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Artist goes the paper route

Douglas Imbrogno
Kelly O'Brien, a late covert to the life of the international artist, spent last week installing a large original artwork titled "Hope Blossoms" at center court at the Huntington Mall. It will be displayed for six months.
Douglas Imbrogno The Microwave Project, founded by a West Virginia native, brought O'Brien to the mall last year to concoct "Grace's Garden," featuring a mannequin on a swing dressed in handmade multicolored paper flowers.

BARBOURSVILLE, W.Va. -- Installation art. Shopping mall.

These two phrases do not usually go together in West Virginia.

Yet for the past week, behind a scrim of black fabric at Huntington Mall's center court, an artist now based in Germany has fabricated an ambitious piece of installation art.

"Hope Blossoms" was unveiled Dec. 8, revealing hundreds of pink cherry blossoms of paper, folded by hand, sprouting from white branches, surrounding a swan ballet dancer. A cascade of blossoms rises from the branches, floating upward on string like soap bubbles toward the skylights.

"The mall company, the Cafaros, have a campaign called their 'Believe' campaign," says the work's creator, Kelly O'Brien. "One of the themes is 'hope.' So, I kind of played with the idea of hope and it ties into the idea of the optimism related to hope. There's more to it than that, but that's the underpinning."

The cherry blossoms recall the artist's decades of work in that cherry blossom capital of Washington, D.C., where O'Brien was a late bloomer to the life of international installation artist.

Born in Norfolk, Va., she worked for years as a government contractor, hired to consult on leadership development and change management for a range of agencies, including NASA, she said. "Basically, that's the equivalent of being an industrial shrink for big agencies."

She began to manage some change in her own life of power suits and PowerPoint presentations, veering dramatically from the D.C. job she'd landed with her master's degree in human development. "I had shoulder pads back in the day," she said, smiling while ascending a ladder to hang a branch.

When younger, she'd pursued the artist's life, training as an undergraduate in classical and contemporary dance with the Washington School of Ballet. In her early 40s, she returned attention to that life, taking workshops with a friend on waking up one's inner artist.

She started taking paper-making workshops in 2008 and fell in love with the idea of becoming what she now calls herself: "A paper artist." She began to make limited-edition handmade books and sculptural paper objects and then installations as a juried artist through the Torpedo Factory Art Center, in Alexandria, Va.

Her inner artist had become an outer one.

"The art has always been in me. So, this was a way to re-find it," she said as she affixed branches and pink paper cherry blossoms to her mall piece. "The thing that's so interesting about this work is I feel like I'm dancing again. Because it's so visceral, it's so physical. It's moving through space."

This is her second piece of installation art at the Huntington Mall. And therein lies a separate tale of two West Virginia sisters bringing installation art to the hinterlands.

Visitors to the mall last year may recall encountering O'Brien's piece "Grace's Garden" in the main mall entrance. It featured a mannequin on a swing in an elaborate dress of many-colored, intricately folded paper flowers.

The mannequin wore a hat of black butterflies ascending in a swarm on strings to the ceiling. The train of the dress -- composed of folded rose-colored shopping bags from Rose Tree Boutique --- swept out behind like a peacock's tale.

Both of O'Brien's pieces were brought to the mall by the Microwave Project, a for-profit art company co-founded by Mary Cook, a Marshall University fine-arts graduate who now lives in Washington, D.C. (Charleston art-world followers may recall her years of work in Callen McJunkin's gallery space.)

"We started about two years ago, and the idea was to try to have an opportunity to give installation artists, specifically, places to exhibit in alternative venues," said Cook, who spent last week glue gun in hand, affixing a shopping cart full of paper blossoms to branches.

"This mall is one example of an alternative venue that we're able to bring site-specific installation art to the public. I've had installation artists in freight elevators, in shipping containers," said Cook.

Another mission of the company is to help artists make, if not scads of money from installations, at least enough to cover expenses.

"This particular project, we're fortunate enough the Huntington Mall is paying us to do this," Cook said. "But a lot of times the artists, unfortunately, are doing it for free. And we don't want them to. Microwave Project is really trying hard to find a way to get the artists paid, to get their work out there. Because there is so much that goes into it. I mean, hours and hours of work."

Cook had an advocate in the mall's marketing director -- her sister, Margi MacDuff. The mall signed on to installation art after a redesign and grand reopening last year. The response was better than they could have hoped, MacDuff said, recalling shoppers' reactions to "Grace's Garden."

"In my opinion, we are starting an art revolution. The reason I say that is that as soon as people walked into the mall they stopped. Because you had to. The sculpture was massive, it was beautiful, it was elegant. And people just stared and looked at it.

"So, when they were coming to the mall that day they were in the mindset they were going to rush, rush, rush! Get that Christmas present! Get what they needed and leave. Not once did they think they were going to have to stop and appreciate art."

As for the work's creator, O'Brien hopes she is able to keep stopping people in their tracks. "Hope Blossoms" will be displayed for six months at center court.

Her life has changed in other ways as she now lives in Frankfurt, Germany, after she and her husband moved to Europe for his software job. She has her first show in Frankfurt up right now, along with two German artists, titled "Ein Haus mit vier Räumen" ("A House with Four Rooms").

She concedes that her spouse's work has made her transition to full-time artist possible. But with work like "Grace's Garden" and "Hope Blossoms" through the Microwave Project, she has hurdled one significant goal in the life of the working artist.

"If I can cover expenses on a job, I'm happy. I would certainly like more. I mean, I was a businesswoman, I have a brain for business. But for now, you know ..."

She looks up at the fantastical tree sprouting in the middle of the Huntington Mall.

"To me, that feels like a win."

For more on Kelly O'Brien's work, visit www.turningpointepress.com.

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.


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