We had the good fortune of connecting with Rebecca O’Brien and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Rebecca, do you have a favorite quote or affirmation?
I have a lot of mantras that I invoke when needed, but one in particular stands out to me: “Do something today that your future self will thank you for.” Often, as an artist, I can be presented with a myriad of opportunities and flexible deadlines for completing them. Just as in any self-driven business, the amount of time and dedication you put into your craft corresponds to the amount you get out of it. Every day, what order I accomplish my projects and tasks is a juggling act. As an artist who is also working also as a middle school teacher and a graduate student, I am trying to keep in the air many proverbial balls at any given time. “To do art, or to not do art today?” That is the question!
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I currently paint with ink on canvas (and paper) to create realistic portraits of animals and humans with a hint of freestyle. I also work as a middle school teacher and am also going back for a postgrade certificate in educational therapy. Since I was little, I always saw art as a “sideline” hobby and thus never grew up thinking of it as a potential line of work. Art was always something I always did for my own enjoyment and I liked it that way. (I definitely don’t mind making money from it these days, but I also still like to keep it as a mindful practice.) I do what I love the way I love to do it – if people support me in that journey, I am always grateful for that.
As Sam Ovens puts it, “Never aim for your goal directly, always move in angles.” I did not end up an earning artist by moving towards it directly. Actually, when I started doing graffiti while living in Shenzhen, China, in 2013, I didn’t expect it to take over my life. After a few months of trying to keep my spray painting a secret, students and co-workers started to find out about (or encounter) my hidden weekend pursuits. Eventually my wall murals caught more and more people’s attention – they were basically a large business card. Through other artists, I was being invited to local music/graffiti festival events and hired to paint new restaurants and business venues. The more I put my work out there as an artist, the wider my network grew and the more I was being referred to and contacted for new projects. For the first time, instead of my sketches being tucked away in hidden notebooks, I was putting my huge artworks out there in a very public way (quite literally).
What originally began as a slightly illicit, but fun, activity on weekends turned me into a full-time working artist within 3 years’ time. By 2016, I had been invited to become the first live-in artist at a new artist residency named Jardin Orange in Shenzhen, China. Outside of working in my studio, I was the artist liason and communications manager. This allowed me time to hang out with the visiting international artists that came to stay for a few weeks. Such renown street artists included: 1010, Belin, Jace, Tats Cru, Kongo, Huge, and Jorit Agoch were among the nearly 50 I hosted over the 2.5 years I stayed there. I met dozens more of Chinese artists, as well. The residency also has a huge gallery and the owner represented my art in exhibitions and large expos throughout China’s major cities, including Hong Kong. My boss CEET would have me as an assistant on his walls and brought me to graffiti events throughout Asia. This hands-on practice, learning directly from successful veteran artists from across the world, all the while having my own studio was probably better than anything I could’ve discovered at art school.
About a year ago I decided to move back to the states after nearly seven years in China. I just wanted to be closer to my family and, being originally from D.C., I am still getting a feel for the art culture of San Diego. I’ve not been around on this planet that long, but from what I can tell, “adulting” is hard work. You have to constantly ‘parent’ yourself… which means paying attention to your actions every day.. they do have consequences. Often, you will be at odds with what you “feel like” doing – making big changes to your life requires constant effort.
I realized that you have to set realistic standards based on the people who inspire you and create specific benchmarks that measure your progress. Success in any domain requires a holistic approach. In order to be able to respond easily to the ups and downs that life throws at you, reinforce the positive aspects of your life, your well-being, at the same time. Don’t focus all your time/energy into just one basket – always have many projects and pursue many goals at the same time that include upkeep of the mind, body, and spirit.
Life is a journey that starts over each day. Today, you can do as much or as little as you’d like in order to move forward. I’ve seen a lot of people excuse their way out of success out of a fear of being rejected… or worse yet, from an even deeper fear of being successful.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I really like the beaches and trails. I’d take my visitor for hikes like Torrey Pines, Mission Trails and Iron Mountain. We’d visit OB/Coronado/PB/La Jolla beaches. I’d take them downtown for a stroll in the Gaslamp, then around North Park for bar hopping. El Cabrillo offers a nice perspective on the city, as well.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I think my TEDx talk in February of 2019 (bit.ly/rebeccaobrien) gave the appropriate shoutouts to my inspirations, mentors and loved ones. In there, I mention: my mother, my students, all my first graffiti friends, my former mentor CEET, Jardin Orange Artist Residency (Shenzhen, China) who represented me during my first 3 years as an artist going out on my own.