Lucy O’Donovan’s work is known well among the Agora Gallery community, as she has been a represented artist since 2012. After suffering a fall that left her with a traumatic head injury in 2008, Lucy was forced to put her art on hold during her recovery. Still, Lucy has never given up on her lifelong passion. She has continued to take each viewer’s breath away with her thickly layered oil paintings and her attention to the details of the human body, which is supported by her training as a veterinarian and molecular biologist.
We had the opportunity to talk to Lucy O’Donovan about what it is like to work in both science and art, and about how her brain injury has influenced her life as an artist.
You suffered a serious brain injury back in 2008, but it seems like you have made such an incredible recovery. How did art play a part in that process?
I was in a coma for three weeks, and I was in a hospital for 3 months. I basically didn’t do any painting at all apart from one time. The rehabilitation center did all different types of stuff, and they had an art therapist. The woman told me to get a photo of myself and paint it, so my husband (then boyfriend) took a photo of me. I painted for about 6 weeks, an hour each week, and that’s the painting “Rehab” that was in the Mélange of Milieu exhibition.
When I had recovered enough to think about it, I was scared that I’d lose the ability to paint, because my eyesight was really bad and damaged from my fall. When we got back to Glasgow in the beginning of 2010, I started rehab with a doctor who I’ve been seeing ever since. She took the history of my life and my injury and told me, “Lucy, one of my major goals is to help you start to paint again.” I can’t thank her enough.
How how your brain injury affected your work and your passions?
After my brain injury, I could no longer carry out research, on the brain or not. That was hard. Whilst coming to terms with that, I was contacted by Agora to be represented, and my path slowly changed towards another of my passions: painting. It made quite a big difference towards my recovery and the building of my self esteem. I finally managed to land myself a job in 2012, dealing with processing and storing diseased blood samples that researchers can use. I’m proud of my position now.
You have a PhD in Molecular Biology and have worked in neuroscience. How do you think science relates to art? Have you ever had the experience of one helping the other?
I feel as though my art hasn’t really influenced the science side of me. In science, it has be very black and white. But the other way around – I think that science has definitely influenced my paintings.
My artist friend once said to me, “You should go to the Mutter Museum. You just go and you’ll see.” The museum shows the scientific sides of photographs, skeletons, and details of conjoined twins. The writing on the walls talks about what you see, and about how science and art are related. It reminded me of when I was doing my PhD and teaching about normal and diseased tissue. I remember looking down the microscope and thinking the cells looked amazing with reds and yellows and blues. It inspired me in many ways to paint. It’s crossed my mind whether I could start to paint like that in the future.
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How do you select your subjects?
I usually paint people who I really care about, or people that I respect. It does make me think about my relationship with them and those times when things have gone badly or well. There’s one painting on my website of my mom called the “Recalling Nigeria.” It’s of my mother as she is just at the point of crying, and I find that interesting. She was talking about being held at gunpoint in Nigeria when I took the photos that inspired that painting. That painting shows the most emotion by any of my subjects.
Why do you think you are so interested in hands and the flesh as subjects?
Because of my knowledge of anatomy, I’m so intrigued by what’s underneath: the muscles and the fat. The body really just thrills me. I find it hard to explain why. For me, possibly the most expressive part of the body is the hands. Like with passersby and people in the underground, all I really look at is people’s hands. I find you can tell an awful lot about somebody and the type of work they do from their hands.
You often reference the influence of other artists on your work. How have these artists inspired you?
There is one artist who I have huge respect for – Jenny Saville. She paints obese bodies, and she actually won a scholarship in the late 90s to go over to New York and to stand in surgeries with a plastic surgeon who worked on overweight people. She was interested in how the body changed after surgery. It would be my dream to do that with hands.
What do you hope that people will take from your works?
I think the sort of thing that makes me paint is walking down the street and looking at people’s faces. There are people who I look at and I think, “I could paint you, I want to paint you.” A lot of people wear makeup and try to look a certain way, which to me isn’t all that natural, and I would never look at these people and ask to paint them. I want to paint reality and honesty. That is what I look for in people, and when I find it, that’s when I want to pick up a brush and put it on canvas.
I’m not looking to paint the perfect figure, I’m looking to paint real life. Why would I want to hide that?
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