27 November 2012

Meet the artist: Kate O'Brien

Kate O'Brien, Humbug Billy - The Bradford sweet poisoning of 1858, 2010. Digital photograph. 40.6 x 61cm

Kate O'Brien is a Brisbane-based photographer whose work is currently being featured in The Antipodean Steampunk Show. We caught up with Kate to chat about art, Brisbane, and Steampunk.

What was your first encounter with Steampunk? 

I believe it was a photograph of set designer, Kit Stolen by the Russian American photographic artist Nadya Lev. He is pictured wearing a dusty Victorian ensemble including a brocade vest and tailcoat with leather gloves and hair falls, equal parts black plastic strapping, dreadlocks and rusty springs. For a while there it was the image most people associated with the genre and is still in the top 10 results on google image search when you use Steampunk as your keyword.

Kate O'Brien, Hull, 2008. Digital photograph. 58.4 x 48.3cm

Where do you draw inspiration from for your photographs?

I don't tend to look at the other work of photographers very much, but rather I draw my inspiration from small details in paintings and historical clothing. I love looking at embroidery on Belle Époque gowns or William Morris wallpaper designs for visual cues for my own work. I also source a lot of French antiques and textiles to use as props and costumes. Often a small thing can inspire an elaborate image, such as the 200 year old silk Brocade I used for the waistcoat in my image, "Humbug Billy: The Bradford Sweet Poisoning of 1858".

What message do you take from the Steampunk movement?

I don't feel the movement is especially unified so it's hard to take one singular message from Steampunk. I can only speak for my own ideals and beliefs, which is that the decorative and ornamented  is what sets us apart from being soulless robots. In the last 100 years we have moved away from the skills and aesthetic beauty that used to be commonplace in ordinary household goods. It's no longer economically viable to allow the everyday consumer access to things made with craftsmanship and beauty and we are conditioned to believe that a clinical piece of hardware such as the iphone or ipad is the pinnacle of achievement in design and function. I believe and hope that after a century of having decoration systematically stripped out of our lives, the thirst for that beauty will return.  

Kate O'Brien, Ava Nara, 2008. Digital photograph. 50.8 x 40.6cm

Your photographs often feature elaborate sets and costumes. How long does it generally take for an image to go from concept to finished product?

It really depends on the concept and the financial constraints. I don't shoot as regularly as I used to, but that was a conscious decision so that I could refine my concepts and create a higher quality outcome. Some images sit in the back of my mind while I collect bits and pieces for them while others only take a couple of months. Many of the props in my images are from chance encounters and there is very little I can just decide I need and go and purchase. Even things like fabric, which is usually readily available needs to be sewn into a finish garment or backdrop. It's very labour intensive, but I think it helps me maintain the level of detail in my work that people immediately notice when they see my finished images. 

Kate O'Brien, Paris green, 2012. Digital photograph. 61 x 40.6cm.

Do you have a favourite piece in The Antipodean Steampunk Show?

I really love Russell Anderson's tea bag jiggler. It really personifies the quirkiness of the genre. It's the classic Steampunk "Infernal Contraption". Definitely my favourite piece in the show!

What’s the best thing about being an artist in Brisbane?

Without sounding too sappy, getting the opportunity to have my work in the show at Artisan and the support I've had from local Brisbane people whom I'd never met before. There is a strong sense of community in the Brisbane art scene and it is really encouraging for relatively new artists such as myself.

You can see Kate's work on display at Gallery artisan as part of The Antipodean Steampunk Show until the 15th of December.

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