London Art Spot: Orly Orbach

Dark washes and black pen and ink techniques lend a slightly haunting, mysterious atmosphere to a large part of Orly Orbach’s otherworldly portfolio. Her illustrations often tell a story and have been featured regularly in Ambit magazine among other publications. She has also produced work for theatre productions and album covers.

A Royal College of Art graduate, Orly has spent a great deal of her professional time with communities, allowing them to connect with and interact with her art. She has completed quite a few residencies in which she engaged with young people and encouraged them to embrace creativity as a form of self-expression.

For this week’s London Art Spot, Orly talks more about her residency experiences including time at Sceaux Gardens and why it was the most fulfilling, shares a list of authors that inspires her creativity, and tells us about her involvement in London’s theatre and film industry.

LLO: Which aspects of London life most influence your creativity and in what way?
OO: What I really love about london is the diverse communities and the freedom to be different. It is such a free thinking place where you don’t have to fit in; there are multitudes of dress codes and styles. And you get to meet such a broad range of people. That certainly has an influence on my work.

LLO: Give us a brief introduction to your technique, the materials you prefer to work with and your method of approach to an idea.
OO: I like to treat every project like a new learning experience, find subject matters that I can relate to, allow myself to engage with themes on a personal level, and be experimental and think openly about each project I take. I find it important to allow chance into my work, and this can happen by being playful with mark-making, and in cases of collaborative projects, to allow other voices and ideas to lead me to places I did not expect. I like working with inks because of the way the marks flow and seem to posses their own direction, which I only partially try to control and shape. I like the flexibility of inks, and the permanence of the mark once they dry.  And I also like crayons and chinagraphs, and any other drawing material.

LLO: Your art seems to tell stories and dig under the surface of things. Are you influenced by the written word? If so, which authors or stories are especially important to you?
OO: There are lots of authors that are important to me, some of which are anonymous. For instance I have a collection of folk stories from around the world that never seems to have authors, only translators. I like reading about myths and often browse anthropology books for inspiration. As much of my work is about the interpretation of experience, I find endless inspiration in these resources. I also like theatre technique books and find them relevant. When it comes to fiction, I have lots of favourite authors, especially Russian and Jewish authors, and women writers have helped me regain a sense of magic when I lose inspiration, in particular Jeanette Winterson, Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood. I love good poetry, and get sent a lot of very visual and visceral poems by Ambit magazine to illustrate.

LLO: “Haunting”, “dark”, “moody”, “mysterious” and “otherworldly” are all words that have been used to describe your work. Would you agree? Where does this darkness stem from?
OO: I want my work to be ‘otherworldly’, simply because when I make work I am trying to connect to other worlds. I think of the history of stories and image-making and inevitably I make work that comes from somewhere deeper within myself. Perhaps I make work for the past rather than the present, which is why it seems haunting. I don’t wish to make ‘dark’ work intentionally, and in fact, I don’t like ‘dark’ work that sets out to be shocking or aims to provoke an audience. The work I make is about trying to connect with something authentic, and if it happens to be moody and haunting it probably just shows my aesthetic sensibility. I personally do like to be haunted by high-quality works and ideas, and hope my work has some kind of authentic presence.

LLO: You have also worked with children on positive community projects like the “Wishing Wall” after the fire at Sceaux Gardens in South London. What was the purpose of the wishing wall? How does your art help to build a stronger community?
OO: My idea for the Sceaux Gardens residency was to use storytelling activities as a way of bringing people together. The project was called Making Play, and I thought we could play with fiction to create new worlds and reimagine the local neighbourhood, through small interventions, art activities etc. The incident of the fire happened at the very beginning of the residency. It was impossible to switch off from reality and play with fiction under these circumstances, so eventually I found a way to address the issue by asking local residents to help me create a mural. It’s a complicated event, but in short, the idea was to make something collaborative that allows people to say what they think, discuss ideas they have about how to improve their neighbourhood, to open communication between them and the council, and very importantly- to note down and acknowledge every single idea, and to do all of this in a way that is visually presentable without being too ‘pretty’, as it did not feel right to make something that is too decorative for the site, as I did not wish the image to distract us from the reality of the situation. My role was to find means of expression, rather than directly make the artwork. The local children did that, and they are quite proud of their work.

LLO: Tell us a bit about your involvement in London’s theatre and film industries.
OO: I have always found the theatre to be a very creative environment, and have worked with script-writers, directors, performers and musicians since I was a student. I see the theatre as an open classroom, and have borrowed much from rehearsal techniques used by performers. One of the best things about rehearsal is that they allow the actor to not know, to take chances and follow their instincts. The visual art world suffers from having to know too much, and I think artists are constantly writing applications, blurbs, reading art theory books and are busy justifying themselves verbally. There is also a pressure to come up with a ‘final piece’ straight away. So I find it inspiring see actors dedicating time to rehearsals, improvising and playing. Most recently I worked on the film Island by Tailormade Productions, and was impressed by the research methods used by the creative team, and how they integrated art into the whole film making process.

LLO: Which image, project or moment of your artistic career are you most proud of so far and why?
OO: The last three residencies have been huge learning experiences, and I think i have achieved a lot through them (-the Making Play residency, the Creative-Partnership residency and the Museums Sheffield project). I felt a moment of achievement when i visited Museums Sheffield on the last week of the exhibition and chanced upon a group of young people playing the floor-vinyl game and using the artwork. I think I’ve found myself through the Sceaux Gardens Making Play residency, although I felt lost there most of the time. I’ve learned so much from that experience, and from the people and children I worked with, especially Lauren, the family officer, who taught me a lot about the importance of the social response to art, rather than the visual effect.

LLO: You’ve done quite a few site-specific projects. Which was the most fulfilling? Anywhere special in London that you’d love to design a piece for?
OO: I think the Sceaux Gardens project was the most fulfilling. It was a long-term project that allowed me to get to know people gradually and test ideas before making site-specific artwork with the local community. It was supported by the South London Gallery, that has a very forward thinking and socially minded education team. It’s not often you get to really make connections with people and make work on that level, and the project was challenging and for that reason fulfilling as well.

There are a few dream-locations I would like to make work for, and I would especially like to make work within my local borough at some point in the near future.

LLO: Other London-based artists you admire?
OO: Lots. I love Elly Thomas’s sculptures and ink drawings, and was especially inspired after a recent visit to her studio in North London.

LLO: What are you working on now?
OO: I am currently working on a commission for the London Transport Museum, collaborating with young people from West London to create artwork for a bus-shelter in South Kensington, themed around journeys. This should be really fun to do.

Thanks Orly!

For more from Orly, check out her website.

For more London Art Spot interviews, click here.

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