Morgan O’Hara: The Practice of Meaning

The meaning of life is life itself. Morgan O’Hara’s draws this mystery skillfully with the secret wisdom of a much-tested lifelong practice—a profound performative practice that witnesses silently and reveals generously the remarkable dignity in everything and everyone. Morgan’s innumerable abstract drawings, her thousands of humble conceptual acts materialize bravely on paper the many private and public dramas of the human condition through all manner of prolonged activity. These seismographic-like drawings, executed on many levels and scales, are a remarkable spirited legacy that reveals the workings of the unconscious, if not the desire to capture the fullness of the life force itself. Perhaps they even seek to create a contemporary portrait of that which we once called God.

Morgan and I met on a crisp fall morning framed by rust orange and reds. She is one of the strongest individuals I have ever interviewed, a woman on fire, herself an indomitable sign of life, like her drawings. Indeed, Morgan is her drawing.

Morgan O’Hara, LIVE TRANSMISSION at the Furukawa Fish Market, Aomori, Japan, 2003 (Photo by Yamamoto Tadasu)

Ernesto Pujol: Can you speak about your early formation?

Morgan O’Hara: I was born in Los Angeles. My father was a sea captain. Because he was always traveling around the world, there was a map in our kitchen with sequences of colored pins that tracked his movement. Very early on, I became aware of other countries, cultures and languages, of different ways of living through surprising images that arrived on postcards from afar. When I was seven years old, our family moved to Japan for my father’s shore job as Port Captain for the Port of Kobe. It was the period of reconstruction after World War II, not a great time for the Japanese, but it was a fascinating time for a child growing up. During those years, many foreigners came to Japan to start up new ventures. I quickly got used to being in situations in which I did not speak the language and my sense of nonverbal communication began to develop. This has evolved over time in my career. I now work internationally and I am very comfortable with this. In fact, I feel severely limited when I don’t have access to it. I have a strong need for experience beyond my “self.”

EP: When did you begin your formal training?

MO: I took calligraphy and Ikebana classes as a child, as well as Japanese and French, as was customary in international schools. I had an early exposure to papers and inks, line and form, as well as the cultural richness of Japanese homes, gardens and Temples. As time progresses, I see more of the Japanese influence in my work.  My goal is to work authentically, incorporating the elements I absorbed as a child in my adult work. In 2003, I collaborated with a Japanese lacquer craftsman in Aomori, Japan, creating a number of pieces in red lacquer. It was an enriching organic process. A Japanese critic later wrote that our pieces were the perfect synthesis of contemporary conceptual art with traditional materials and tools. I was very pleased with our success.

I am the oldest of seven children; I have always been very independent. I started making art seriously when I was in high school, as a kind of refuge from the growing pains of being a teenager. I was fortunate to have had a high school art teacher who gave me great freedom and encouragement. Thanking her a few years ago at my fiftieth high school reunion, she mentioned that my psychological need to make art was very strong even at a very young age. I went on to study English literature and art in college. In addition, a twenty-year training in the Japanese martial art of Aikido helped me to develop an ambidextrous rendering.

EP: What kind of work do you do?

MO: I have always done conceptual art, long before it existed as a formal term. I always sought to make ideas visible. But when I turned thirty, I abruptly quit the art world—the career aspect of the practice. I continued making art but went on to study psychology. I thought that perhaps I would become an art therapist. I pursued graduate and doctoral work on the process of creativity, eventually teaching courses such as The Phenomenology of the Unconscious and Techniques for Implementing Affective Education, among others. Throughout, I never stopped creating work and gradually felt the need for a full return. I finally accepted thinking of myself as an artist, and subsequently began again to approach the art world, but in a new way—on my terms.

EP: How do you make the work now?

MO: I start out with a concept, a life question for which I do not have an answer and attempt to make it visible. I collect data. If it takes me forty years to do it, fine, as long as the process grows and is authentic. My work requires time and careful consideration.

For the last 25 years, I have been doing conceptually based performative drawings, which I call LIVE TRANSMISSION. My LIVE TRANSMISSION drawings track the vital movement of living beings in real time, transcending both figuration and abstraction; executing a direct neural translation from one human action into another. Drawing methodically with multiple razor-sharp pencils and both hands, as performative drawing, I condense movement into accumulations of graphite lines that combine the controlled refinement of classical drawing with the unbound sensuality of spontaneous gesture. Time-space coordinates for each drawing are then listed with precision in titles written across the bottom of the page. By now I have created over 3000 LIVE TRANSMISSION drawings, both privately and publicly across five continents.

Detail of Morgan O’Hara’s hands creating a LIVE TRANSMISSION drawing, Japan, 2003 (Photo by Yamamoto Tadasu)

EP: Are there secrets to your practice?

MO: Secrets? I do not know. Mysteries? Yes. What is the meaning of life? What is time? The whole point for me has been to seek to understand the meaning of life, which I now understand as not wholly comprehensible. My art practice keeps me paying attention. Ultimately, meaning for me comes down to an attentive doing of the work.

EP: How does it actually work?

MO: I am interested in life and the first sign of life is movement. I see something move and I follow it with my eyes and, simultaneously, with my pencils. I want to be with the vitality of this movement. I sit down so that my spine is straight and relax my shoulders and arms so that I can draw. I use both my hands, two or more pencils. I try to stop thinking, to observe and follow the trajectory of the movement I see, without interpretation. It is a bit like touching the pulse of life. Movement produces life produces movement.

EP: How do you stage these life performances?

MO: Typically, a curator will begin a conversation about what might be appropriate for a given gallery, museum or open space. The curators who invite me have studied my work and usually suggest something. For example, I may be working with a shoemaker. Optimally, the audience would come to his shop for the performance, but this is not always possible. So I will travel to see him working in his environment and together we will determine what can reasonably be brought to the space for him to do his work. He will typically collect some of his tools and materials and set up a reduced version of his shop in the art space. Then, he will begin to work and I will perform a duet with him by drawing-tracking the movement of his hands as he works. The audience will observe both activities progressing simultaneously—art and life together.

EP: In a certain manner, it is like social portraiture.

MO: I call them duets, but portraiture is also a good analogy. I am not interested per se in self-expression through my art. In a manner of speaking, I am not interested either in how I feel, except for how emotions affect my concentration. I would mention also that this is a post-studio practice. My LIVE TRANSMISSION drawing practice is not something that evolves through isolated research in a studio.

EP: Your practice has much dignity.

MO: Dignity is something I continually try to find; it is something we all both need and possess. When I work with others in my duets, they often thank me for having spent time with them, for having watched them work. They frequently express that no one pays close attention to what they do and that, through this process of being drawn, they feel that they have finally been seen. I have rendered visible their normally invisible patterns. It is an honor for me to be able to do this. I have been a resident artist in hospitals, in psychiatric wards, in embroidery workshops, in chicken coops and horse stables, in all manner of places. I am slowly creating an Encyclopedia of Live Transmission. Volume Five—drawings based on dance—has just been published. Volume Four was based on drawing people at work.

EP: I feel like it has been a visionary practice, very much ahead of its time. But I would like to think that the times are finally catching up with you.

MO: That would be nice. The practice is so much bigger and stronger than I am. It keeps evolving as I put in the time and do the work. It always challenges me, but with respect. My practice has become a life companion.


For more information on Morgan O’Hara’s practice, please visit:

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