The Roving Reporter: An interview with Wendy O'Hara
The Roving Reporter enjoys the West End Markets very much and is pleased to have the opportunity to take part in documenting the hard work of all the participants. Her second interview is with costume maker Wendy O’Hara:
'I interviewed Wendy in the Good Things Studio at the end of May. Thankfully, I had a list of questions prepared, because she is a very friendly, engaging person who, quite frankly, I could have chatted to for hours. Her work is stunning and she generously allowed me to take photographs, but they fail to convey the brilliance of her ideas or the skill of the craftsmanship which the pieces of work embody.
I began by asking Wendy how she became an artist. She chuckled and responded that she had never really done anything else. She seems slightly coy about her work, but in truth she is a highly experienced artist descended from a line of talented people with similar abilities.
She explains that her immediate family consists of textile makers, including screen printing, glass workers and a photographer. Clearly, artistic flair has been well nurtured and allowed to blossom in this family.
I ask about current projects and how she has become involved with them. She then tells me about the Magenta Monocle's Magical Magisterium, a collaborative project with the Nib Crib to encourage people to use costumes to tell stories. This was an important part of the June market; and there will be a recruitment process held at the Picture Frame to allow people to try the outfits on and arrange to be a part of the Grand August Show.
Wendy is clearly guided by principles of enjoying her work and wants others to enjoy it too. As a part of another project, Wendy learned how to make a convincing sword from foam. She has also made a fabulous Crusade style helmet to complete the concept; but with what seems to be characteristic generosity there are two helmets and swords to allow for gentle duelling but also to nurture and promote intergenerational play; one set is for an adult, the other for a child, providing a wealth of possibilities. It could be used to enhance interest in history or used to tell fairy tales. It is likely that they will inspire many people of all ages.
This is an exciting idea and I look forward to seeing people using and appreciating them, particularly within the Grand August Show where there may be many families taking part. I ask Wendy whether this is her first collaboration with the Nib Crib, and she describes the work she did for them in 2022 during the Avenues and Alleyways project. This involved making cat's ears and tails and also a beard to complete a costume. I am interested in her journey to becoming a costume maker and I ask her whether she had always enjoyed dressmaking.
Wendy describes her dressmaking history and tells me about her mother making dresses within a day and her dedication and determination has clearly proved a great example. Wendy enjoys doing the same thing for herself and her children and relates stories of spending a full day on a Saturday making a dress to wear for the night. Triumphantly, she smiles and says,
"Nobody was ever in the same outfit as me!"
She even made her own wedding dresses and that of her daughter. Besides being an accomplished seamstress, Wendy had experience of wedding dresses when she worked for a period in a bridal shop. Although enjoyable, it restricted her artistic flair since she was bound by the wishes of the customers. However, it gave her sufficient knowledge and familiarity with the style to begin making them independently. Rather than the constraints of tradition, Wendy used purple fabric for her first wedding, and red and black for her second. She says that she wanted to be able to wear the colours which made her feel the best version of herself and she was able to do the same for her daughter. The skill, ability and sartorial flair necessary to meet and overcome these challenges should not be underestimated.
I ask Wendy about her favourite pieces of work and she struggles initially, answering,
"I have no favourites because I have never made anything I didn't like!"
We take a break for a few minutes and perhaps give Wendy an opportunity to think of a few pieces of work that she is especially proud of. Looking at the quality of her artwork, I really do understand that it must be difficult to choose between them. I return to the studio and I notice beautiful leaves covering fabric and hung on a coat hanger. I am curious about it and decide to ask Wendy about it; when I arrived she was engaged in the rather delicate and painstaking process of separating more artificial leaves.
Returning to our discussion, I again mention favourite pieces of work and happily she has thought of a few that she is most proud of. She begins to describe her leaf cloak and she confirms my suspicion that the cloak hung in the studio is hers. The painstaking dedication required must be immense and I am full of genuine admiration for it. She has sewn on each leaf and the effect is incredible and really needs to be seen to be appreciated. She has also made a wizard's hat and used a small hula hoop to ensure the brim retains its shape. She also details clown pants, again using a hula hoop to allow the wearer to attach braces or simply hold them in place. She also mentions an ostrich feather mohican headdress, which sounds incredibly outrageous and is likely to be enormous fun for the wearer.
