Faculty Feature: Kevin O'Callaghan
MAESTRO OF REINVENTION
February 15, 2018
by Sarah Grass
Artist and 3D designer Kevin O’Callaghan has lived many lives at the School of Visual Arts, engaging in near every capacity. From matriculated undergrad to creator and chair of the 3D Design program and teaching across several departments, he is a true citizen of the College. With a mind far beyond disciplinary boundaries, his realm is one of reinvention.
His course, Three-Dimensional Design and Illustration, challenges students to consider intersections: between sculptural practice and design principles, most obviously, but also between objects and their meanings. Imagining new identities for the surplus and obsolete—typewriters, pay phones and environmentally hazardous vehicles—students are called to push the boundaries of their own creative ability in order to reinvent the world around them. A gas guzzling truck, for example, may be transformed into a living room, with each of its parts reconsidered as a more eco-friendly furnishing.
In O’Callaghan’s pedagogical practice, personal limits are constantly questioned and objects not only live, but live multiple lives on grandiose display—such as 29 Yugo cars rescued from abandonment to become larger-than-life surreal sculptures (a toaster, shower, confessional, cigarette lighter) for “Yugo Next,” an exhibition so popular it toured 28 cities in North America. O’Callaghan’s career as a reinventer can be traced to his earliest time at SVA. Leading into his senior year in BFA Advertising, he was unsure of his selected major. “Why don’t you just reinvent yourself?” a concerned Richard Wilde (chair of BFA Advertising and BFA Design) asked him. “Don’t think about categories. Just do what you want to do.” Heeding this freewheeling advice, young O’Callaghan entered a new unbridled phase in his career, one in which his natural showmanship and penchant for the spotlight could grow both himself and all those around him into giants.
The test-drive of his newly minted identity appeared as a 15' tall, fully functional graduation portfolio on a trailer bed. Eager to reinvent the acceptable standards of the field he felt he’d grown out of, he began by simply enlarging them. He precariously drove his magnum opus through the Midtown Tunnel to a review in the office of Milton Glaser, though, of course, he had to park it outside. Constructed from wood, hardware store items, and prints so large they had to be made by a billboard company, his portfolio was both a traffic nuisance and news highlight. Surpassing his original limit of employability, the portfolio was featured in a spread in People magazine, and O’Callaghan’s career was on.
After a few years of veritable success working on film sets in L.A., O’Callaghan found himself restless once again. He visited SVA for a meeting with his former professor and mentor Richard Wilde, who introduced him to yet another new facet of his multidisciplinary future: the classroom. O’Callaghan was asked to share stories of his burgeoning career with a group of current students, when for the first time in a long time, he found himself smiling. It was intuitively known to O’Callaghan that teaching, a plan B for many artists, would quickly become his plan A. Shortly thereafter he accepted a position as faculty at SVA, along with a new lifestyle in which his art practice would blend with his classes. This reinvented process afforded him yet another life at SVA, a “maestro,” directing students’ individual growth into massive public art installations that only the energy of a collective could produce.
As a maestro of reinvention, O’Callaghan imparts his limitless mindset onto others with astounding results. As he defines his practice, “My art is with the students. It’s a shared thing that I’m most proud of. To be able to get the most out of the students as I possibly can.” He manages this with a special brand of pure and sincere “If you can show students that you’re in it with them, that you’re not leaving at the end of the class, that you’re in for the long haul, that you’re going to cry with hem, you’re going to laugh with them.” In the Division of Continuing Education, the majority of students are looking for something more, something to bridge them from one career to another or a stepping stone to get started. This experience of dissatisfaction and desire for something new is one in which O’Callaghan is very well versed. For it is the experience that has led him to each reinvention on his interdisciplinary career path. Change is never easy, but with a veteran reinvent like O’Callaghan by your side, it can all feel a bit more possible. “My class is based on making it happen,” he says. “That’s the success. Because if you can make it happen, then you can do anything. You’re no longer afraid of the world. My students go out and they’re not afraid anyone. When it’s all over, that’s what I’m going to be the most proud of. That I was able to show them that they could do anything.”
Learn more about Kevin O’Callaghan and his induction into the Art Director’s Club Hall of Fame by visiting Vimeo.