On Sept. 30, Gary and Kyle O’Neil, the father-daughter artist team, participated in Wesleyan Potters’ first Artist Talk. Surrounded by family, friends, and intrigued community members, the artists discussed the creative process behind their newest exhibition, “Comforts from Home,” in a talk titled “Breaking the Barrier: Translating a Theme into a Body of Work.”
The exhibition features animal-like figures, pots, and monoprints, all of which contained parts of furniture and household items that Gary saved from his great-grandparents’ house in the 1990s. As his family helped move the older generation out to more accessible housing, where his relatives saw garbage, Gary saw opportunity.
“Everybody didn’t see what I saw,” Gary said. “Whatever was broken or just not right that was going in the dumpster I grabbed and I said, ‘Someday, I’m gonna do something with it.’”
Gary, a Wangunk family historian, builds upon the forms of recording his history and storytelling with this exhibition. Gary was born and raised in the Middletown area and has had a long history with Wesleyan Potters. He was first introduced to the pottery center in the 1960s through an art teacher’s urging, and at age 15, he began an apprenticeship there.
“I’ve had every job at Wesleyan Potters from cleaning shelves, to sweeping, to working the parking lot during the Christmas sale,” he said.
Wesleyan Potters hired him directly out of school, and he worked his way up from teaching children’s pottery, to teenage pottery, and now to adult pottery. Along the way, Gary had a daughter: Kyle.
“Thank you for coming tonight.” Kyle said, opening the talk. “I started making monoprints when I was 14 and my father was grown….I use textures in all my work. I liked the reception for my exhibit because my friends came to see my monoprints.”
Kyle has Down syndrome, but despite her disability she has been creating pieces since 1999. Gary discussed the challenges of getting Kyle confident at the beginning of her artistic career. When she was young, Kyle cut up coupons with scissors to connect with others.
“Someday she’s not going to cut the numbers,” Gary said in defense of her habit. “For her to make those associations like [cutting coupons related to] her van driver that has cats, [or] grandma that colors her hair, there’s a lot being learned.”
Soon, Kyle began to produce work on a regular basis and eventually was asked to show several pieces at the first World Down Syndrome Day at the United Nations in 2012.
“The biggest thing I ever gave Kyle was time,” Gary said. “And I don’t care what anybody says about raising kids. When you give somebody time, and quality time, you can’t go wrong.”
Gary pivoted to the personal nature of the exhibit’s subject matter.
“Kyle and I have had many shows together, but this is the most emotionally-charged exhibit I’ve ever done in my life and that’s for a lot of reasons….This show I have thought about for so long because I wanted to do something that was meaningful.”
Gary and Kyle have collaborated on exhibits before: “Continued Journey” at Wesleyan Potters, “Faith in Possibility” and “Leap of Faith, Legacy of Faith” at Gallery 53. However, this exhibition is new territory for the duo.
“People think it’s about a religious experience, “ he chuckled. “But it’s really about the relationship that we have and how we’ve believed in each other and…how we’ve worked together. This is the first exhibit we’ve had where she was printing and I was building with the same material. Usually, she gets textures and does all kinds of crazy things and mine usually are just nice pots. And I wanted to do something that was more than just nice pots. I wanted to go back.”
During the process of breaking down family heirlooms, Gary continually recollected the importance of his great-grandparents on his life.
“We have these great-grandparents, not just on one side, but on both sides [of our families] and we were fortunate enough to know that when we were [at their house] the rest of the world didn’t matter,” Gary said, teary eyed. “It was the safest place anybody could be.”
Gary discussed why he created what he made and which pieces he began to build the collection from. The artist talked about the importance of the textures of materials used in his pieces and how he based his creations on his great-grandmother’s commitment to recycling.
“I want to put something together that really is reflective of my childhood,” Gary recalled. “The animals were the first so I brought laughter to myself….We could always go to our great-grandmother’s and grandfather’s and laugh about the silliest things.”
Gary incorporated furniture, wooden spoons, knobs from dresser drawers, clothes pins, and canning from his great-grandparents’ belongings. The furniture reminded him of their rocking chair; the spools of thread brought back memories of his grandparents’ job at a thread company.
“Before my great-grandmother died, I started labeling her photographs and she started talking about her life as a Native American in the country,” he said. “And she said, ‘You know I don’t talk about it too much because it’s too painful. It wasn’t always pleasant times that we were telling or sharing a story, but we also learned the love of storytelling. It was a form of sharing our history….So as I’m ripping up the furniture…I’m honoring the people that came before me through something that I create.”
Gary closed by discussing his rationale behind the name of the exhibit and that if it hadn’t been named “Comforts from Home,” it would have been called “Held and Heard.”
“I’ve always felt held and heard,” Gary said. “I don’t need that piece of furniture. I will always feel that way because that will always be a part of my childhood and that’s what was given to me. It’s nice for me to present an art form that’s igniting thoughts in their mind, whether it’s stories from their past or just comforting to look at….I think that sometimes you have to put everything out there to make a statement, but more importantly share something that is so dear to me.”
The exhibit will remain open to the public at Wesleyan Potters until Nov. 4, 2016.