Danni O’Brien

Studio visit March, 2018

“Play Date” 70″ x 24″ x 18″ latch hooked yarn and plastic, wood, glazed ceramics, rubber tubing, wire, glitter. 2018

Where did you grow up?

Right outside DC, though the setting wasn’t nearly as impactful as my upbringing. We didn’t have a TV for most of my childhood so all I did for fun was draw and collage and make stuff. I told my mother when I was five that I wanted to be a wedding dress designer when I grew up and she bought me mountains of paper, fancy pens, and a subscription to Bride Magazine for inspiration. I found a 3” binder and filled it up with my designs for years. I had an incredibly inspiring nanny named Vitta. She was a funny, little, peculiar lady from Costa Rica who was talented and skilled in making all sorts of things. She taught me how to embroider, sew clothes, bead jewelry, fold origami, draw, paint, the list goes on. She helped me bring my jewelry designs to life when I started my own business called Danielle’s Jewels at age 10 and sold my creations at the side of the road. Even though I have gotten away from jewelry and clothes making, a lot of the techniques she taught me still show up in my practice and I attribute a lot of my early art education to her.


When I wasn’t wedding dress designing or making art with Vitta, my dad would drag me to home depot and salvage yards for company on his home improvement expeditions. I hated it then, but now those are some of my go-to places for materials. He was a very handy man and taught me at a fairly young age how to run a table saw, construct basic forms out of wood, and properly hold tools, which made me more comfortable as I entered college as a sculpture major.


I went to undergrad at James Madison, a liberal arts school in the Shenandoah Valley that offered a small town campus feel and opportunities for outdoor adventures. The program was kind of sparse in the sense that there weren’t a lot of other serious makers in school with me, but I think that’s fairly common. I had nurturing and motivating professors who had excellent practices of their own. The studio spaces were incredible– at one point I had basically the entire sculpture department space to myself because I was the only senior sculpture concentration. I was so spoiled by the spaces and tools and didn’t realize until after I left how great I had it. I graduated three years ago and have been back in the DC area since.


How long have you been in your current studio?

About a year and a half. I like the space itself but the location isn’t great. DC is alright but I am looking to find a more accessible and supportive artist community and a space that isn’t jaded because I grew up in it. The silver lining is that my current studio is a space that I own so I can do whatever the hell I want in it/ to it.


What materials are you interested in right now?

That’s a funny story. My family’s from the Midwest, so around Christmas time I traveled out to Kansas City and St. Louis for two weeks. I was in a really good place in my studio making a lot of stuff out of clay and I didn’t want to lose that momentum. I needed to find a process I could start while I was there and work on as I traveled. My grandmother had a latch hook rug she made laying out and that just clicked. I ran to hobby lobby (eww) and was greeted by these incredibly convenient packs of pre cut yarn that I didn’t know existed.

“Vitta’s Pants” 30″ x 22″ x 7″ latch hooked yarn and plastic, plastic tubing. 2018

I bought 80 dollars worth of materials and went back to grandma’s and made about 20 drawings. I typically make drawings as a part of my process and now I feel like I have a way to share them. Latch hooking allows me to create tactile, plushy drawings and use them as the surfaces and skins of sculptural pieces. I love the mode of making because it’s easy to roll it up, pack it away, and work on it on the go or as I’m lying in bed with insomnia. It’s very therapeutic.


Generally, a big part of my process at the start of a piece is the structure or form. Most of the time, the base or armature for a piece is actually a found object I discover at a thrift store. Recently I’ve started working with paper mache too, not really as a way to build a structure, but more as a way to disguise the surface of something. I’ve been collecting strange forms and shitty old wooden furniture and using [the paper mache] to repair it and disrupt its predictable texture. Right now I’m about to build this ladder using PVC pipes and I am thinking about covering all the connections with a pretty pink paper pulp. The paper pulp is great because its so cheap and accessible. I make it from toilet paper, water, glue, and dye and therefore can get any color I want.


I am still hand building with clay and ceramic casting with these weird silicone molds I make. I guess the commonality with all of the materials I am working with right now is that I crave something I am touching directly and frequently. I’m mixing the paper pulp with my hands and clumping it together, pushing soft, wet clay into rubber molds, and petting the latched hooked drawings as I work on them. It’s all very playful too.


What is the driving force behind your work, or what are the underlying themes?

I think generally speaking, my work is about childhood and play in some capacity. I am either trying to use the materials or techniques I played with as a child or creating abstracted imagery of scenes from certain memories.


