Kelly O’Brien is an independent filmmaker and mother of three who lives in Toronto. Her film “Softening” won the grand jury prize in the shorts competition at the 2013 DOC NYC festival and appeared in the New York Times online. She recently exhibited her experimental personal narrative “Postings from Home” at the 2016 Images Festival in Toronto. Point of View magazine called it “The real find of the festival… as O’Brien let the audience into her home and mind to experience a mother’s love for her children. Festivalgoers were visibly moved [by…] a revelatory journey through the filmmaker’s intimately illuminating archive.”
In my dream world there would be better public funding, more financial support and accessible, affordable and good quality respite services for families, especially lower-income families, raising kids with special needs.
You recently exhibited POSTINGS FROM HOME at the Images Festival in Toronto, working with your husband Terence. Can you say a bit about the genesis of the work, and how you composed it for the festival? How was it received?
I joined Facebook reluctantly in 2009. We were having a benefit for my son Teddy who was born with cerebral palsy. It was a way to get the word out about the event. I didn’t have much to do with Facebook again for the next few years until I somewhat spontaneously started posting pictures, quotes, little stories about my kids. I’ve always been interested in trying to capture the everyday, the poetry of it, and surprisingly Facebook became a way for me to do that. I’d just had my third child, Willow, and my world was pretty small. I didn’t have the resources, time, energy, money or patience to make a film, and I wasn’t into social media at all (I still don’t know how to snapchat or tweet!), but looking back (I wasn’t conscious of what I was doing then) I must have been desperate to make something, anything. I liked the immediacy of Facebook. I never saw what I was doing as “art” per se. I never referred to it as an art project. It was more of a daily experiment, a way to make sense of what was happening around me, and share a little beauty, some poignant bits of conversation. I wanted the posts to be more than cute kid pictures. I wanted to share something meaningful that was bigger than me and my kids.
I probably wouldn’t have realised it was anything more than a Facebook diary if it weren’t for my friends bugging me to turn the posts into a book – a possibility I haven’t even begun to think about. And I never would’ve considered a performance for the Images festival if it wasn’t for my filmmaker friend Mike Hoolboom who’s always pushing to get my work shown.
I’m probably stating the obvious here, but this project wouldn’t have been possible without an iPhone. It makes it easy to capture life on the fly, to photograph spontaneously and quickly, to keep a record of questions and conversations right after they happen.
The live performance for Images was an hour and included over 100 posts. I organized it chronologically, but selected the ones that I liked the best. There were about 150 images and I read the stories while Terence clicked through the slideshow. One day when I have more time I’d like to turn some of the stories into a longer diary film, but for now Facebook is their home.
I’ve always been interested in trying to capture the everyday, the poetry of it, and surprisingly Facebook became a way for me to do that. I’d just had my third child, Willow, and my world was pretty small.
What structural changes would enable you to move back into filmmaking (if you wanted to)? And also specific structural changes relating to caring for someone with a disability?
When Teddy was born it was impossible to go back to TV work: the hours were too long and I needed to be home to care for him, especially during those first few years. This past year, for the first time, all my kids were in school (Teddy goes to a wonderful school for kids with special needs, Emma was in Grade 6 and Willow started kindergarten) and I had more time to work on art projects. My husband is a full time high-school teacher and part time art critic so we manage to have caregivers help us on a regular basis, but it’s a huge financial drain that is not without stress and sacrifice. However, as a middle-class family, we’re not entitled to much financial aid from the government. In my dream world there would be better public funding, more financial support and accessible, affordable and good quality respite services for families, especially lower-income families, raising kids with special needs.
How do your children Emma, Teddy and Willow feel about taking part in the project? You share some of their words and thoughts in the posts as well: do they see the images online or in exhibition? What does it mean to them? Do you think you might make work with them as full co-authors in the future?
I’m always thinking about the ethics of what I do, the boundary between private life and public art. I know people, including some of my closest friends, who would never post pictures of their kids on Facebook. The whole idea makes them uncomfortable. I totally get it, but it still makes me feel like I’m doing something wrong. Sometimes I want to say my kids are my muses, they’re amateur actors, or occasional collaborators, but that sounds kind of lame and pretentious. I’m not sure I have a good enough answer. I seriously consider what and how much I should say about my kids. I don’t want to embarrass or make them feel like I’m exposing them unfairly. I would never post naked pictures of them for instance.
