Farhad O’Neill -
Visual Artist

Interview with Mybindi by Farhad Nargol-O'Neill. March 2010

How would you describe yourself in five words?

Due to life and the inflexibility of scars only I am sure, I would say: Determined, focused, spiritual, flexible, and creative.

What would you rate as the first professional achievement as an artist?

That’s a hard one, but I would say my first solo exhibition as a full time working artist in December of 1994 at the McKay House Gallery on Main Street Unionville (my home town). It’s the house where Fred Varley lived the last years of his life. It’s also the show that raised the funds for me to be able to leave Canada and move to Belfast, where I opened my first studio proper on the Crumlin Road in 1995.

You mention various artistic influences as you grew up but what drew you to art?

What’s the earliest artistic experiment/project you remember? That’s two questions……I always drew as a young child, and that never really stopped. My mother drew, my siblings drew. However, I would say that the recognition of randomness inside of overarching structures as present in classical Gaelic illumination was one of the first major influences to me as a child. That pure creativity and abstraction could go hand in hand with structure and logic was a very liberating concept to realize at the age of 6 or 8. It encouraged the development of an individual, line-based style. Music (jazz/Indian/Irish traditional instrumental and “sean os” singing/flamenco) as heard and played in our house while growing up enhanced my feelings towards things visual, as I was always listening for structure and free expression in sound at the same time and wondering “what would a Duke Ellington song look like” in 3-D. Consequently, my favourite soloists have been often been my favourite composers - Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, and Thelonius Monk. After so many years now, I’m incapable of listening to anything but Monk while I carve. Anything else, even my beloved Beethoven string quartets, gives me a headache if I listen to them while I carve.

My earliest art project? I remember turning my bedroom in the basement of our family house in Unionville into one big installation - everything glued to the wall! The whole room looked like one big Rauschenberg sculpture that was hit by a grenade. I think the room had to be rebuilt after I left it. My parents gave me a lot of lee-way…..Our cousins came in one day and their mouths dropped, I think more out of the freedom I was given to create/destroy than with the actual art, which was probably pretty horrendous.

What role has your parental heritage played in how you view art and your approach to art?

I don’t think you have the space for a full answer! I think that I, along with my four brothers and one sister thought that all families were like ours, that is, that our upbringing represented the norm, as we had a stable, and happy family life as children. When I look back on it, I can see that we were completely spoiled in terms of being steeped in a dazzling amount of culture. The music and art, literature and poetry, dance, architecture and history, politics and religion from my parents background were always part of our upbringing. My father is a Parsi from India, and my late mother native Irish from Belfast. In terms of what part that played in how I approach my own art, I would say that the focus on the single line in my art stems from the vocal traditions of both cultures. The impetus towards creating work which places complexity and a sense of freedom side by side with visual structures which are themselves creations of logic stems completely from my upbringing as a Monotheist who never really experienced Religion as a form of control. For me, a very positive religious upbringing as a Catholic who was also taught about Zoroastrianism from my parents and our family from Pakistan left me with an openness to consider, in time, the notion that things spiritual might also be represented in the visual world, in the metaphysical world, in the world of ethics, and logic, and in the real world (for me at least) that exists in Memory. I think that whatever I was imparted with culturally by my parents existed in me from the beginning as a new born, I am just discovering it all in reverse, and in real time.

Over the years, as you’ve evolved as an artist, how has your approach to art changed, if at all?

You know, I’m not sure that it has. It’s changed, but my development as opposed to my approach is bringing me back to what I call for the point of this interview “the source”. I think that I have improved in terms of increased understanding, and in terms of a developed conceptual approach, in terms of the creative use of materials and in technical execution, concentration, and in terms of being to improvise a corporeal single line in real time like a jazz musician within a three dimensional context. However, I still don’t think that I’ve really changed in my approach to art making since the time I was six years old. It’s still the same old playing with Lego and building blocks, making spaces for things to go in. That’s mnemonics talking, but it’s also chemical, and spiritual - a unified approach to making and an openness to be the tool through which things come into being. What has changed is that now I am any one of those blocks, or in the spaces between them, or realize that there are no blocks at all, and then I leave my constructions and enter the Void and realize that it is not empty, and then some notion will come to me as if from a flame which seems to me to be behind a translucent veil, and then the next thing I know is that whatever it is I was doing is finished. I call it going back to the source, to hear the original music but everything is perfectly silent. That’s all I can say about that.

How does your creative process work?

