Reading yet another inspiring piece by Henry Miller the other night, I was pierced with the arrow of the muse as to how to celebrate my 50th year as an artist. Scroll to the end to see his missive. As a gift to myself, and hopefully you as well, I am mining recollections from these years. It has been revelatory so far, I’m just starting to scratch the surface of what has been carefully stored until the right time to make sense of my life saying yes to my self expressive drive. Forgive me if it will seem rambling, who knows what I’ll come up with after mining all 50 years. I encourage you to delve into your raison d’etre, it’s integrating.

To begin, I got out my three notebooks of records of art, dutifully written in pencil like a good administer. I made notes of the major pieces of each year as “a professional”.  What was shocking was how little I had on hand to share, put another way, how much was sold- almost everything- with no visual record. What I do have is piecemeal of old photos, digital remnants of slides when lucky.  Believe me, there was a lot to visually express in the late 1960’s, which I did, I let it go, which is probably a good thing.

One thing I noticed is the great degree that I was influenced by my father’s creative imperative as a pianist. His repertoire was centered on the romantic composers. As a young man he won a national piano contest playing a Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody. I forget the number now, but I’d recognize it instantly, because he was thrilled to be asked to play it, oh so impressive. But his favorite composer was Chopin. It is an enduring memory of being lulled to sleep each night as he practiced his Nocturnes and Etudes.

"Chopin", 1968, oil painting by ©Kathleen O'Brien, 30x30"

“Chopin”, 1968, oil painting by ©Kathleen O’Brien, 30×30″

So I painted this oil of Chopin for him to hang behind his piano. He won a concert grand Baldwin for winning the contest. Instead of becoming a concert musician he chose to enter the US Military Academy before the war. Thereafter when we moved overseas, or to places like Ft. Knox, the big question was, “is the living room large enough for the piano?”.

My father and son surrounded by 1968 artwork in 1983

My father and son surrounded by 1968 artwork in 1983

The intense, frightening and sad tone of the era is reflected in the drawings from that time. I woke up on my 20th birthday to the news that Bobby Kennedy died, just two months after Martin Luther King. Then there was the Democratic Convention. Seeing, I should say witnessing, “Hair” in Toronto brightened our moods. Art saves lives.

"Self Portrait", 1968, drawing by ©Kathleen O'Brien, 18x12"

“Self Portrait”, 1968, drawing by ©Kathleen O’Brien, 18×12″

"Learning to Cook", 1968, drawing by ©Kathleen O'Brien, 18x12"

“Learning to Cook”, 1968, drawing by ©Kathleen O’Brien, 18×12″

"Collage", 1968, by ©Kathleen O'Brien, 12x9"

“Collage”, 1968, by ©Kathleen O’Brien, 12×9″

"Marie", 1969, drawing by ©Kathleen O'Brien, 18x12"

“Marie”, 1969, drawing by ©Kathleen O’Brien, 18×12″

"Backsides", 1969, drawing by ©Kathleen O'Brien, 18x12"

“Backsides”, 1969, drawing by ©Kathleen O’Brien, 18×12″

"MB", 1970, drawing, collage by ©Kathleen O'Brien, 18x12"

“MB”, 1970, drawing, collage by ©Kathleen O’Brien, 18×12″

The passage from Henry Miller in “An Open Letter to Surrealists Everywhere” in Cosmological Eye (1939, New Directions Press) that prompted me to celebrate my 50th year as an artist with this retrospective follows. The italics are his.

“I grew so desperate that finally I decided to explode – and I did explode. The naive English critics, in their polite, asinine way, talk about the “hero” of my book (Tropic of Cancer) as though he were a character I had invented. I made it as plain as could be that I was talking in the book about myself. I used my own name throughout. I didn’t write a piece of fiction: I wrote an autobiographical document, a human book.


I mention this only because this book marks a turning point in my literary career – I should say, in my life. At a certain point in my life I decided that henceforth I would write about myself, my friends, my experiences, what I knew and what I had seen with my own eyes. Anything else, in my opinion, is literature, and I am not interested in literature. I realized also that I should have to learn to content myself with what was within my grasp, my scope, my personal ken. I learned not to be ashamed of myself, to talk freely about myself, to advertise myself, to elbow my way in here and there when necessary. The greatest man America ever produced was not ashamed to peddle his own book from door to door. He had faith in himself and he has given tremendous faith to others.”

Amen to that last sentence. My turning point was when I decided I was an artist, because I had to explode. Yet I never wanted to be a part of the art world, only to express my experiences. I understand now reviewing the little work I still have that from the beginning I had a “cosmological eye”, seeing below the surface appearance of things. Miller continually gives me the permission and courage to express time and space essence, and to keep sharing it unashamedly.