There was structure and meaning to everything I did at that age, and it gave me great freedom.”

“I was a tomboy. I loved playing outside. I was able to roam about the mountain trails all day long in the summertime. It was wonderful: complete autonomy, complete freedom. I think having that autonomy at an early age made a strong impression me. It gave me the confidence to leave that tiny, sheltered town.”

O’Neill left Ouray to attend Parsons School of Design when she was 18. The new pace and pressure of life and school was demanding, but the real challenge to her lifelong plans came from an unexpected source.

“My last semester of my last year at Parsons, I took a course in postmodern literature. It kind of destroyed me. The structure, the meaning, my own views of life, everything—the color just went out of life. The lit class was a survey of postmodern theory; Heidegger, Derrida, Foucault, etc., and it blew apart my life’s order. I stopped attending mass. I stopped drawing. I just kind of submitted to the reality I thought I was condemned to live in because I now realized that there was no meaning or point to creating anything new. It had been done already.”

O’Neill left New York after graduation and worked as a graphic designer for a few years, apathetic and disconnected from life in general. Her views only began to change once she moved to Seattle, finished grad school, and left a toxic long-term relationship. In this, her realization that she wanted to pursue art was a gradual re-awakening, not an instant revelation.

“I starting drawing at night. My then-boyfriend, now-husband found a box of drawings stuffed under my couch, and after going through them, told me he was completely shocked to find this other ‘voice’ of mine. That made me quite sad because I then realized I had been long denying something that was as innate to me as breathing.”

Bound Together by Piper O Neill

“Bound Together” by Piper O’Neill, 2012
Colored pencil, ink and pastel on collaged tissue paper [36 x 36]
Image courtesy of Winston Wächter Fine Art

She learned what she knew intuitively at one time in her youth—that she wanted to live, “an authentic life validated by the things I make, the things I see.” This intuitive knowledge is not born out of childish narcissism, but a desire to reveal an unbroken thread of experience across generations, defying contemporary chaos and pop ephemerality. O’Neill recalls one early work called “Two Girls Spinning” as one of her first big “connecting moments.”

“I had gone back to New York for a week’s visit, and spent all day, every day at museums and galleries. I spent the evenings with a dear artist friend and mentor, discussing my day’s finds and what I took away from them. It was an absolutely wonderful, intense, dream of a week…during a heat wave, no less. When I came back to Seattle I was feverish to get to work. ‘Two Girl’s Spinning’ addressed my fervent need to connect with the material visual lineage I had inherited from my mother and grandmothers. The tissue paper, the same material I used growing up sewing with my mom, felt so comforting and natural. It was like rediscovering this lovely, multi-layered onion-skin of my own family history, and when I started drawing on it, layering it, sewing it, I felt what can only be described as a soft, yet explosive, visual catharsis. It definitely set me on a course that still defines my work.”

Encountering new work while revisiting the past, immersing herself in art, film, and music “is the most enjoyable yet absolutely critical part” of O’Neill’s process. The physical materials of pattern reference “women’s” work that is carefully planned and rigidly structured—the creation of a garment, which is itself can be a protective and restrictive object. But O’Neill prefers to be more spontaneous and allow things to drift from the subconscious. “I think that’s so fun…I’ve found, time after time, things start to make sense after I’ve finished a piece.  If I think about it too much early on, or try to dissect the meaning of something I’m drawing, I end up fucking it up. It’s much better to just let loose, do the work, and try to make sense of it later.”

Hearing this from O’Neill, I could not help but think that she was a fan of David Lynch; he has expressed similar sentiments in interviews. Indeed, when I asked her what films inspired her, she replied, “Anything directed by David Lynch, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola, Sally Potter, Krzysztof Kieslowski.”

And writers?

“Isabel Allende, Kate Chopin, Malcolm Gladwell, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.”

These are indeed the sort of works that would appeal to one who is charting interior worlds that are at odds with an uncertain exterior and must make peace with it through nostalgia, symbolism, and imagination, layer by layer. O’Neill’s work is playful in its use of novel materials in a blend of drawing, painting, sewing, and collage. The latter two will no doubt inspire some viewers to call her work “crafty” or “decorative,” which is in some circles even more derogatory than the aforementioned “feminine” and “feminist.” She is, however, unperturbed.

“I embrace the decorative. When trying to define my life experience, the stuff in it, oftentimes it is the decorative notions that provide the most insight. My grandmother’s quilts, the matching dresses my mom made for my sister and me growing up—were they decorative? Absolutely.”

“As a child, I volunteered during the summers at the [Ouray country] museum. I would lovingly dust the Victorian glass cases filled with the decorative notions that defined the period; spectacles, pillboxes, hair combs, forget-me-not embroidered pillows from a brothel, even an incredibly creepy skeleton of a ‘mermaid.’ When I revisited these artifacts, I realized how precious they were and how lucky I was to grow up looking at these things from another time. Decorative, yes, but they provided me with enough information to create narratives, to see the world through the perspective of someone from another time. I consider my work decorative only in the sense that I reference populist notions and use populist material; one can buy pattern tissue at any sewing store. All the while, I am exploring notions of inherited histories.”

