Kevin O’Callaghan Interview

Monumental is an appropriate title for the collection of projects put together by Kevin O’Callaghan and his students at the School of Visual Arts. Pages are full of impossibly large typewriters, telephones made from cars, picket fences made from assault rifles – a whole range of brilliant creations put together from recycled materials and tech garbage. It’s an empowering book, documenting how hard work and exceptional teaching can produce unthinkable designs year after year. We spoke with Kevin about his process of designing and educating.

Your new book, Monumental seems to really focus on the relationship between you and your students.

It’s interesting that you’re saying that because initially the book was supposed to be more about my personal work and less about my relationship with my students. The fact of the matter is, my relationship with my students has been the most rewarding thing of my career. So I wouldn’t have done a book if it wasn’t about my students and what we did together. Because that’s what was monumental. When you do something for a client, you always expect it to be monumental – you try your hardest for it to be monumental. But when you do something with young people and then get to that level, where a simple homework assignment becomes that scale… that to me is very special.

In the book you describe it as one of two big turning points in your life, when Richard Wilde brought you into SVA and introduced you to teaching.

Right – the whole Richard thing is a funny story. Professionally, things were going exceptionally well for me right out of school. I was working out in California in the film industry. And you always go back to your mentor to brag about the things you’ve been doing. I set up a lunch with Richard, and immediately he saw in my face that although I was acting as though things were wonderful, that things weren’t so good and that I was missing something. That was when the biggest lie in the world happened. And the biggest lie was Richard saying to me, “Why don’t you teach a class, it would only take three hours of your time.” I didn’t know it at first, but that was the biggest lie of all, because three hours became six the first week, became two days by the end of the month and before I knew what happened, it had totally hooked me. And I’m glad, because it really was the best thing that ever happened to me.

Another thing I was struck by going through your work was the speed of your process. Could you detail that?

I’ve always worked very quickly. I’ve always worked from the hip. I realized a long time ago, when I give myself too much time I just get very confused and I over-design and over-create, so I strike while the iron’s hot. Especially with students, I find that students come up with their best concepts and their best ideas almost immediately. So to prolong it… I tried that once many years ago, and gave the students six months to create the pieces for the exhibit. It was a complete failure. First of all, most of them waited until three weeks before anyways, to actually start to create the pieces. Students tend to procrastinate. But all that time created a lot of confusion – they thought about it too much and they over-designed. So I started to get into this whole direction of giving very tight timelines on these things. And I think that it really prepares them for what the real world has to offer. Because in the real world, you’re not going to have six months to conceptualize and create a piece. You need to work quickly and be able to think on your feet. Keeps it exciting too.

That’s interesting what you’re saying about over-thinking – that their better ideas and better-executed ideas come out when they’re limited.

Yeah – absolutely. I think with everyone, your first initial thought is always your best one. Your initial concept is always your best one.

You work with interesting materials like found objects and reused garbage. Where does that interest come from?

I’m asked that question a lot – I’m not completely certain of the answer to it. Even as a child I always saw things as still being usable. I remember my parents throwing an old couch out, and staring at it at the curb from the window asking myself “why isn’t that still okay, that couch? Why can’t that still be used?” And I dragged it into the backyard and I made a clubhouse of it. I’ve always had this sense of things having an afterlife, and things being able to be used again. And as far as the students’ exhibitions were concerned, it started with the simple idea of reuse with one of our earlier exhibits, and it’s just grown. The class became known for this after a while. Now it’s something that’s in vogue right now – the whole reuse idea and recycling. One of my proudest moments is what we did with NBC and the Today Show when we created the Earth Day frame out of all the recycled e-waste. I’m always interested in giving students a starting point with these exhibitions. I always feel like everybody starts with an even keel at that point. That’s where the found objects starting point came from.

Another hallmark of your work gets plugged in the book title, Monumental. What’s the attraction of playing with scale?

My dad was an architect. As an architect he was working, creating pieces of art in huge scale in the form of building. He designed pavilions for the 1939 World’s Fair. Everything was big but still was art. That had a lot of influence on me as far as the scale thing goes.

You recently did this reworking of the Hall of Fame Wall in the ADC gallery. Could you walk us through the concept?

I’m very excited about that project, and I hope it sees the light of day because the Art Directors Club has meant a lot to our class. Many of those shows in the book started at the Art Directors Club. It’s always been the place where we’ve premiered our shows, and the ADC has always been gracious in letting us do that. There’s a warm spot in my heart for the ADC, it’s been a good luck charm for us over the years.

And the Hall of Fame to me is something that we all set our sights for, and I think it’s such a big part of the Club. I know just from watching the students while spending a lot of all-nighters there setting these shows up – they would always gravitate to that back wall, where there used to be names of everybody in the Hall of Fame. I saw that as something that should be glorified as much as possible. Yet understanding the physicality and the needs of the club it can’t take up valuable space on the ground floor where the exhibitions are obviously of full importance. I saw the upstairs in the balcony area as a great solution to doing something for the Hall of Fame. I thought it would be fun to have an interactive space where people can touch screens and put in some kind of code and really get an education about the people in the club.

