Chicago, Illinois


Chicago-based artist William J. O’Brien works in multiple media: drawing, painting, ceramic, metal sculpture, installation, and assemblage. Inspired by Modernism, as well as the history of material usage of Outsider Art, O’Brien’s multidisciplinary practice is a search for identity and genuine expression through material and process. His prolific output in these various media offers a visual profusion of color, pattern, and exuberant excess. O’Brien has held solo exhibitions at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Renaissance Society, Chicago, KMAC Museum, Louisville, MAD Museum, NYC, Witte De With, Rotterdam, and The Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City among others. In 2014 he had his first major museum survey at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago curated by Naomi Beckwith. He has held residencies at the Vermont Studio Center and the U-Cross Foundation. O’Brien has received awards from the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation and Artadia. His work is included in the permanent collections of the Cleveland Clinic, New York Presbyterian Hospital, Miami Art Museum, Pérez Art Museum, Hammer Museum, Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, and The Art Institute of Chicago. O’Brien is also Professor, Chair of Ceramics at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.


Artist Statement

The work is autobiographical. My formal practice starts in drawing and ceramics then extends into mixed media sculpture and installation. The content is stories and themes about ritual and secular spirituality. My interest in using craft materials was influenced by my childhood relationship to my aunt who was born with Cerebral Palsy. Witnessing and observing the relationship she had with my grandmother and how they communicated greatly affected me. From this experience I became interested in learning and listening to the potential of the body and other senses to communicate. This ability to express complex emotion without words through other parts of the body led me to value this especially in my studio practice.

The orbs series, Earth, Water, Fire, Wind & Space, was started during the pandemic. At the beginning I was just coping with day-to-day issues of navigating COVID and the studio was one of the few places I felt safe. This work is adaptable. It is moveable, changeable. It is about planting seeds and uncertainty, finding calm in chaos, seeing true lines. An offering. An apology to Mother Nature. It is about disease, illness, connection & community. It is about the space in-between and the ability to dream again.

Earth, Water, Fire, Wind, and Space Pt. 2, 2021-2022, Ceramic, dimensions variable, Courtesy of the artist