As one of Ireland’s most impressive emerging artists, Gearoid O'Dea is one incredibly sharp and beautifully raw individual. His work to date has seen him win awards globally and alongside his egoless approach to his work and the creative world in general it’s no wonder his place in Ireland’s art scene has been firmly and unquestionably established. Here I chat to Gag - as he is more well know - about his journey to date and his take on the contemporary art world in which he finds himself carving out a career that is sure to stand the test of time
Gag, you’re one of Ireland’s most prolific emerging artists, where did it all begin and did you always know you wanted to make a career of your passion?
I didn't always have the ambition to pursue art as a profession but I’ve loved drawing since I was a child. This led to doodling in class which was a good way to take refuge from my poor academic performance. Eventually, I developed an interest in Graffiti and my range of drawing subject matter began to grow. In my senior cycle in school, I joined the art class. I decided to apply for NCAD and fortunately, I was accepted.
Your time at NCAD saw you obtain a B.A in Fine Art and Fine Art Media yet it’s a known fact that, like many college courses, studying doesn’t always set you up to succeed or stand the test of time in this industry. It’s been known that certain colleges greet you upon your first day with the reality that “two of you will go on to make an actual career of this”. What learnings did you take from the studying period of your life that have in truth translated into the reality of being an artist?
I would say I took two main lessons from my college experience; practical skills and learning from others around me. I was given a good basis for practical skills such as Photoshop and photography which definitely influenced my practice. Learning from others around you is something that happens every day in the college environment. You see the standard being set in different skills and some of the interesting concepts being generated. I think at that age the act of art making is very daunting and you're quite insecure, or at least I was, so to see others approaching such a personal and private process in different ways, really informed the way in which I looked at the act of making art.
And on that note, was it difficult to bridge yourself into the working world? Tell us of your process..
It is extremely difficult to bridge yourself into the working world. When you leave college there is no demand for what you do. No one has a context for your work or is willing to take a gamble on working with you. Creating demand for what you're supplying is very difficult and only comes from creating projects yourself first, thus proving your ability to deliver. No one backs someone based on a description of a project with no previous evidence of a completed body of work. The most significant successes I have experienced, has come from self-initiated projects.
You were recently one of the five winners of the Sky Academy Arts Scholarships, congratulations - a fine accolade amid the astonishing number of 1,100 applicants - what does this mean to you and the direction you’re taking going forth?
It was unbelievable to be chosen. It’s had a profound impact on my practice and its momentum. The main thing that it's provided for me is a level of financial freedom, which means I can spend all of my time developing the new body of work in the studio. This in turn allows me to expand on the scale and ambition of the project. I have built on what I've done and at the same time began to invite serendipity into my process and am attempting to be braver in its execution.
You also recently showed a large-scale site specific sculpture, to huge applaud, at The Other Art Fair in London and now you’re focusing all your attention on your first solo exhibition which is very exciting, tell us some more about what we’ll be seeing..
My initial proposal for the exhibition to the Arts Scholarship was based on the distortion in visual perception that arises when a two-dimensional image is mapped onto a three dimensional object. This forces the viewer to circle the sculptures fully to see the entire artwork. As I am progressing with creating a new body of work I am sticking to the initial plan while allowing the work to naturally evolve. This is an aspect of my process I’m trying to embrace. In the past I’ve had the end goal much too defined and that tends to result in less fulfilling work and a more rigid, less creative process. The Sculptures will be accompanied by large scale works on paper but at this point the lines between sculpture and installation are becoming blurred.
Many artists use their work as a form of release and a channel by which to define their inner struggles and the complexities of the mind. You speak openly about your own effort to contend with ‘heightened personal anxiety’ and of how your practice helps you do so by focusing on the present moment and the immediate world around you. Was it always this way or is this something you came to understand about your relationship with art over time?
It wasn't always this way. After first experiencing panic attacks I later came to the conclusion that I would need to use my art practice to reflect on my experience. I would document my surroundings at the time of a panic attack and then work from these photos and drawings. This provided a distance from my experience which allowed me to reflect on it and begin to generate works that reflected what I was going through.
Where do you find yourself most inspired? And by whom?
I get the most inspired in bed, when I’m attempting to turn off. I think when I stop focusing on the tasks at hand I begin to think in a more playful way. This often leads to more decisive focus the following day. It’s something I’m trying to incorporate into my studio practice, a way of switching off intentionally. I sometimes dance around the studio to try loosen up. Enthusiasm and passion in others really inspires me, regardless of their fields of interest. For me that level of engagement in a passion is one of the most joyous aspects of life and sharing it with others is a powerful thing.
Being an artist isn’t something you decide to be. You’re born as such but like many of the creative industries it can be difficult to make your mark, not to mention generate a reliable income from your work. What are your thoughts on the matter and how do you put a value on your work?
