Cost—Writing the unwritable novel #19, 2021–22. Reclaimed pigment on reconstructed wood, 28 x 30 x 9 in. Photo: Paul Takeuchi, Courtesy the DIY Museum and Patricia Sweetow Gallery

Out of Very Little: A Conversation with Helen O’Leary

An artist of shreds, remainders, and lost objects, Helen O’Leary, like the great memoirist Joseph Cornell, infuses scraps of the forgotten and overlooked with the poetry of recognition. Channeling the latent energy concealed in wood fragments, scraps of fabric, and pigments, she translates detritus into objects that bear the aura of previous lives. O’Leary’s work is characterized by wit and resourcefulness. Her reuse of found materials, which she treats with almost archaeological care, embodies an obsessive urge to preserve and recycle, while her old-school and DIY construction techniques are concerned with simplicity, improvisation, and portability. The resulting works, which can resemble reliquaries or fetishes, contain the evidence of her nomadic life and the necessities of make-do ingenuity and self-invention, as well as their own histories.

Neither painting nor sculpture, O’Leary’s liminal objects at first seem haphazardly patched together, on the brink of collapse; that they remain intact evokes the miraculous. Her deeply feminist and sui generis work involves fabrication methods derived from traditional processes such as stitching, stapling, and notching. She describes these as “knitting with wood.” Monochromatic or painted with homemade, organic pigments, her constructions are realized using basic hand tools and are often merged with their storage crates. Occupying space at a variety of scales, grouped on tabletops, mounted on walls, self-supporting, or installational, her objects are intimate, oddly sophisticated, and deeply poetic.

Kay Whitney: The idea of do-it-yourself lies at the core of how you think about your work and your life. You even refer to your house in New Jersey as the Museum of DIY.
Helen O’Leary:
I have a fetish about wastefulness and the crazy scale and monumentality of landfills. All of my materials are found, made, altered, or re-imagined by me, and my house is built from things found on the “free” listings on Craigslist or on the street. My partner Dan and I discovered an entire community through materials that people were throwing out. . .

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