These artifacts—decorative and otherwise—are material documents of another time and place, another market. Yet, she remains understandably wary of contemporary markets and pop culture, though there is no escaping them. She states explicitly that she does not let too much of it into her life because she doesn’t want it sneaking into her work.

“I am very uncomfortable with pop culture. It feels so empty and so lacking in wisdom and wit, yet even I feel a compulsive need to consume it. I hate that. It bothers me so much that the most recognizable people in our society are often the ones who contribute so little in a true creative or intellectual capacity. In my work I often depict young girls with stoic expressions. It’s not that I’m trying to portray the girls with contempt for the world. Rather, they are in another place all together—an internal place of peace and confidence where they don’t feel compelled to engage or validate what they see around them just because there is pressure to do so. Like Walt Whitman said, ‘Re-examine all that you have been told… dismiss that which insults your soul.’”

Indeed, consumerism’s endless recycling of concept is illuminated by and intimately bound with the postmodern theory that at one time destroyed her joie de vivre. She re-examined, and re-re-examined and returned to her roots with new wisdom. But as she uses older objects to makes sense of her own history, O’Neill may help others make sense of their own. O’Neill sees pop culture as lacking (or even obscuring) moral frameworks, and she attempts to counter that with her own web of symbols.

“I’m not trying to create a moral imperative, but as I see pop culture—and its objectification of women, specifically—I feel compelled to reject that paradigm completely and instead reference earlier periods. I see the irony in this: I reject modern day ‘decorativism’ in favor of yesterday’s. Maybe 100 years from now an artist will find great pleasure and insight from Kim Kardashian’s eyelash extensions. However, I think not.”

Blue Eyed Devil by Piper O Neill, who received this nickname from artist Kiki Smith

“Blue-Eyed Devil” by Piper O’Neill, 2011
Colored pencil, ink and pastel on collaged tissue paper [50 x 50]
The eponymous work of O’Neill’s 2011 show at Winston Wächter, she received this nickname from artist Kiki Smith
Image courtesy of Winston Wächter Fine Art

Some might claim that if the objectification of women is such an issue to O’Neill, then referencing earlier periods when women were much more subjugated is also ironic. It was a little over a century ago that Emily Burbank wrote Woman as Decoration in praise of females who were happy to exist solely as objects of adoration. The female form preened and posed was the ultimate decoration, a work of art. This seems like the apotheosis of objectification, sinister in its reverence, and yet in context this was indeed the best that women could hope for without the right to vote, live independently (without terrible scorn), or even be viewed as a spiritual equal with a man.

There is certainly nothing liberating about that old paradigm, but that is not what comes to mind when one views O’Neill’s works. What is evoked in her references to that time—what is even evident in works like Woman as Decoration, which is execrable from a feminist/humanist standpoint—is a desire for cohesion and beauty, a sense of reverence and that powerful Anima, which all stand in stark contrast to today’s garish, tawdry pop ephemera—an unregulated Id— in which women are still objectified, but ever more artlessly and with ever more conformity. Women are expected to be Mother, Slut, and Saint. There’s no room for them to be wise or child-like. O’Neill’s work creates the framework, a document of that expanded experience which some will immediately recognize which will edify all with its larger heritage.

“The challenge in creating work that speaks to inherited histories, to nostalgia, is using a lexicon of personal symbols without becoming formulaic. I think the best way to do this is to simply be prolific—put no constraints or expectations on the work, and edit later. There will of course be redundancies and just plain unusable stuff, but the work continues to evolve without a preconceived formula.”

Bugs are a salient part of O’Neill’s “lexicon of personal symbols,” but they inspire very different reactions among viewers, from amusement to revulsion. O’Neill the child explorer, the tomboy, unsurprisingly sees them in a positive light, and that includes the variety of reactions they inspire.

“I love bugs. I also love the mixed connotations they have, as with all things from nature. Butterflies and dragonflies are feminine and delicate; spiders and beetles are evil and dirty. There’s that layer of meaning that I find interesting, but I also like the earthiness of bugs. There is something very direct and completely altruistic about things with eight legs, regardless of their bastardization in culture. One could infer that the insects are either just decorative—or even adversarial in the case of the inherently masculine beetles. But in my view, the insects are benevolent foils or allies for the girls. A scorpion standing next to a girl in a pinafore suggests a strength of will or iron resolve just waiting to be tested. A veil of flying grasshoppers suggests the girl’s strong connection with nature. Having grown up somewhat wild in the mountains, I have a great respect for nature and know that behind the beauty of a columbine wild flower, for example, exists an extremely hardy and strong flower that can literally poke out through a snow drift.”

