The Q&A: Martin O'Neill

By Peggy Roalf   Monday April 13, 2015

Q: Originally from London, what are some of your favorite things about living and working in a small town? 

A. I come from a big Irish family and grew up in Harlesden, North West London. There was a great Irish immigrant community and the whole neighbourhood was a bit of a melting pot of cultures—Irish, Polish, Afro Caribbean, Indian kids, everyone muddled together. I was a regular 80’s London kid, into body poppin’, graffiti, soul, electro and hip-hop, then into the early North London house scene. We were all obsessive DJs in our teens and put on local club nights and parties. I always got collared to draw the flyers of course. 

By 2003, my London space was getting cramped and I relocated 80km south to St. Leonards-on-the-Sea for more space and a new perspective. It’s a charmingly odd seaside town, which for years was overlooked, as a has-been holiday destination. I never knew why. I visited as a kid and it had all the seaside stuff you’d want. Beach, arcades, rides, pedalo swans. It’s always had something alluring for creative people though, and when we arrived it was full off eccentrics, real eccentrics. It has a long history of being home to rebellious working class artisans and still has a good art community. It’s getting a bit more gentrified these days but it’s still nice and weird, small and frayed around the edges. It also has 4 crazy golfs, a great fishing fleet and plenty of obscure pagan festivals.  

 Left: Yale Medicine; right: The Independent Magazine.

Q: Do you keep a sketchbook? 

A: I’m always messing with something or other, commissioned or not. The sketchbook habit started by filling schoolbooks full of Graffiti or ‘piece books’ as we called them back then. Sketchbooks are like dancing—you need to do it with wild abandon every now and then to untie all the knots, reboot and shake off the normality, ditch lazy habits.  

At the moment I make piles of collage bits here and there in the studio, some in boxes or clear bags nailed to the wall. They’re kind of sketch-boxes or sketch-bags I suppose. I like that you can see through a group of them at a glance, see all the cut out thoughts.

Q: What is the balance between the art you create on paper versus in the computer? 

A: I only really make compositions in collage by hand, so all the bits have to be real. The Mac is a fancy colour copier for me that I process found stuff through. Bit and bobs get scanned or photographed, imported, tweaked, enlarged, reversed then reprinted in various ways, inkjet, laser, fax,  put through the blender, but it all gets printed back into reality. Then I start cutting, sticking and mixing found stuff with this. Paint, ink or acetate get a look in, bits of silkscreen, whatever feels good. Ultimately though, with work for print the final collages become digital files, which are tweaked and cleaned up before sending, completing the ying and yang of a digital/analogue process.  So until Apple bring out a 12 x 6-foot tabletop touchscreen Mac with scalpel-proof screen, I’m still likely to be moving bits around by hand.  

Left: Guardian Guide; right: Eni Energy Italy.

Q : What do you like best about your workspace?

A: Studios have been many over the years, from bedroom to shed to a workshop in London, but where we are right now it feels like home. In ‘07 we converted a rundown empty shop on the seafront into a studio. There’s lots of space and we get blistering sunlight that bounces off the sea across the road. It’s at the scruffy end of town but there’s a good community vibe between the shops. The studio/shop window has various functions including a loosely curated space for found objects, or sometimes a place to get rid of old furniture. The sea across the road can be equally uplifting and melancholic but it’s always inspiring. 

Q: Do you think it needs improvement, if so, what would you change? 

A: The studio could do with a monthly clear-out which currently seems to be annually. A big studio space is a great excuse to hoard more stuff. I’d fill an aircraft hanger if I had one.

Q: What is the most important item in your studio?

A: Well, all the junk, books and paper I couldn’t do without but the ol’ faithful A3 scanner is pretty useful. It’s the conduit from the analogue to digital world. I’ve put everything on it from cooked spaghetti to a dead seagull.

Section of ceiling collage for Stayrooms Hotel Luxembourg.

Q: What is your favorite part of the creative process? 

A: Going astray. Being completely lost, no map, no deadline, as such, just drifting along wherever the wind blows, eventually washing up somewhere odd and interesting, unchartered. With that in mind though, the hardest thing about collage is learning when to stop, and the second hardest thing is knowing when to keep going. 

Q: What was the strangest or most unusual assignment you’ve taken? What did you learn from the experience?