A lot of what I’m trying to get at are these weird flashbacks I’ve been having recently about events from childhood. When I was in high school I had a lot of concussions, which is really terrifying. I was a big athlete, it was a part of my identity that is pretty absent now and unfortunately, it led to a lot of brain injuries. I think the concussion protocol was and remains to be extremely behind. I recall one concussion in particular when I was knocked unconscious for several minutes. After I came back to and took a break from softball season, I wasn’t advised to take any other precautions to rest my brain. Instead I went about like normal and took final exams soon after and the whole thing just felt really weird. Now I think that experience in combination with the other concussions I had drastically affected my memory and ability to recall moments from childhood and even recent events. But very strangely, as of late I have been experiencing remembering is through little flashes of an image or scene popping in my head. A lot of times they are these weird moments from early childhood that I sort of forgot about.


Recently I was thinking about how when I was about 8 we had this big ladybug infestation in my home. I decided to gather them all and put them in a variety of containers, including jars, my jewelry box, drawers of my dresser, and little hand bags. The way I remembered this was through an image of the ladybugs piled up in a flock lined jewelry box I had in my bedroom. Another recent memory is from when I was about 6 and picked up a run over squirrel from the road and made a little fort for it in my yard. I visited it several times a day and prayed it would come back to life. Other times I remember certain projects I made with Vitta’s help. I think these memories are manifesting themselves in my work as I think about intersections of play and ritual and the grotesque as well as finding ways to capture them through abstracted imagery.


What is your biggest struggle in the studio?

My biggest struggle right now is space. The work I had been making until very recently was extremely small and miniature. For a while that was working because I liked creating these intimate scenes that I could rearrange and play with. I made a series called Slumber Parties and though I enjoyed the process of composing them, they weren’t entirely fulfilling. They just didn’t get me excited and I think it was in large part because they were too damn small.


What actually helped push me to make bigger work was looking at calls for solo shows and asking myself, how could I compose a provocative show with just these tiny little guys? Then I started thinking about how I could borrow the iconography and materials from the Slumber Party series and make bigger, more impactful work. That’s where I am now.


In your studio practice, how do you keep moving forward and how do you think about making meaningful work?

Well, I usually have about three or four pieces I’m working on simultaneously so that I can dance around from piece to piece and take a break from one when I feel like I’m getting stuck. I think a lot of artists do this. I also keep things going by having some mindless repetitive processes that I can always resort to. For example, earlier this morning I rolled out of bed and  pushed some clay into these molds–they’re going to dry in a couple of hours, then I’ll pop them out and be able to shape them and work on that. I’ve also got this ten foot latch hook I’m working on that I keep on a roll and just unwind to work on as I lay in bed and listen to my favorite podcast.


I’ve noticed that the way I set up my studio and the proximity of certain materials with one another often influences how I combine them. Because I have so much stuff that I collect—Halloween props, beaded fringe, rope, plastic home goods, furniture– often times if I’m not having a good studio day, I will just rearrange and re-organize my supplies.


Then I sit on the floor and look around and start piecing things together in my mind and proceed to playing with and assembling things together as experiments. This intuitive playing and almost haphazard way to making choices is what often helps me make new work.


I think I’m making meaningful work when I am able to compose an artist statement after I’ve started new work that makes sense and comes naturally. For me, having to write about my work is one of the ultimate tests to see if the work I am making is honest, personal, and true.  

Do you have any interests or hobbies outside of your studio practice that keep you sane?

Yesterday I went to my auto mechanic who I make a lot of small talk with and he asked, “Danni, what do you do for fun… besides that art stuff?”. I had to really take a moment and think. I allow my studio time to take up a huge chunk of my free time and I like that. But I do actually enjoy other things. I especially love taking weekend road trips. Whenever I go up to Baltimore or Philly or down to Richmond for a show, I try to make a long weekend out of it and often turn it into a thrifting/material hunt extravaganza. I actually have a small business selling vintage clothes and gemstone jewelry I make and usually go to pop up markets in different cities to sell them on the weekends. I try to go to the gym a lot because once I’m there lifting weights I feel invincible and strong. I am also one of the biggest foodies I know so I am obsessed with trying new things and concocting fancy meals and cocktails in my free time.


Do you have any projects or exhibitions coming up that you’d like to promote?

I have a little solo show at Point 1612, which is in Peoria, IL and opens next month. It’s in a small box space modeled after their bigger space that will live outside. I will have work in a group show called gofrosaken at Extra in Syracuse in May. I also have a couple of pieces that were selected for publication in the next issue of Art Maze Magazine out of London that should be coming out sometime this spring. Right now I am trying to figure out what my summer plans are. I just announced my resignation from my teaching job and so now I am pretty obligation free. I’ve attended Art Farm in Nebraska the past couple of summers and its beginning to feel like a tradition. The place is really salubrious for me but I am also hoping to hear some good news from a couple other residencies I’ve applied to.

Danni and her studio


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