Penelope O’Gara – Interview

Penelope O’Gara – Interview

 

Penn O’Gara is a theatrical costume designer by profession, who is exhibiting her dolls, puppets and mixed media paintings at Heart of the Tribe Gallery.

 

Vicki

When did you become an artist?

 

Penelope

Oh good grief, am I an artist? That’s a good question. I’ve always drawn: I was an only child, so what else do you do on a wet afternoon? You get out the plasticine or the crayons. I lived with my Grandmother on the edge of Thetford Forest in Norfolk – she had been a milliner and taught me lots. I remember her teaching me how to make leather gloves when I was about seven, so stitching has been a lifelong habit.

As an undergraduate I studied literature and film studies at Exeter, but during a particularly intense semester on exchange at the University of California I fancied taking a ‘colouring in class’ for fun – a costume design class just happened to fit my schedule. The staff there suggested I apply to do a Masters in Costume Design at their old grad school. I had no theatre experience, but I did have an ‘A’ level in art history, so I had research skills (which were important before Google!) and I could sew. They offered me a scholarship, I reckoned that I could always drop out if I didn’t like it..and somehow I ended up graduating from SMU, Dallas with a Master of Fine Arts degree.

After I graduated from Dallas, I went back out to LA, and did six years out there doing screen work. But then I came back to the UK and had my eldest son, so I couldn’t go off on location – I couldn’t be on set at five in the morning. Back here it has always been theatre.

Vicki

How did the dolls come about?

 

Penelope

The dolls became a thing because I’ve spent years dressing other people’s characters. In theatre I’m working to a script – so there’s what the playwright wants, what the director wants, what your actor needs. With the dolls I get to make my own, with their own backstory, in my own little head. It’s my own personal theatre.

 

I always start off with a story –  I find a theme, then create an altered book full of collages – each character has a double-page spread of pictures surrounded by notes. So then when it comes to writing a full backstory for the character there’s already enough material.

Vicki

Was it just a natural extension of your costume work?

 

Penelope

My 2d artwork is always quite figurative, it’s always human based. I spend all my time drawing costume roughs in my sketchbook so it was very easy to just go from that.

 

Vicki

Do you ever try out a theatre costume on a doll?

 

Penelope

Not directly, but if I’m doing a big show that takes a lot of thought, it will bleed over. If I’m up to my eyeballs in the French Revolution, then little bits of that come through in the rest of my work because my head will be full of images of Marie Antoinette. It’s not a deliberate choice, but there will likely be a few dolls sporting tall hair and pannier skirts. I think my costumes have quite a distinct style as well. I do prefer to use a very tight palette, usually neutral shades with one highlight colour. Because of that lack of colour I do like layering up things on costumes, playing with textures so I think there’s a through line visually from that to the dolls.

 

Vicki

Why did you start working on puppets?

 

Penelope

The splendid Mr. Bullzini (Penelope’s neighbour) was doing a circus this summer and being familiar with my work, asked if I could combine dolls and theatre to make a puppet show. By a stroke of luck, a friend of mine in the village is married to a professional puppet-maker (he worked on Warhorse, Lion King and the likes) and she had spent a year saying “you and my husband need to make something”. I persuaded an actor friend of mine to help adapt my stories and then act as our narrator…and voila! It was all good fun, and a very organic way of doing things.

 

Vicki

Have you exhibited your work elsewhere?

 

Penelope

No, Heart of the Tribe was the first gallery I applied to. I’d not really thought of my dolls as ‘Art’ with a capital A, but I thought “nothing ventured…..”  If anywhere was going to appreciate them it was going to be Glastonbury. Someone had linked to the Heart of the Tribe application information on Instagram, it  was literally the afternoon before the deadline. I’m very much a believer in if something arrives at the right time, you do it. Like with my doing the Master’s degree in costume, someone suggested it, they offered me a scholarship. It’s a sign isn’t it? Synchronicity..

 

Vicki

So have you ever done anything besides costume?