And now that Emma’s older (she’s 12) I’m much more conscious of how I represent her. The posts with her have already become more collaborative. She’ll now say things like, “Take a picture of me, mom!” or if Willow says something wise or funny, Emma will say, “Mom, you should write something about that.” It’s like I have another pair of eyes and ears helping me. I share what I post with Emma. Willow is too little to really get what I’m doing, but she likes scrolling through the pictures. Teddy is deaf and blind so he doesn’t understand what I’m up to. I try my best to represent him in a way that’s accurate, in a way that’s true to his sweet and complicated being. In the end I hope my kids forgive me for sharing our life in this strange public way. I hope they look back at the stories and pictures with love, because that’s the place where they all come from.
It’s also important for me to have at least some semblance of control over my personal information, which is why I’ve never made the posts public [but you can scroll down to see some examples and read about how they were put together]. I’m cautious and I worry about over-sharing. There’s still a lot of my life that doesn’t make it onto Facebook!
I know it’s such a cliché, but overall, this project has allowed me to document the ways I get to see the world through my childrens’ eyes. Even though I drive them crazy sometimes, especially when the last thing they want to do is pose for a picture, I hope that the process has opened up communication between us, given us insight into the different ways we make sense of the world. I also know that my time with them is limited and one day they’ll be telling stories about me. As British writer Rachel Cusk writes, “Children are characters in the family story we tell – until, one day, they start telling it themselves.”
I hope they look back at the stories and pictures with love, because that’s the place where they all come from.
You mention the importance of your community of friends on Facebook, persuading you that the photographic sequence could be transformed into a performance. How significant do you find online spaces for creating community, particularly for parents who may not be able to attend regular evening events?
I don’t know enough about other online spaces to be any kind of authority on the matter, but I’ve been surprised by the small group of people who I hear from on a daily or weekly basis depending on what I post. It provides a feeling of community that cuts down some of the isolation I feel, but at the same time they are fleeting exchanges; they’re not in the same league as real life. The nicest part about the project for me is that it’s enjoyed by friends who aren’t mothers or fathers or dealing with a kid with special needs. I like that it can reach people not just like me.
You quote the photographer Sally Mann in one of your posts: she collaborated with her children and partner for decades. Are there other parent-artist role models or colleagues at-a-distance for you?
After Teddy was born, I retreated from the world. My friend Mike Hoolboom encouraged me to film a few minutes of my life each day. Most days it was too hard, it took a certain distance that grief doesn’t give you, but eventually over time little bits of recorded life turned into a diary film about the experience called Softening [you can view a New York Times Op-Doc version of Softening here]. Generalized insecurity coupled with the fact that I rarely left my house made me think that I’d probably never make anything again. How could I make something interesting when my world was so small?
I turned to writers and artists who wrote about themselves, their families, and their everyday experiences for solace and inspiration: Sharon Olds, Jeannette Winterson, Rachel Cusk, Joan Didion, Mary Karr, Miranda July, Nan Goldin, Sally Mann, Agnes Varda, Maggie Nelson, and Sarah Manguso. There were also friends/mentors/colleagues closer to home, such as Mike Hoolboom, Phillip Hoffman, Kyo Maclear, and especially my husband, Terence Dick. They helped me get my creative voice back.
As Jeanette Winterson writes in her memoir about being adopted, Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?: “All of us, when in deep trauma, find we hesitate, we stammer; there are long pauses in our speech. The thing is stuck. We get our language back through the language of others. We can turn to the poem. We can open the book. Somebody has been there for us and deep-dived the words.”
I turned to writers and artists who wrote about themselves, their families, and their everyday experiences for solace and inspiration.
It seems like a lot of your engagement with media has been shaped by your parenting. How did you go about translating what you were learning or feeling as a parent into visual media?
“I was desperate to copy life, to make some record, to give it some form.”
A few years ago I read this one line in a Guardian interview with American poet Sharon Olds and I had one of those a-ha moments. Her description of her creative process helped me understand mine. It’s not like I wasn’t creative before motherhood, but I would have to say that the experience of having children has enriched and inspired my creative life in ways that constantly surprise and inspire me. Sometimes I wish I could write fiction or make conceptual art and imagine the world at more of a distance from myself, but I can’t, and so I try to make autobiographical work that’s honest, that finds the universal in the personal.
