The studio at Arts Project Australia is bustling on a Wednesday morning. Operations manager Sandy Fernée points out that solar panels are being installed today, and the clamour of drilling commences on cue. There is a steady movement of artists to and from the sink area to collect paint, and from one side of the room to the other, to hobnob. The studio space, found on the second floor of the building, is open plan and about the size of a modest school hall.
Why is O’Brien working alone, midway between two sections of the studio? “Warren is a spreader of paint. He always goes home in a different colour than how he arrives,” says Fernée. O’Brien’s workspace was part his own choice and part practicality – removed from the communal work areas, enshrouded in his earmuffs, he knuckles down to work – and no one complains about him dispersing paint.
O’Brien has been an artist for “a long time,” he says – that being the last 14 years it turns out. Arts Project was established in 1974, coincidentally the same year that O’Brien was born, and each week it is attended by over 130 artists with an intellectual disability. A ground-floor art gallery showcases curated works in a rich program. Arts Project is not an art school; instead, staff artists facilitate and mentor the individual creativity of each studio artist.
Last year, O’Brien’s work graced one side of a Melbourne tram when he was chosen as one of two ambassadors for Arts Project in Yarra Trams’ inaugural Community Partnerships program. He has regularly appeared in numerous group exhibitions, including Spring 1883 and Melbourne Art Fair, but this month marks his first solo show at Arts Project Australia.
O’Brien is in the studio Wednesdays and Thursdays, and while here his focus is squarely on the task at hand. It’s hard to say how many paintings he completes in a day; Fernée explains, “Warren works into his works, he’ll let them dry and bring them back out again, so he gets those beautiful layering effects that you see in the arches in his paintings.” O’Brien’s favourite colour is red; it reminds him of the Essendon football team’s colours. Today he is wearing a Hawks lanyard and so it appears that his loyalties are split. O’Brien answers my questions in a good-natured ‘yeah, mate’ succinctness calling exhibitions, “good fun,” or saying he “mucks around, goes for walks” in his spare time. His dog’s name is Archie.
On the first painting O’Brien begins working on this morning, small accents of his beloved red in a claret tone can be glimpsed through the layers of paint.
The final layer that he applies, again in that arched line but in a different expression – more gaping, spaced – is a cool, pale yellow. Dusky pink hangs in the background. It shouldn’t work, but it does. This harmony takes not only intuition but practice. An orderly colour wheel is pinned above his work, the back of his easel is dotted thickly in paint – a deconstruction of that wheel. On occasion, O’Brien steps back and takes stock of his painting before the colours get muddy. Small plastic cups of paint accumulate on the easel shelf, along with paint brushes that seldom get a cleansing dunk in his water container. He is decisive when his painting is done. O’Brien deposits his painting in the drying rack and heads for the plan drawer marked with his name to work on the next piece.
Studio manager, James McDonald walks past O’Brien’s workspace holding a tub of earmuffs for the rest of the artists on account of the noisy works on the rooftop. O’Brien wears his all the time. He stops in his tracks to watch the artist apply paint in loosely articulated forms of arched windows, McDonald tells me that O’Brien’s “process is very much the core of his practice.” The round arches are a constant in his work, applied in a continuous, determined motion, like choreography or muscle memory. In conversations about the origin of this form, I was told that O’Brien was formerly a window cleaner; interestingly, it’s the gesture of the window washing that is echoed in his movement in front of the easel. I ask O’Brien but the answer isn’t forthcoming today, nor has he ever given it away; he can’t recall what drew him to this form.
In art history, windows speak of the multidimensionality of space and time: the view outside of a window is presented framed, at an unknown distance. Windows are the intermediary between the interior and exterior worlds. In his corridor workspace in his earmuffs, O’Brien’s abstracted windows emerge again and again, alive in colour and gesture.
This article was originally published in the July/August 2019 print edition of Art Guide Australia.