78: How mentorship can inspire the Artist/Mother journey with Barbara Campbell Thomas and Helen O’Leary

I’m thrilled to share this conversation with two artist/mothers that inspire me and inspire each other, Helen O’Leary and Barbara Campbell Thomas. The two met in a painting class at Penn State where Helen taught Barbara as an undergrad, and their paths have been intertwined ever since. Helen and Barbara join me for a rich conversation that demonstrates the importance of intergenerational mentorship in the absence of comprehensive representation for artist/mothers in the academy and beyond. 

Helen grew up in Ireland, a world that “bore the mark of our ancestors” where everything around her was handmade. Being a maker if not an artist was a part of her life from the very beginning, and even now she describes her work as “knit[ting] with wood” and “pull[ing] things out of their own ruin.” When Barbara met Helen, each of them recognized Barbara’s intuitive passion for painting, leading her to leave her printmaking major behind for a painterly life. Helen’s guidance helped Barbara understand how to connect painting to the practice of life itself, and Barbara’s work now reflects many layers of mentorship from artist/mothers including Helen and Barbara’s own mother, whose quiltmaking emerges as an influence in the material structure of her paintings. Mentor and mentee share the ways they forged their own paths as artist/mothers, using painting to get through life, and accepting the role of making mistakes — in life and art alike!

See more of Helen’s work on her website or on IG @helen__o__leary. See more of Barbara’s work on her website or on IG @barbaracampbellthomas

The Artist/Mother podcast is created and hosted by Kaylan Buteyn. You can see more of Kaylan’s work on her website or connect with her on Instagram @kaylanbuteyn

Helen’s Work and Studio:

Helen working in her studio when her (now grown) daughter was very young


Barbara’s Work and Studio:

Turn, 2020, 36”x30”
collaged fabric, collaged cut-up paintings, spray paint, acrylic paint on gessoed canvas with insets of pieced and machine-stitched fabric.
detail from Turn (above)
Barbara’s studio
Inscape, 2020, 72”x60”
collaged fabric, collaged cut-up paintings, spray paint, acrylic paint on gessoed canvas with insets of pieced and machine-stitched fabric.
detail of Inscape (above)
Barbara’s studio space
Barbara and her two sons
Lectio (Opening), 2019, 17”x15”
collaged fabric, collaged cut-up paintings, spray paint, acrylic paint on gessoed canvas with insets of pieced and machine-stitched fabric.

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