 

Penelope

I’ve never had a conventionally proper job! Except when I was in LA, back in the late 80s early 90s, I did some hand painted textiles for the interior market, selling them through the Pacific Design Centre, on Melrose Avenue. I was doing some calligraphy and painting on silk. So not a world away from what I do now.

 

Vicki

But it was still art?

 

Penelope

It was still textiles, yes. Cloth has always been my thing. An old friend of mine in Devon, has a shop selling seriously vintage clothes – from Victorian through to the 1950s. I do some repairs and alterations to them as well, fixing up vintage wedding dresses to be worn by a ‘modern gal’ – I get to indulge my passion for antique lace yet again.

 

Vicki

What will you do if this whole Covid situation goes on and the theatres don’t reopen soon?

 

Penelope

Just carry on with the artwork. I can’t imagine that I would ever stop making things, and I am lucky enough that I can change medium to find new outlets for my creations.

Vicki

Are you inspired by any particular writers?

 

Penelope

I’m an Angela Carter fan, as well as reading a bunch of folk horror, magic realism and fairy tales.

 

Vicki

What artists that you’re inspired by?

 

Penelope

Who doesn’t love Botticelli? I don’t think there’s particularly any modern artists that directly influence me. I do adore Grayson Perry’s ceramics, it’s that layering of the texture that appeals to me. And Pre-Raphaelites  -all that hair and old lace again.  In the textile doll world it would have to be The Pale Rook and Mr. Finch.

Vicki

You’ve got a huge interest in textiles?

 

Penelope

Yes, most of the fabrics I use are vintage and reused natural fibres. I amass piles of vintage lace and silk scraps. It’s really nice to be able to use those, they’re far too fine to throw away, They were hand made a hundred years ago, and it’s a good way to honour that history. So the dolls are very tactile, they are made to be touched,  they definitely sit in the hand quite well.

Vicki

Who buys your puppets?

 

Penelope

A lot of them go to the States, I think there is that Southern Gothic air to them. Gothic but not goth, it’s a subtle line.

 

Vicki

Are your family supportive?

 

Penelope

My father played cricket for a living, so he’s never had a proper job either, and there wasn’t really any expectation to be “normal” on the career front. Sports, theatre… it’s much the same, everything focussed on the live performance. He’s a Sunday afternoon painter, so does appreciate my figure drawings, but draws the line at sitting through a Shakespeare play.

 

Vicki

Do you ever think of yourself as a performer?

 

Penelope

If I’m going in to talk to a new cast of actors, I have to walk in there and persuade them that I know what I’m talking about, so I have learned to put on a pretty convincing mask.  And that did take some learning, to have that sort of confidence. Over the last decade I guess I’ve actually got to grips with doing that. But I could never be an actor – I’m not brave enough for that!

 

Vicki

Presumably each piece you make is individually fitted to that actor. So what happens if they break a leg?

 

Penelope

You cry, and panic and say “please cast somebody the same size!”. I think that’s why I didn’t go into fashion, because the idea of mass production is not my bag, I like doing one-off pieces.

 

Vicki

Do you make your own clothes?

 

Penelope

I should, but it’s like a busman’s holiday. I do raid my theatre stock,and so do my sons: there’s a couple of Vietnam-era American army jackets that have disappeared to Edinburgh with one of them, and the other has made off with a Russian greatcoat for the winter. Days of Grace, the shop I work with in Devon, has a stash of fabulous Victorian nighties and I’ve already bought two of those –  they are perfect for wafting around in.

Vicki

What’s next. Is there anything new or different that you’re working on?

 

Penelope

I tend to work in themes rather than one offs,so groups of things on the horizon. Definitely a series of goddesses, and maybe a textile version of an “anatomical Venus” – they were wax figures of semi-dissected but strangely placid women. Dark circus folk… mermaids…psychopomps. And I would like to do more puppets next year, too, maybe make the show a bit bigger. So many things I want to make!

 

instagram.com/theitinerantbizarrium/