Kelly M O’Brien, MFA studio research, Bath Spa University ©2019

Kelly M O’Brien, MFA studio research, Bath Spa University ©2019

Kelly M O’Brien is an American mixed media sculptor who lives and works near Bath, England. She is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Art at Bath Spa University with an expected degree award by the end of 2019.

You can download Kelly's current CV here.


My emerging practice explores themes of precariousness, power, tension, and resilience. I have been interested in how these dynamics are expressed through material contrasts and formal strategies chosen specifically for their dubious ability to succeed and propensity to fail. In pairing minimalist supports with fragile expressive materials, my goal has been to push their capabilities to the point of failure in order to understand their real agency.

I became interested in these themes by realizing that while I was learning about strength and resilience in my materials, I was simultaneously grappling with my own outrage about the state of democracy in my homeland of the United States and the rise of nationalism worldwide. As an American living in the UK during Brexit, it feels like the ground has shifted beneath my feet in both places I call home. Precariousness and resilience feel personal and political.

I have been thinking about precarity in a range of ways in the context of our contemporary moment – social justice, the environment, work insecurity in a neo-liberal economy, and the vulnerability of democracy. My research aims in the studio have been to question the strength and fragility of materials I am drawn to, by exploring dynamics of balance, tension, and agency while suggesting themes of imminent danger, trust, and protection. 

By acting with the materials through mixed media sculpture, I have learned how what seems vulnerable or inadequate is in fact sturdier and more capable than assumed. Through trial and error, I amass seemingly delicate materials until they acquire collective strength. Sorting out the inevitable falling apart of these experiments teaches me about their resilience. I constantly negotiate an uneasy agreement with the materials, testing their abilities to rise to the task at hand. 

To anchor my perspective, I have been reading the work of Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Jacques Rancière, Rebecca Solnit, and Rebecca Traister (among others) and their ideas on power, subjugation, agency, and resistance (historical and contemporary forms). I particularly like what Butler says that "to act with the material and to be complicit with it, actually means to investigate societal power relations“ (Bodies That Matter, 1993). Also resonant for my practice is Petra Lang-Berndt’s notion of “focusing on the moments when materials become willful actors and agents within artistic processes” (Materiality, 2015).