Farhad O’Neill -
Visual Artist

Article for Winters College Press, York University, September 2010

Describe the journey that you’ve been on since you graduated.

You know, I wanted to be like Oscar Peterson or Budd Powell or Monk, or one of my piano profs such as Mark Eisenman, Frank Falco, or John Giddons…………that did not happen, but what did happen was that years later I realized that I have managed to integrate almost everything of import I learned from my education at York into my current art practice - and I still play the piano. Other incredible teachers I had such as Mary Ann Parker, Bill Westcott, Larry Lake, and Jay Rahn had a huge influence on me, in that their method of explaining musical principles was done in such a fashion that I was able to translate this learning into other realms aside from the musical realm. This has been as much of a journey for me as the geographical or professional one. Those journeys led me to leave Toronto in the mid nineties to return to Belfast (I’m an Irish citizen, actually) and to live there as an artist in my studio on the Falls Road until almost 2004, when I returned to Toronto. The practice of the Art has brought me or my work to Europe, America, the Middle East, India, Europe. Equally of importance to me, it has brought me into close contact with a realization of the spiritual and metaphysical world, the world of mnemonics - in short that sphere where the principles of higher learning I garnered at York which were later tempered by experience and struggle find a home.

What is the best thing about the path you’ve chosen (being a musician/artist?)

I’m free. I’m independent. I’m unplugged from the machine…………I’m as autonomous as I choose to be. Being thus brings it’s own challenges, but that’s life, as they say.

What made you decide to choose York and the program you studied?

At the end of grade 13 it was a five second coin toss as to whether I study visual art or music at the university level. I did not give it much thought to be honest. Music won the toss, and the guidance councillor told me to apply to York, Western, and the U of T. I applied to Western but didn’t in my heart fancy their euro-classical program or the bus trip to get there, or moving so far away from my home town of Unionville, so I didn’t bother to go to the audition. For my U of T audition I was playing the first movement of the Waldstein, and the full Pathetique, but the fingers on my left hand got badly and deeply sliced by a croissant knife in the bakery I worked in a week before my audition was to take place (I was practicing between five and eight hours a day a year to get ready for this) and I went to my audition in the very unfriendly and sever Walter Hall with bandages on my fingers and my fingers bleeding. No kidding. Suffice it to say, it did not go well. I fancied York because of the jazz program and my brother, the jazz double bass player Darius Nargolwalla, was already in the program, and he raved about it. I used to mitch off high school to go to York to hear Oscar play when he was running master classes for the jazz students, and I really wanted to be there. John Giddons - who is a wonderful man and a musical and intellectual giant - was head of the jazz and also I believe of the social science departments, ran my audition. I got in. It was the best place I could have been. I am so glad I went to York.

Can you talk about highs and lows while at York ಯblems, successes?

My education was broad, and deep. At the time I resented having to take courses outside my major, but now I am glad my education was so broad. Things were very free and open then in the Visual Arts department, and I was able to take two sculpture courses, and equally of importance I was able to use the sculpture studio (thanks Joel) whenever I wanted to, and so I created my first body of work made up of found objects of metal. Showing and selling these works allowed me to move, when the time came, to Ireland to set up my first studio. Hanging around Winters and Mac (and the Ab) was fabulous, as I had access to artists and musicians, poets and philosophers. The multi-interdisciplinary nature of the College was just the right environment for me to be in. The life of the College was the heart of my university experience. This was very important as York is so huge, and it would have been easy to get lost otherwise. My experience of York was my experience of College life.

What sort of extra-curricular activities were you involved in at Winters? What did it mean to you?

Jazz jams, excellent and endless conversations in the hallways, the common rooms, and in the Ab with other musicians and artists. Being able to go to performances of visiting south Indian artists that Trichy Sankaran organized in the performance halls was a definite plus. Creating installations on campus in odd locations was always fun. Dances and parties in the residences were excellent. Everything that was being taught in the classroom was being expressed in the College outside of class - it was an excellent time to be there, once again because all these things were happening in the College itself, and were not dispered and segregated into various other buildings and departments.

From your experience at Winters college, what was your most memorable?

Too many to mention. Seeing and hearing Oscar in a smoke filled jazz shop room for the fist time. The feeling of living in a very romantic time, in that all the things I’ve mentioned were alive and happening every day in the classes, in the hallways, and in the common rooms. It was like being in a continual and wonderful realm of creativity. It was very free. My most memorable experiences? A class on German music and poetry with Jay Rahn. A class on how Mozart piano sonata’s were really mini operas, that had the whole class in stitches - the teacher there was Bill Westcott - such an honor to have been one of his students. A class on electronic music with Larry Lake that opened my ears. Every jazz class with Frank Falco or John Giddons. A class with Mark Eisenman when I finally understood how to understand phrasing as it related to time and the harmony of a tune. All the friends I made.

How would you like to stay involved with the college?

Well, I owe my continuing connection to Winters to the College Master, Marie Rickard. Through her I re-engaged as an alumni fellow, and had a show a few years back at the Winters Gallery. I’d like to engage and debate with the top emerging artists in the college - those who are 100% dedicated to a full time professional life in the arts. It’s been almost 20 years since I graduated, and I’d like to give back and share my experience and experiences with my fellows and students.

What kind of events would really be of interest to you? How do you see yourself giving back to the college?

Taking part in debates as to the nature of the art scene on campus, in the GTA, and in the nation. Exhibiting again at Winters. Helping to organize live installation making in the College.

What advice would you give to aspiring students?

Know yourself. Go for walks and stay in shape to keep your focus and concentration what it needs to be. Make sure the life of the artist or musician is what you want. If it is, then work hard - very hard. There is no room in the creative world for those who can’t work and sacrifice- but take joy in what you do. If things are not working for you, then just work harder, or smarter. Be aware of how you practice your discipline. Be open to what is happening around you, but be wary of fashion. At some stage, depending on what it is you do, you will have to close yourself off to everything around you in order to develop your own style. Develop your natural instincts, and then trust them. As you improve, wrap your confidence around you like a cloak that shields you. In the meantime, learn everything you can from your profs, and then take what you need and work it into you style. Good luck.

Share any personal stories with us or any upcoming events that you want to share in the newsletter!!!

At the moment, I am showing work at Regis College - which is the Jesuit College at the U of T. The show is called Devotio Moderna, and I’m showing an abstract Stations of the Cross in bas-relief. The exhibition runs until May 17 and it’s open from Monday until Friday, from 9 am until 430 pm. After that I’ll be looking to show them somewhere else. Come the summer and fall I’ll be involved in a number of art performances where I’ll be doing live projections - automatic writing to live music. Come the fall will be a show of drawings based upon the figure and automatic writing, a duo show with the Canadian Neo Modernists that I founded last year with artist Ottilie Mason, and a show in the city of my entire collection of abstract works in bas-relief. Towards Replica Piaget Watches the end of the year I might be moving to Beirut to set up my sculpture studio there and creating public works of art in an around the Med. My plans for a major solo exhibition in an independent space in Toronto is about a year or so away. I’ll let you know!