I think you need to have a great ability to adapt while fervently holding on to your ‘golden thread’. What I mean by that is; your integrity and your connection to your work. I see it as a three pronged approach when trying to generate income; first you have sales of your work - originals and prints, the second being government and private funding and thirdly some commissioned work. You need to be following all of these up simultaneously, while creating work. It can be extremely frustrating and disheartening though. You also need to be on the ground meeting people with a common interest to your own. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the term networking but meeting people in your field and knowing the context your work is going into is good, but if you’re a sleazy fuck people smell it a mile away.
In terms of putting valuing on my work it is tricky because for the upcoming show the scale of the pieces is increasing and they are very labour intensive so I need to balance a fair price for the work with what people are willing to pay.
Do you have any advice for young artists who look up to someone like you and want to follow their dream of being a working artist? And what advice do you wish you’d been given that perhaps would’ve saved you some unnecessary struggles along the way?
For me the start was the worst part. In the beginning it’s all about self-generated projects as I’ve said. The most successful projects I’ve done are self-initiated. There are practical things then like invoicing people or having a written agreement for a commission.
On a personal basis I would say being overly self-critical can be crippling. It leads to a lot of indecision. This then results in procrastination. Pushing yourself is one thing but berating yourself is another. Expecting things to all go your way at the same time in the beginning is unrealistic, especially if you’re doing something new and bold.
You should also cultivate a large range of influences and not only from your field of practice. I draw from a lot of influences from performance art to animation. Taking principles from another discipline and applying it to yours can yield interesting results.
What has been your greatest challenge to date and how have you dealt with it? And your proudest moment?
I would say my biggest challenge to date has been maintaining my art practice and dealing with panic attacks and generalised anxiety, the trials and tribulations of the two combined has made for a difficult journey.
In the pursuit of a sustainable art career there are thousands of little challenges from putting yourself out there to approaching people you have so much professional respect for you’d prefer to eat glass rather then make a complete dick out of yourself in front of! There are also physical challenges like working in cherry pickers and being afraid of heights. That was interesting. Probably most of all though is dealing with ‘the fear’ that you've made a huge mistake and you've completely ‘shat the bed’ in your life choices. Taking the path less travelled is not easy, having to shape every aspect of your professional and artistic development while fending off the fear of the unknown is tricky.
I’m most proud of the fact I’ve kept pursuing my art practice in the face of overwhelmingly unlikely odds. My studio is a big part of that. It’s my anchor, a source of personal resilience. I renovated it from a concrete shell in to a working studio. I can’t think of my proudest moment per say. One good one was; once my sister made a bet with me for €60 that I wouldn’t get into any of the three art colleges I applied to. I got in to all of them. Needless to say she never paid me. I don’t think I necessarily felt pride but the silent sense of satisfaction was palpable.
Some of the world’s most successful people, in varying spheres, speak of having a mentor or mentors. Do you have someone you turn to and whom has helped you along the way? What are some of the most important things you’ve learned?
The main artistic influence I’ve had in my life was my former portfolio teacher Mairead O’Byrne. I wasn’t in an art class until the start of my final year in school and she was pivotal in getting me into art college. She instilled a sense of diligence in me for my work and a pursuit of excellence, which I’m still chasing today. I’m lucky to still call her a friend and her knowledge and intuition never seizes to amaze me.
She had a bad accident in recent years and severely damaged her dominate hand, this meant she had to change her style of painting and was often in pain doing so. Regardless of her injury she recently went on to have a really successful solo exhibition. I feel this reflects her teachings of perseverance and adaptability and I've learned a huge amount from her in so many ways.
She used to tear up my drawings if the composition was off at an early stage of a picture and make me start again. Although initially irritating she taught me a lot about observing and how to compose a picture. When I think of it now I liken it to breaking in a horse. I still use the same type of colouring pencil she taught me with.
With social media and the world being a very connected place right now, innovation and staying ahead of the curve is crucial. Where do you see the world’s of art and technology merging going forward?
I think the prevalence of augmented reality and virtual reality will begin to have a big effect on the creation of work. For example the impact of digital illustration completely changed the fields of illustration and comics. I can see the same shift in the production of 3d dimensional pieces constructed in 3d space in VR. Fully constructed film and video games in VR will change the way we look at media, or even a painting you can walk through. How cool is that! Maybe even the internet itself will have sites where friends will hang out online in a VR space and maybe be able to collaborate on pieces of art?
In your personal and professional life, what legacy do you, one day, hope to leave behind?
It’s something I try not to focus on too much, I've crippled myself in the past with personal expectation so I try not to get wrapped up in grandiose visions. I would love my work to have a meaning full impact on people. A friend of mine saw a child’s drawing of my ‘Le chéile i ngruaig’ (the women of the rising) piece in a school he was working in last year and that meant the world to me. The idea of a child choosing my work as something they wanted to emulate is incredibly humbling to me.
And lastly, if we couldn’t find you in your studio in Rathmines or presenting your solo exhibitions, what would you be doing?
Grabbing coffee or cycling around town picking up art materials.
Follow Gag on Instagram @gearoidodea