Flowers and girl power: If people don’t come up with the words “feminine” or “feminist” to describe O’Neill’s works off the cuff, then they will after reading this. Again, if someone uses these words in an unflattering way, they are only proving the need for feminist/feminine art. However, I insist that the mot just is Animus (with a touch of “animism”, as the girls stand surrounded by their totemic insect allies). O’Neill clearly doesn’t mind the feminist categorization, but her words reveal that the work remains more philosophical than political, and Feminism is often represented as more the latter than the former. She addresses this issue eloquently. In her words:

“Some of the artists whose work I most admire are considered feminists, so I don’t dislike the categorization. However, I feel the need to redefine the concept to address things problematic in our society now. I feel kind of embarrassed for the digression young women have made in recent generations. Where previous generations fought for the right to vote, the right for equal treatment in society in large, I feel like we have let those generations down in a sense. We are obsessed with this unattainable alien-like beauty, a one-dimensional Barbarella image, and seem to have little regard for seeking authentic and compelling life experiences. There are a handful of women in my life who are dear friends and mentors to me who are all in their late 50s to early 70s, and I constantly think, I don’t want to disappoint them. They are mostly artists. These women are—at least to me—the ultimate feminists. They have tenacity and drive to show the world as they see it. They have intelligence and, most importantly, kindness and desire to share their wisdom and experience with younger artists. It’s these women I aspire to be like, and if that makes me a feminist artist, I welcome that distinction.”

The political is in many ways a shadow of the philosophical. This is not to denigrate either side as both are necessary; the philosophical is more universal, often more lasting, and the political engages the world in more immediate, urgent ways. Perhaps O’Neill’s secure, traditional and somewhat isolated youth in the grandeur of nature has instilled in her a preference for the philosophical, the thread between generations and the traditions and crafts that make physically manifest these connections across time. Still, she is not averse to the political, and she has her causes, especially animal rights and advocating for a plant-based diet.

“I’m not really of a mind to politicize things in my work, but life revelations have a way of working their way in, no?”

As life’s revelations creep in, O’Neill expands into new media. She recently began making animations and designed large, toy cubes cut from metal. The animations shown at her latest show at Winston Wächter Gallery grew out of an earlier project (once again from her exploration of archives and museums).

“I had created a bunch of short animations inspired by some amazing music I’d sourced through the Smithsonian archives. They were really fun to make; paper cutouts I then shot on my iPhone and later animated. Seriously. It was low-tech. I showed these at 4Culture’s E4C show and around that time, I met Chris Ballew, frontman of the Presidents of the United States of America and his lovely wife, artist Kate Endle. We began discussing a collaboration for his new album. The song, Baby Cloud, that Chris asked me to animate went straight through my heart the first time I heard it. It encapsulated so perfectly the beautiful yet lonely place I feel sometimes when I work. His song was an absolute pleasure to work around.”

And the cubes?

“The cubes resulted from my collecting Victorian children’s toy cubes. Like the Victorian children’s primers I’ve referenced in earlier work, there was a very strict tutelage inferred in each scene on the cubes. It expected the child to be rather mature to understand the themes, which were somewhat serious. I found this compelling and wanted to create my own version, depicting girls grappling with serious subject matter while surrounded by notions of whimsy, like hand shadows, lace, stars and, yes…bugs.”

Branching into new media often opens floodgates of new project ideas for artists. I ask what O’Neill would do if she could create a large installation with an unlimited budget. She demurs:

“I can’t tell you because I’m still hoping it will happen. Someday.”

Which of course leads nosy, old me to press her a bit for some specifics.

“I have a large outdoor project I’d like to do that celebrates Seattle’s history. I’ll leave it at that for now, as I’m actually proposing the project now.”

I know better than to ask beyond that, but it is an exciting prospect. Seeing Seattle’s history through O’Neill’s penetrating, simultaneously child-like and worldly eyes could be fascinating. To her mind, what is the secret to maintaining that child-like wonder? Many people would love to know.

“This is a hard question. I think I had to lose my child-vision before I could learn to get it back. I would say now that it’s not so much about seeing things with innocence or altruistically, but being strong enough to not let the jaded things in life change you or diminish your ability to find pleasure in everyday life.”

Having regained her “child-vision” with greater wisdom and the experience necessary to support her translation of it into an artistic form, O’Neill seems to prove the axiom: all art is self-portrait. Indeed, there is much of O’Neill in her girls, but they are themselves, too. They are all individuals sharing a common experience that some will call “feminine,” but I would call fully human. And when I ask her if she misses anything from childhood, she gives the best possible answer.

“I feel like I still get to do what I loved most as a child: make stuff. So I don’t miss anything about childhood.”

T.s. Flock is a writer and arts critic based in Seattle and co-founder of Vanguard Seattle.

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