Interview: Michael O’Reilly on Hospital Rooms

published on 1 February 2017

Artist Michael O'Reilly describes his process in creating a series of trompe l'oeil paintings in The Quiet Room at The Phoenix Unit.

Artist Michael O'Reilly describes his process in creating a series of trompe l'oeil paintings in The Quiet Room at The Phoenix Unit.

Mural for the Quiet Room in the Phoenix Unit by Michael O’Reilly

Lara Johnson-Wheeler: Being new to the concept of the Hospital Rooms initiative, what were your initial challenges or initial approach?

Michael O'Reilly: I approached Hospital Rooms like any other creative project. I began by thinking about source materials and ways of painting but I found that I couldn’t get very far without viewing the space at The Phoenix Unit. Once I was there I looked for a room or area with a good extent of open wall space. The project began to flow more naturally after choosing a room, which in this case was The Quiet Room. Niamh White and Tim A Shaw, founders of Hospital Rooms, were keen that we responded to the brief and one of the important points was that we should create long-lasting work appropriate for the space. Niamh asked me to be involved not long after I had started an apprenticeship in scenic art at the Royal Opera House and the fact that I was doing the apprenticeship helped because of the type of job they were asking me to do, which was a large scale room installation. 

LJW: I understand it was also part of the brief that the art you created had to have a sense of practicality or at least functionality to it. How did your work develop with that in mind?

MO: Actually that area of the brief sparked my thoughts on the kind of painted installation I could make for The Quiet Room. I was essentially given a room, a blank canvas, but I knew it needed to have a function in the day-to-day life of The Phoenix Unit. I felt it needed to serve a practical purpose for staff and service users. The scenery we paint at The Royal Opera House also has to be durable; it gets moved around a lot, receives all kinds of abuse and sometimes travels the world over.

LJW: The paintings in your area of The Phoenix Unit are intriguing, they look like they’re coming out of the wall as if they were on canvasses, but upon closer inspection they are painted straight onto the wall. Can you tell me a little about the process behind that?

MO: Yes exactly. I thought it would be quite nice to have a series of trompe l’oeil paintings that subtly gave the optical illusion of protruding from the wall. I came to this conclusion because when I went through my options of hanging work in the space, nothing fitted with the health and safety issues from the brief. This problem provoked me to have the room painted to look like it had work curated round its walls. I felt a mural covering all four walls might be too overpowering for The Quiet Room but I liked that making these smaller paintings round the room was in many ways more appropriate for the space; like little captions or thought bubbles that changed and morphed from one image to the next. With trompe l’oeil the illusion of being a three dimensional object is kind of there and not there. I suppose in my head I was thinking of something being visible and not visible, which felt appropriate to the idea of a reflective quiet room and to mental health.

LJW: Tell me a little bit about the subject matter of the paintings - were you interested in the therapeutic side of art when you considered what to paint?

MO: The twelve paintings in The Quiet Room came from a number of sources: my own personal practice, book illustrations and travel posters. They’re pretty diverse in their content and painted style because, given the setting of the installation, I wanted them to be something that could be enjoyed over a long period of time with plenty of interest. Behind the paintings there is also a very simple wallpaper pattern that I repeated on all the walls. The motifs were things like beehives, palm trees and lily pads, which I painted with a very faded look. I wanted there to be this sense of looking round different paintings, catching glimpses of the flowing pattern behind them and being brought to a variety of scenes such as divers coming up for air, bears looking up at beehives or caravans parked ready for camping. I guess I was hoping that the subjects, narratives, colours, similarities and differences would all unravel over time. I suppose my hopes are that you can see something different each time and people would be able to get new experiences from returning to the room. I suppose in some ways this is therapeutic.

There was one lady who I remember coming past, toward the end of the three weeks, who wrote this little note of gratefulness on behalf of the people in there and passed it to me through the window which was really sweet.

LJW: I spoke to Steve Macleod a few weeks ago and we discussed the reactions to his work that the service users had. Did you have any preconceived ideas of what you might hear from them or from the staff at the Phoenix Unit when you were curating your space?

MO: It was really helpful speaking to the service users and staff when I came to visit. Meeting them gave me an idea of the direction I wanted to take the installation. I was painting on site for just less than three weeks and during that time I had lots of conversations with staff and service users. The latter would share with me types of colours they liked or would ask about what I was painting. One day it would be a cat looking up at the moon, the next, a boy fishing.

LJW: It makes sense; you’re weaving a narrative with the service users as well as in the room.

MO: Yes, not a straightforward story but more a narrative of connections. For example having one warm painting next to one with colder colours, or seeing the head of a diver on one side of the room and some flippers rising above the waves on the other. Even the background wallpaper pattern had some connections because the flowing beehive pattern linked into a painting of a bear looking up at a beehive. I wanted there to be lots of different styles so each painting looked like it was something different such as a newsprint comic or a still from a cartoon or something more photographic. Working in the scenic art department at the Royal Opera House has given me this amazing opportunity to learn lots of different techniques and I used a fair few in The Phoenix Unit in order to create a multitude of images.

LJW: Do you think the experience you’ve had working with the Hospital Rooms initiative has personally affected you or the way you view your work?

MO: The experience of working on site was really amazing. I was actually able to do this job through my apprenticeship as a sort of placement, which meant I had to plan the whole thing, write up a schedule and treat it as a freelance paint job. In terms of personal experience, being there on site was an eye opener. I was in one of the rooms that had a window to the outside garden, so people would often come past and chat to me. There was one lady who I remember coming past, toward the end of the three weeks, who wrote this little note of gratefulness on behalf of the people in there and passed it to me through the window which was really sweet. A couple of them were really interested in art and do art themselves so they’d come in and we would have really nice conversations. There was this one lad, who made really interesting comments in terms of the background being the device that took you around the room because it had this organic swirling pattern, and he was really interested in the depth of the background. I hadn’t picked up on that till he mentioned it. We also chatted about the drawings he had been making as well. When I went back a couple weeks later I had found that a lot of people were actually using the space whereas before it hadn’t been used much. I would say that was the most rewarding thing.

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