I take seriously the wisdom of my former film professor Seth Feldman who said that one of the main challenges of this form of creative expression is to make something where “personal idiosyncratic experience has great resonance for everybody else.” I fight against cliché, nostalgia, sentimentality and self-absorption. It’s about trying to make something with heart, without making people cringe! I subscribe to the feminist mantra that the personal is political, but I also know it can be claustrophobic so I try to address larger issues about parenting, our relationship to the natural world, art, beauty, global politics, the human condition, the meaning of life….
On one of your posts, showing your daughter Willow painting, you write that:
Veteran poet Mary Oliver makes the prescient observation: “The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”
How do you manage giving power and time to your creative work? And how do we make change so that a wider variety of expressions of creativity are equally valued by artists and audiences alike?
If I wasn’t an independent documentary filmmaker interested in personal storytelling, I think it would be much harder to find the power and time for my creative work. I’m glad those stars aligned. I’m not sure what it’s like in the UK, but in Canada independent artists can apply for a range of government film and media grants. I’ve received a few of those grants over the years and they have kept me going. I couldn’t be the kind of artist I am without that kind of financial support.
Right now, I have a grant to make a film on the poet Sharon Olds, but it’s hard to find the time needed for a longer project like that. Facebook on the other hand is a perfect medium for my lifestyle. I put a lot of thought into the posts, but they’re not hanging on a gallery wall or making a film festival debut. It’s not as intimidating and knowing that what I post will quickly disappear amidst the steady flow of updates takes away some of the pressure. I can’t be too precious about it.
I’m also very slowly trying to finish up an MA in Environmental Studies, but mostly I’m a mom and the fact that I get to document that experience in ways that seem to connect with people (at least my 500 or so Facebook friends!) is such a bonus. I feel lucky. The project has had some interesting side effects that have inspired me to keep it up. I notice the world around me more. I pay more attention to things my kids, friends and strangers say. It’s given me a creative life that I never could’ve anticipated. It’s been like my art school when I have time off. It gives me deadlines. It keeps me writing and taking pictures. It fulfills some need in me to make sense of my world through words and pictures, and explore and blur the boundaries between life and art.
Whether mothers can make “good” art about their children and whether or not it’s even valued by the culture at large seems like a hot topic these days, evidenced recently by a slew of articles on the subject in mainstream publications (for example, by Leah Sandals, Kim Brooks, and Jacoba Urist). The truth is I don’t spend enough time in any professional art world context to know how bad it really is for other artist mothers. At this point in my life, I’m just grateful for Facebook and happy if I get one creative burst a day!
The project has had some interesting side effects that have inspired me to keep it up. I notice the world around me more.
Can you talk us through how the creative bursts work and accumulate over time?
Usually in the course of a day, if I’m not too hurried or distracted, something small strikes me. Sometimes inspiration comes from a question and then I’ll search later for a picture in my disorganized archive of photos. Whenever I can, I try to combine images and words in ways that are not too literal or representational.
From her car seat Willow watches a crowd of pedestrians cross the street and she asks (as if noticing the outside world for the first time), “Why are there so many people who don’t know me?”
Sometimes the posts begin with a story, like this one after Emma came home from school one day in Grade 5.
Emma got her puberty sex ed talk at school yesterday. It seemed like it went pretty well – she learned about organic tampons, wet dreams and roughly where her uterus is. Terence and I drilled her for more info but she didn’t give away too much, except that her teacher asked the kids to anonymously write down any questions they still had so no one left confused. Emma’s question was “Why is life so complicated?”
Sometimes the posts are inspired by a quote from a book or an interview.
“Oh, the beauty of it, how to deal with it? How to meet it?”
—Karl Ove Knausgard
Sometimes they begin with a picture and then I’ll wait for the story.
Or sometimes, like the other day, one of the kids will say something funny and it’ll inspire a more staged set-up. I might even find a good quote too. It’s pretty thrilling when all three elements work together!
And once in a while some random magical thing happens in life and I get posts like this.
“I am constantly preoccupied with how to remove distance so that we can all come closer together.”
A group of young guys smoking outside the Galleria Mall saw me take a picture of Willow in front of this mysterious new sign. One of them yelled over, “Do you want me to take a picture of you together?” I always say thanks but no when someone asks this (Who wants to be in front of a camera when you can be behind one?), but I really couldn’t this time – not to the punkish kid in a baseball cap named Junior who was equal parts tough and sweet.