Interview with Roanne O'Donnell
Can you talk a bit about your background and where you’re from?
I was born in St. Andrews, Scotland, studied Drawing and Painting at Edinburgh College of Art and worked in the capital city until moving to Barcelona, Spain, then Winchester, UK to complete an M.A. in Contemporary European Fine Art. After 18 years of professional practice in Harstad, Northern Norway, I now have my studio and work in the Sierra de Libar area, Spain and Fife, Scotland.
Can you tell us a bit about your practice?
I’m a process painter. I'm currently working in Scotland on the series of paintings and drawings, Surface Work. The subject of my work is the process of making it and within it I explore limitation, restriction and repetition. Restricting my materials and with a strict, mark-making action, I deliberately control the painfully slow progression of the surfaces. It is a twenty year investigation.
The mark is a horizontal line. The most direct I know.
The substrate is paper.
Binders are limited to oil and cold wax.
Materials are restricted to ivory black pigment, graphite and charcoal.
The physical process is the monotonous repetitive movement of making lines by bending over paper, laid flat, and drawing the line or moving my paint mixtures across the surface over and over, again and again.
The concept is gemination: ”No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.” Heraclitus of Ephesus.
Would you say you had a traditional or untraditional route into the arts?
I have had a very traditional route into the arts; possibly one of the most traditional. I chose to study Drawing and Painting, specifically at Edinburgh Collage of Art and went there at the age of 17. I chose it because it gave a very formal, classical art training, focusing on observation and drawing skill development, head life, anatomy, practical painting and colour skills with theory and art history.
After college I had to work to support myself, but I have a rich professional life, working in the arts and exhibiting nationally and internationally. During my years in Norway I was active in the North Norwegian Artists' Union (Nord Norsk Bildende Kunstnere) as a board member, and worked as a college lecturer in art and art history at Nordland College of Art and FIlm, Kabelvåg. For six years I was the Director of the Gallery of Northern Norway (Galleri NordNorge) curating and collaborating with, among others, The Northern Museum of Art, Tromsø, and The National Museum, Oslo exhibiting work by Paul McCarthy, Norway 10 Designers, Queen Sonja, Kjell Nupen and Peder Balke.
What do you appreciate about the artworld?
I appreciate that theoretically, there’s not much we can do wrong. There are few areas in life we can say that.
Surface Work 2, 2017, oil, cold wax and graphite on paper, 180x102cm
Conversely, what frustrates you about it?
To be honest, I can’t think of many things that frustrate me. There are many opportunities to be found. Networking is important, so I have had to be open, disciplined and self motivated, both in my working practice and working for its exposure.
What processes have you developed in your years as an artist?
My work has been a twenty year investigation of a process within a very strict parameter, but I have always trained my eye in observational drawing. I also write extensively about my working practice and theory, and continually keep abreast of contemporary art, so that I can always contextualise my work in the international arena.
Burnished Surface 2.1, 2019, charcoal on paper, 30x30cm
Installation of Surface Work, 2017, Antigua Cine, Montejaque, Spain
What do you listen to when you work?
In my studio, but not painting, I listen to talk radio. I’m fascinated with American and British political podcasts and love a good argument with them. They’re my soaps! When I’m painting and drawing I either don’t listen to anything or have mellow jazz, or modern and contemporary classical. Occasionally hits of the 70s, 80s & 90s (my era).
What would you say has been your top experience in your art career?
In my own practice: There have been many as every opportunity to exhibit, be awarded bursaries, awards or prizes give me such a joy. But the top is my exhibition installation in a derelict old cinema in the village of Montejaque, Andalucia in 2017. I took over the 300m2 building and created an environment to present Surface Work. This work is the first acknowledgement of my working class background, which I an enormously proud of. For me, that background is not relevant in my practice nor in a contemporary process art context, but it was so rewarding to give homage to my coal mining family, their history, personality and life. I am continuing to work on the series and am in dialogue with the National Mining Museum of Scotland to present a new installation in the museum later in 2020.
In the art world: Being Director of Galleri NordNorge. It was a privilege and thrill to support other artists in developing their careers and bringing their work to the attention of the public. The gallery took its name from its location as the midpoint for the region of North Norway, spanning 2000 miles, from Mo i Rana in the south to Kirkenes, the most northerly town in the country. Because of its location and diversity of exhibitions I had an ability to draw national and international artists and collaborate with national institutions and organisations.
Installation of Surface Work 2, 2017
What is your dream project?
It’s the project I mentioned in the last question, which is a proposed to show new work in the series Surface Work.
The main element is to make 6 x 9m long works on paper to challenge the repetitive physicality of my process and show as part of a final project exhibition in the National Mining Museum of Scotland. This work will take the physicality to the limit and repetition to the extreme. I usually make one surface layer in one sitting and the longest work I have made is three metres. It was a challenge. To work continually in a constrained manner for nine metres will take many hours so as not to break the continuity of surface. Well, if my grandfathers could work on their hands and knees or on their back in confined spaces, sweating, black with coal dust, breathing it during each twelve hour shift, I think I can manage it.
What do you feel is integral to the work of an artist?
Focus on the work with honesty and integrity. There is a quality to good work that goes beyond explanation or theoretical critique. It is non tangible, but you recognise it when you feel it.
What’s the best piece of artistic advice you’ve been given?
Scottish artist and my Post Graduate tutor at Edinburgh College of Art, John Houston, said it to me one evening as I was preparing for my graduate show. He didn’t say anything else to me, ever, but that has been the artistic advice that I have followed through my career.