A: I guess I’ve done thousands of collages since I started almost 20 years ago. But I always remember one of my first clients. Straight out of college I was commissioned regularly by The Erotic Review magazine. A kind of highbrow “gentleman’s” magazine. The commissioning editrice was Annie Blinkhorn, who often directed me to make increasingly rude and lewd collages, “the ruder the better,” she always added to a briefing over the phone. 

The jobs were always a challenge and I had to hide them from my Mum, along with the research material of course. The collages were hand delivered to a top floor flat in London’s Regent Street where I’d wait for a £50 cheque. I’d immediately cash that in and go buy records in Soho. What I learnt from that job? Apart from the frenzy of a 24-hour print deadline, (pre internet) I suppose I learnt a lot about anatomy.

Oliver Sacks The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (The Folio Society).  

Q: What was your favorite book as a child?

A: I wasn’t much of a reader, but we had a big wildlife encyclopedia that I pored over for years. I traced all the animals and birds then progressed onto copying them, finally drawing from memory. I still have the book now. I especially loved drawing all the species of sharks. 

Q: What is the best book you’ve recently read? 

A: I think it’s good to revisit things. I read The Pearl by John Steinbeck when I was at school and re-read it recently It’s short and simple. It relates to everything important and unimportant in life. Seems even more poignant now.

Q: If you had to choose one medium to work in for an entire year, eliminating all others, what medium would you choose?

A: Well, I’ve knocked paper collage around for two decades now, So I’d have to think of something different to be interesting here right? So let’s say old wood and the re-construction of found wooden objects. Me and my daughters are currently attempting to carve a totem pole in the garden.

Section of ceiling collage for Stayrooms Hotel Luxembourg.

Q: What are some of your favorite places/books/blogs/websites for inspiration?

A: The Internet is usually leaves me a bit flat if I try to look for inspiration. I find it both over- and underwhelming at the same time. I prefer secondhand book shops or junkyards and in the same time you’d spend online you’ll unearth something mindboggling, hilarious, surreal or just odd and inspiring. In particular, vide greniers (empty attic) in rural France. Which is where an entire village will have a clear out sale in the streets. You have to be around to find out when and where they are, find signs on lampposts or in boulangerie windows. They’re great places to unearth something beautiful and unusual.

Q: What was the painting or drawing or film that most affected your approach to art? [the Thunderbolt]

I don’t think it was one particular painting or film really. But there was a place. I was on a three-month Erasmus Art School exchange trip in 1994.  I stumbled across a waste paper recycling centre on the edge of Pforzheim, Germany, the town I was staying at. I became a daily visitor collecting all sorts of stuff, everything from old photograph albums to pre-war documents, that mixed with strips of torn billboards and kids’ colouring books. It felt like a goldmine. It was a real thunderbolt moment and I came back to college with a lot of collage sketchbooks and bags of rubbish. I didn’t realise that that rubbish tip would fuel the rest of my degree and ultimately whole career.

I think the book, Subway Art by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant about New York Graffitti scene in the mid-80s was also a big early influence. It blew us all away at school. Only one kid had it, it was all cello-taped up and repaired.  You could pay him to borrow it for the weekend to trace and copy. Every page was awe-inspiring. I think old style ‘80s graffiti still informs my composition, shapes and colour palettes.

Q: If you could be anywhere but where you are now, where would that be?

A: In the sun, wandering around a vide grenier in rural France with JP and our daughters, then off for a long village lunch.

Q: What advice would you give a young artist about applying to an art school or college?

A: Never think you won’t like, or are not interested in a process until you’ve had a real good shot at doing it. Have a go at everything. You might put your twist on it and be the best person at it that ever was. 

Inches, for Fury London.

Q: What would be your last supper?

A: Hopefully not my last meal, but a favourite has to be some wonky snack or burnt cakes made by my young daughters. And of course, an ice-cold beer.

London born collage artist and Illustrator Martin O’Neill creates images for a wide range of International clients encompassing publishing, advertising and design.  His work can be seen frequently in the UK and US press. Martin works largely by hand, developing his images through a subtle alchemy of collage, silkscreen, paint and photocopies. Recent clients include Puma, Grolsch, Aston Martin,  Random House, The Lincoln Centre, Scientific American, Sony Playstation, Guardian Guides, Nokia, Liberty and GQ.

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