I don’t mean to be rude, Savia, and I’m not being coy, but that’s personal. I don’t think I could explain it, and if I could I’d be afraid and reluctant of doing so. I think that sometimes burrowing into something to find out what it is destroys the very Thing you are talking about. Ask an artist what their favourite poem is, and you’ll get an idea of how their creative process works. Poetry is the highest and most difficult form of Art. My favourite poems are the “Rose Tree” and the “Hosting of the Sidhe” by Yeats, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” by Robert Browning, and the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. I also like reading Calvin and Hobbes, and all the Snoopy and Red Baron stuff from Charlie Brown.

How do you face creative blocks? how do you work around it?

I work until the well runs dry, and I always have just enough to get to the end of whatever it is I am doing. But, the creation of art, and the practice of the Art seems to cost me more and more as I get older, and after the act of creating is finished it’s time to rest, like a fallow field. I’m spent, as it were. Going for walks is the best way to do get over blocks. The pub also comes in handy. Looking at trees seems to be the best way to rest.

What drives you to pursue the various artistic routes that you have chosen for yourself?

Of course we all have choices to pursue what it is we want to pursue. Since I’ve returned to North American in 2004 I’ve heard a lot of talk about choice and lifestyle which for some reason I find bourgeois and annoying after living in Belfast for a decade. We all come from somewhere, our history and background, and I’ve talked about that already in this interview, so I think that answer to this questions is that “I am alive”.

Do you have a personal preference when it comes to working with one medium, over another?

Differing media are good for different things, but an artist can force something resembling the same result in differing media if they are determined to do so. I am in the main a sculptor, and I find a soft medium better for catching emotion (which is generally not important to me - I’m attracted more to showing force and power) whilst a hard medium like plaster or stone slows down the act of creation and this time delays suits my thought process better, and my visual process too, as few if any of my works has a front, an inside, or an outside. All of the Stations of the Cross I have created in bas-relief for the Devotio Moderna exhibition were carved into hard plaster pourings. Overall, I don’t have a preference in terms of materials, I just use whatever will work for the idea……

When you are commissioned to work on specific projects for public or private clients, do you usually have free reign about art work and how the final piece turns out? How do you find a balance between what’s expected of you and what you perceive based on particular requirements?

The short answer is yes. I have complete freedom to create whatever it is I want to create. I have that freedom, I’ve worked to get it. In terms of public commissions I am of course very interested in the culture of the country and community I find myself within, and I try very hard to create a visual response to that culture by learning much about it and living with it. If you look at my public works in Belfast, and Cyprus, and Tunisia and in Aurora, you will find that to be true. Absorption into a different culture is for me something entirely possible. Such a relationship negates the negative and frankly rather controlling arguments about “appropriation” so common in art and academic communities in the West. It’s a real conversation. True communication is possible through Art, if both artist and subject (for want of a better term) approach each other with an open mind and heart and of course it also depends on the maturity and artistic process of the Artist in question. Not all artistic processes lend themselves to cross cultural conversations, and I’m talking about culture here. Private clients are different. The work in question will speak to them or not. I don’t do commercial galleries. I’ve never been accepted into the mainstream public galleries either, in any country. My work is not commercial, but I also have no desire to ape the intellectual stagnation of the so called avante garde, which for me is just as elitist as and nothing more than the cold Upper Canadian Protestant hegemony culture of 100 years ago. Talk about artists and art communities being co-opted, it makes me sick. My projects are all artist run, or I’m picked by someone who know full well my approach. That’s just how it’s all worked out thus far.

You have shown your works both publicly and privately. How do you deal with criticism?

Well, criticism in Belfast meant a pretty quick destruction of the art work in question, and as far as I know none of my works has ever been vandalised. Criticism of the general sort is just part of life. My experience with criticism is quite enlightening in that for me it usually tells more about the person conducting the critique than my art work in question. Since there is no difference in terms of the look of or approach to my art between my public and private works, I really don’t care what anyone says as long as I’m satisfied with it.

Your website mentions working with youth in Canada. Please share your thoughts on the positive influence art can have on youth and/or visa versa. Anyway personal experience that stands out in your mind?

