Discipline: Visual Art – painting, Visual Art – sculpture

Helen O'Leary

Discipline: Visual Art – painting, Visual Art – sculpture
Region: State College, PA
MacDowell Fellowships: 2016, 2024

Helen O’Leary grew up in rural Ireland in the 1960s through the 1980s. It was a life of survival, where industriousness and invention born of need were placed on equal footing with rich literature, music, language, and personal narrative.

"I work from memoir, stories of growing up on the farm in Wexford and my life now in the United States, short stories that I then fashion from the archaeology of my studio. I work the studio as my father worked the farm, with invention out of need, using my own displacement as fodder for meaning. I take things apart, forgetting conventions and reapply my own story to the form. I revel in the history of painting, its rules, its beauty, its techniques, but fold them back into the agricultural language I grew up with. I’m interested in the personal, my own story, and the history of storytelling."

Throughout O’Leary’s career, she has been constructing a very personal and idiomatic formal language based on simple materials and unglamorous gestures. Her artistic practice emerges from constant reassignment, dismantlement, and frugal readjustment. Rooted in the outward simplicity and inner grenade of memory, her work reckons with damage and multigenerational loss through nurturing, caring, and, ultimately, healing.

She is the recipient of John Simon Guggenheim Joan Mitchell Award for painting and two Pollock Krasner Awards.

At MacDowell in 2016, O'Leary started a new body of work to be shown at American Academy of Arts and Letters annual invitational exhibition and Lesley Heller Gallery in New York. The series is about collapse and re-building, and imminent destruction, made from continual whittling and reworking. During her 2024 residency, she put together a show to be exhibited in Ireland later in the summer, and then onto show in the U.K. in the fall.



Helen O'Leary worked in the Firth studio.

Originally a working barn perched atop the namesake hill of Hillcrest Farm, this building was converted to serve the arts in 1956. A grand set of windows was installed to make the large interior suitable for visual artists, bringing in abundant natural light from the north. The addition of a screened porch and accessible entrance ramp…

Learn more