You would have a wall up there with the names of all the people in the Hall of Fame, and a line of screens that students could go up to and interact with and learn from. Plus that library area I thought could be used in a bigger way as an educational spot – there could be ongoing exhibitions, perhaps for people about to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. By opening up the wooden railing-wall along the staircase and putting glass there, from down below you’d be able to see this glorious Hall of Fame upstairs. It would become more of a destination for people to come and see that if it had it’s own home upstairs. We also did a little addition of the floor space up there by extending the floor in a curve coming off the balcony. It would make the exhibition area a little bigger and also give access and space for somebody to speak from, or for maybe be a string quartet.

I love that idea of the space as a teaching tool.

I think that the students are aware of the club, the students go to events there. And it would be great if they could go there and be educated, because I really want that more than ever. Even though they can go online and look up these people, there’s something to be said about going to a destination and sitting there holding a real book in your hands and seeing real work at an exhibition. There’s more of a need to think like that. Things like that are disappearing, because people just presume that you can go online – and you can. But I see, especially in my class, that they want to be more hands on. They want to be able to go places and see things. I’m a big fan of the ADC, always have been. I think it’s so important to have.

Are you working on anything right now that you’re really excited about, either in class or for clients?

We’ve got a couple of new ideas for big exhibitions that we’re developing now. The way we develop a big exhibition is I come up with three or four ideas and I give them out to my students one week at a time to do sketches. And then I see where they’re biting – which one of the four is the one that’s clicking. And they’re always based on what’s going on in the news and what’s in the air. We’re doing that now: working on four ideas to see what we can come up with for a big exhibition in March.

Of course I’m working on personal things. We just did some beautiful sets for the NY Chinese Opera Society’s The Story of Ruth. I love doing sets for theatre and I don’t do enough of them, so I jumped on that project. But the student stuff is always what interests me the most. We’re very excited about going back out on the road with a big show. We’re also talking about a possible retrospective show based on the book, Monumental, where we would tour a show of the best work that’s in that book. We actually have most of the work that’s in that book believe it or not. So we’d be able to take the Yugo’s out and some of the carrousel pieces. I’d like a selection of all the shows in one big exhibition, and I think people would love to see that again.

I’ve actually designed the exhibition already. My part in all this apart from teaching is designing the exhibition itself and conceptualizing the direction. We’ve already designed the way it will look, and the way I design things is I build models – I don’t ever render anything. I actually build a physical model because it helps me to figure out what materials to work with and things like that. I work with the actual materials in a small scale. We did this wonderful model of the way this retrospective would look and I got so excited – every time I look at I go “Oh my god this has to happen!”

We also just did this great piece for Seamless Web, which is a web site you can order take-out food on, it’s really a wonderful company. We did this giant pastrami sandwich that was 12ft by 12ft by 16ft high. It was one of the best sculptures we’ve ever done. They had it in Brooklyn, and it’s going to do it’s own little tour starting next month. They did a great little documentary with me on the making of it. The funniest thing that happened was we had it outdoors in Brooklyn and this dog took a beeline to it, and was sniffing the sandwich and was looking at it. Somebody caught it on film and it ended up on YouTube. This dog really thought this sandwich was real, which I thought to be the biggest compliment maybe of my career. I fooled this dog!

How has the book launch gone so far?

We had a launch of the book at the SVA theater with Steven Heller. We came in and did this whole weird timeline of all the things in the book, which goes back to 1962 when I was 5 years old. One of my big influences was cowboy movies – Roy Rogers and things like that, and I came in on a robotic horse that I created just for the event. This horse comes galloping down the aisle – it’s a full-sized horse – and when it got to the bottom it reared up, and I went about 12ft in the air. It was a great night because it was all about the incredible hard work that the students have done over the years to create these shows. They were all there. It took my breath away because some of these students are in their 40s now, and they’re sitting next to students who worked on the show just last year.

They all have one thing in common: the monumental effort it took to make it happen. One thing I try to teach my students is that it’s one thing to be talented. Everybody at the school is talented, that’s almost easy. But it’s another thing to get people to notice your talent. You can build it, but that doesn’t mean they’ll come. You have to come up with an idea, make it happen in three week, and go out and promote it so people will see it, load trucks, unload trucks, set things up, take it down… That’s where the life lesson is on what the world is really about. I think my students when they leave, they feel like they’re able to do anything. They really feel like any project is possible and there’s a solution to anything they come up with professionally. I think that’s what they leave with, and to look on that Thursday to see 20 years of students there, I thought we’re all in common. To each and every one of them, what they were doing was the world.

My assistant, Adria, a former student, reminded me that one of the ways I’ve motivated the students all these years was I’d say to them, “now, look you’ve got to really do a good job on this, you’ve got to kill yourself because there may be a book one day. You want to be in that book.” She told me that was motivation to her to bring the class up to the level you see in the book, because you didn’t want to be left out of the book. Maybe I believed it at the time, maybe I didn’t, but I used it as my motivational tool and here it is. I think they all came back to celebrate that book that they’ve all hoped for when they were 21-22 years old. Some of them brought their kids the other night, it was really amazing. That’s the reward of this book. That’s why I’m so glad it was more student directed than my professional work. It was more important that we all celebrated what we had done together.