Straying again into conversation, I compliment Wendy on a ring she is wearing, decorated with a symbol of her faith. She explains she was raised following 'the route of nature,' and this is certainly borne out in her work. Her current project, consisting of a cloak fully covered with leaves and a matching parasol. I ask whether her faith strongly influences her work and she agrees that it does. The images included show animals, and objects festooned with flowers and foliage, which appears to be an act of homage to Mother Nature. However, her versatility should not be underestimated, as the diversity of her projects described and illustrated show.
Remaining a little longer with the question of faith, I ask which parts of her work are most influenced by it. She replies that she greatly enjoys using leaves within her projects. Wendy relates a wonderful story of being given oak leaves during the 1990s and she has preserved them since then in glycerine. She is awaiting an opportunity for them to fulfil their purpose, beautifully illustrating the symbiotic nature of her faith and her art. She is committed to saving the aged, precious leaves for a significant purpose, to enhance her art.
On a more practical note, faith played a role in the running of her shop from 1985, selling Pagan and Gothic goods, many made by Wendy herself and providing an introduction to the kind of art she makes now. Laughing, she says,
"If I've made it, people usually know!"
Looking at her work in the studio, I am inclined to agree. Wendy's signature style is dedication to detail, craftsmanship and use of decoration found in the natural world.
I ask her about artistic influences, such as painters, sculptors or designers. and I ask her which, if any have been significant to her work. Following a pause, she tells me that the Gothic influence is present in her work as she enjoys the 'creepy aspect.' Similarly, she greatly appreciates the art associated with the Mexican Day of the Dead and relishes adding skulls to her work. Interestingly, she relates that she is 'comfortable with mortality as a concept, and it influences my work.'
Frida Kahlo has also made a great impression upon Wendy; to the extent of her creating an extremely lifelike tapestry of her. On its completion, there were many financial offers for it. Unable to choose a vendor, she decided to raffle it instead and the fortunate winner acquired it for the price of a ticket.
Returning to her current projects, I ask what she hopes the wearer of the cloak will feel while wearing or it, if anything. She is now engaged in making a parasol, covered in green gossamer and then decorated with leaves. On my arrival at the studio, it was simply the metal frame of a large umbrella. She states that she would like the wearer to feel freedom from constraint and to be brought joy by wearing it. It is lovely to know that she has been happy whilst making it and only occasionally irritated by the usual frustrations involved with any important assignment.
Exhibiting her art has clearly been a huge source of pride for Wendy. She gave a solo exhibition at the Good Things Collective at their former premises on West Street in Morecambe. Her next exhibition will be held in July with some fellow artists at the Storey Gallery, where Wendy studied art in the 1980s. This is obviously a prestigious honour and well deserved; this will be the first time that her work will have been in the Storey since she studied there and she clearly finds this very exciting.
My penultimate question centres around an ultimate design project, because the level of her craftsmanship and skill is so highly developed. After some consideration, Wendy answers that it isn't something she's really thought about and that she is 'happy just making things'. It is clear that the process of creating is every bit as important to Wendy as the finished product. She concluded that she would possibly enjoy working on a fully interactive house, decorated in the style of a funfair. This sounds like an amazing concept and I would love to see it.
Wendy's next steps include collaboration with the Nib Crib, working on costumes for Magenta Monocle's Magical Magisterium, exhibiting her work in July and in the immediate future, completion of the exquisite leaf outfit. She has also had a request to make a sword from foam to be sold to a shop in Lancaster. This is the Sword of Feast and Famine, from a game entitled 'Magic, the Gathering' and will be used for display purposes. This commission, although wonderful, has a serious message. Despite these times of economic hardship, people are still choosing to spend money on what they love and on mentioning this to Wendy, she believes that,
'It is important to use money to buy items that make you feel happy.'
This brings the interview to a close although I could have cheerfully sat with Wendy and chatted for much longer. I have learned so much about her in the course of an hour. She is an extremely interesting artist and human being who I have been lucky enough to speak to about her work. Spending time with her and understanding her inspirations has been an absolute pleasure and I really do look forward to seeing her again.