I worked at Columbus Boys Camp in Orillia on and off from 1989 to the present day. “CBC” is a camp for underprivileged boys from Toronto, Barrie, Orillia, and Midland. It was probably the best working environment I have ever been in, and certainly among the top five summer camps in the country. I learned a lot about people, their needs, and organization and leadership skills there. In fact, if had not been for CBC, I would not be where I am now. Art provides a focus for young people - especially those who are troubled - like the kids I dealt with at the camp, and with the youth clubs in Belfast later on. This focus creates a calming effect for these kids and makes them happy. It takes their minds off of other things, and it helps with their self esteem when they realize that they have talents, other than causing mayhem, that will be praised by others. I continued working with youth through the arts in Belfast when I volunteered at the Grosvenor Community Centre, and with Feile An Phobail (The West Belfast Festival). My mural commissions in Cyprus and Tunisia involved the apprenticeship of emerging artists which was more of a professional relationship than anything else, but all the experiences were good. Most of the time you just had to give the kids materials, and away they would go, at least at the beginning…………and it never failed to amaze me when one day along would come along some kid who would blow you away with their talent. It was impressive. Important personal memories of art and working with youth? Teaching painting on birchbark from a canoe on the shores of Lake Couchiching to the campers from CBC…………..drawing on the side walk outside the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai - surrounded by a whole crowd of kids and pilgrims who were also drawing on my page, or telling how to draw………………watching my Greek and Turkish Cypriot apprentices come up to receive recognition for their work on my second mural in Nicosia, next to a ruined Armenian Monastery which had been blasted apart by Turkish artillery……..hosting live radio sessions with my friends Paul and Marty and Brendyo on Triple FM - the West Belfast radio station during summer Feiles. So many occasions, so many blessings for me, I could not list them all………..

How can young artist find forums to express their artistic sensibilities?

The first thing emerging artists need to realize is that they are like turtles - they can bring their whole life with them on their back………..Really though, I’m not kidding. The most important forum any artist will ever need is their own mind - the mind will furnish them with everything they need. Artists are one of the few truly independent beings on the planet, if they so desire such autonomy. Bring a sketchbook with them everywhere they go. For me, artist run projects and forums are the best way to go. You don’t have to deal with the bureaucracy and control of others. Artists can create their own forums, their own groups, their own collectives. Other forums exist along gender and ethnic lines, along lines of genre and style, along historical lines. There are a million forums out there. The big challenge will always be the interior forum, and my only advice there is for emerging artists to stay in good shape mentally and physically, and to actively work on improving their powers of concentration.

Please tell us about your show Devotio Moderna. Where did this deep interest in religion/theology come from? Do you see religion/spirituality sharing a symbiotic relationship with art?

The title of this show was created by Father Gilles Mongeau, S.J., a professor at Regis College at the University of Toronto, where the exhibition is taking place. It sums it up very well, an exhibition of modern devotional art. Modern works, whether they be traditional or abstract in approach, that function as aids to devotion within the canonical traditions of the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox faith. I’m Catholic myself, and the artist I am showing with in this exhibition, Galina Oussatcheva, is from the Byzantine tradition. This show has represented one full and very challenging year out of my life, and I’ll be showing a series of abstract bas-relief sculptures depicting the Stations of the Cross. The work in the show addresses issues of perspective and inverse perspective, covenant, and the personal. You should come and see i!. The opening is on March 17th, which for me is also a special day (aside from being St. Patricks Day of course) as it will be 15 years to the day when I left Toronto on an Air India flight to London to get my connecting flight to Belfast in order to open my sculpture studio and “ go pro” as they say. How time flies……….I’ve always recognized the link between art and spirituality………….the boldness of line in the art of the Haida people on the west coast, the purity of iconic Zoroastrian images and the carving from ancient Persepolis, the intensity and detail of Irish devotional illumination which has never been surpassed by any culture anywhere in the world, the merging of intellectual and spiritual efforts in Christian and Muslim sacred architecture, the amazing variety of devotional practices in Hinduism as seen in their statuary, the theosophic endeavours of Lawren Harris, the force and power of the minimal drawings of Kline and Motherwell, and it goes on and on. I don’t know if I can say that my interest actually came from anywhere. I have travelled and seen things, but I am too convinced that I am part of God to worry about finding God in me. I would have made a great Bedu. All joking aside, truly accepting that their is a relationship between Art and God in your life brings it own challenges and rewards, if one is prepared to accept them all - the perfect cherry blossoms of seen and created beauty and the bitter pill of physical poverty and loneliness. I’m going to quote my own artist statement here. I personally hate the need for them, but there is something here that is at least indicative of what I am doing and where I am going:

“The practice and growth of my Art has been informed by many and varied influences, not only by the visual but also by the unseen, the interior, the inexpressible, or the musical. I include my Catholic spirituality, mnemonics, a mixed Irish/Zoroastrian parentage, knowledge of justice and community, music, and observations regarding the relationship between object and place. I believe that all of these things find their truest representation, in a sort of reverse Platonic fashion, in the physicality of created Art. Art, therefore, is for myself the means by which all those things that exist in human nature and the natural world find their truest expression”.

I would sum it all up by saying that the attempt over time to attain a unified approach to art making takes into account all inner and exterior influences; this whole effort is a recognition of the spiritual.