John O’Carroll is an artist who is also a polymath. His wide knowledge of archaeology, geology, palaeontology and ancient history has been informed by his various travels. Born in Cornwall, John has spent much of his adult life abroad working and exhibiting in America, Holland and Egypt.
John O’Carroll has spent the last 23 years as an archaeological illustrator in the Dakhla Oasis in Egypt’s Western Desert. Whilst there John developed his own version of an ancient art technique, which combines layers of natural pigments with layers of wax. The result is a series of paintings that analyse different aspects of light and space, from the aurora borealis to light seen through amber; from light reflected off the sea in his native Cornwall to the space in the Dutch landscape.
John has also been inspired by discoveries made in archaeology resulting in his sculptures and installations which combine modern and natural materials, and make reference to ancient lost worlds. Living once more in Cornwall, John has just published a book of his work made over the last 10 years and it is available from his gallery and where his recent work is now on show.
I started out in life with many varied influences, being brought up between the rugged splendour of the Cornish peninsula and the plains and forests of Texas.
I attended the Cornwall College of Art, taking private art tuition and gaining inspiration from the St. Ives artists Roy Walker and Brian Ingham, who gave me a sound tuition in draughtsmanship, colour and composition, and by Tony O’Malley whose work I respected.
Cornwall, with its exposed geographic position jutting out, unprotected, into the Atlantic Ocean, is a powerful place, a point of elemental energy marked indelibly with layers of human habitation. Stone circles, great granite standing stones and curious rock engravings captured my imagination. Dreams ran through me, leaving a deep subconscious mark; repetitive dreams: flying on the back of a huge hawk over immense dunes, and dreams exploring deep coastal caverns and finding ancient amulets.
I returned to Texas, sharing a house with a vivacious New Yorker, Roberta Elkins, and spent time travelling and painting with friend and artist Robert Campbell. Inspired by the work and life of Georgia O’Keefe, we travelled through the scrub and desert lands of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico, staying in the small town art colony of San Ignacio on the Rio Grande.
I found Mexico stunning and was fascinated by the landscape, the archaeology and the remnants of lost civilisations. I worked in Oaxaca, drawing the ruins and immediate environment of Monte Alban, home of the Zapotec culture, and in the Yucatan copying the glyphs of the Mayans. In the contemporary world I was greatly influenced by the exciting art milieu of Mexico City with its echoes of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, its colour and its addictive zest for life. Houston was buzzing with a hunger for culture, with its haunting Rothko Chapel, The Menil Collection of Cy Twombly and artists from the eastern seaboard attracted by oil dollars.
Back in London I had the good fortune to be introduced to Andrew Murray of the Mayor Gallery in Cork Street who, in turn, introduced me and my work to Holly Solomon of the Holly Solomon Gallery, 5th Avenue, New York. There I was invited to live with a group of artists in an old brownstone on the Lower East side on East 14th, next to Disco Donuts! I had the top floor and roof. We had no electricity and the building was lit by oil lamps. The lofty ceiling of the second floor held an enormous swing which was used by guests invited to the many parties held there: fashion designers, writers and performers who would turn up before moving on to the next new hot spot in town.
Jenny Leimert was one of those artists. She was also an archaeological illustrator working periodically in Egypt. Jenny invited me to be her assistant and we left New York for Cairo. Tony Mills, director of the Dakhleh Oasis Project (DOP) – an archaeological and environmental project located in the Western Desert – welcomed me and I contributed by drawing and illustrating temple walls, tombs and artefacts. The project located in the spectacular Western Desert with its wide remit of study encompassing geology, palaeontology, prehistory, Egyptology, anthropology, and even the hunt for meteors, gave me a huge, exciting playground for my imagination, developing and changing my sense of time and my spatial and visual awareness. I had always been interested in linking visual art and the scientific world and especially in metaphysics, in relationship to how we perceive the material world. The connection between the conscious and unconscious mind also intrigued me. I was influenced by Jung’s concept of synchronicity and archetypes, and by Joseph Campbell’s thoughts and writings.
My first assignment on the DOP dig was to illustrate and record the inscriptions on the gate-way wall of an, as yet, unexcavated temple called ‘Ayn Berbier’ which is situated on the edge of the dunes. The excavation revealed a huge hawk-headed man with outstretched wings, ‘Amun Nakht’. I looked at the surrounding desert, and the red thread of the recurring dream from my youth in Cornwall came back to me: ‘the hawk flying over the dunes’. The warm familiarity gave me a sense of home.
Tony encouraged artists to work at the dig because he felt their focus on a perspective that was other than scientific would contribute to the diversity and quality of information collected for the project. I used mud-brick buildings for a studio, and in 2001 I was able to build one next to the DOP project house overlooking date palm groves and beyond to the Sahara. Each evening I would sit with Tony’s wife Lesley, the lady of the dig, on a mud-brick mastaba (seat) watching the sun descend and the appearance of ‘the gin star’, signifying the time to celebrate another day of life with a refreshing glass of Bombay gin and tonic with a dash of karkede (a rose-coloured infusion of hibiscus petals), a cocktail I named a ‘Pink Nile’, whilst the Dutch professorial contingent, often in the persons of Fred and Vreni Leemhuis would ‘release’ a bottle of ‘jonge jenever’!
Learning from the past experience of Jenny Leimert and art conservators working on the project, I began to collect pigments from the desert and make my own paints using materials I sourced locally: oxide pigments, camel bone glue, beeswax, acacia gum and gypsum. Archaeologists at the DOP had excavated some wax-painted fragments of wood, and as I became familiar with the encaustic ‘Fayum’ portraits in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and fascinated by this method of early painting, I developed my own methods. The project allowed me to dedicate a good deal of time to my own painting and I combined this with the almost meditative illustrative work of recording ancient hand axes, dinosaur bones, temple walls, and any other object that warranted recording.
Jenny moved to the Saqqara Country Club as resident artist with her horse Texas, but was sadly killed in an automobile accident on the road to Cairo. A great sadness descended on everyone at the DOP. She is buried within sight of the Great Pyramid of Khufu, befitting her love of the ancients and the land of Egypt.
I set up home in a 1930s dahabiya (houseboat) in Cairo, and supported my art by working as an illustrator on projects in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, in particular the tomb of Merenptah, and in Saqqara. In Cairo I became friendly with the well-known Egyptian artist Mohammed Abla, who let me use his studios one of which was located in a mediaeval palace in the Old Cairo district and the other some distance away in Fayum Oasis. I was introduced to the well-established and culturally rich Egyptian film and literary world by Dr. Khaled Saraya, a lifelong friend who now lives in London.
One memorable day in Dakhleh the Dutch writer and traveller Arita Baaijens arrived, windswept and dusty, with her string of camels and her many bags of paraphernalia. By good chance, she invited me to make a trek with her and her camels and illustrate her journey through the White Desert for her upcoming book for the Sahara Sociætiet of the Netherlands, De Geur van Kamelen (The Smell of the Camel). This proved to be a turning point in my artistic path. My own work took on another dimension after this trip, with my observations and interest becoming engaged in further abstraction and the infinite patterns of our planet and the stars.
Returning to Cairo, I met by chance Pimm van der Donk at a dinner party holding a bunch of tulips, and as a consequence of this encounter made my way to the Netherlands and moved my base there, travelling to and from Egypt. Amsterdam provided a cosmopolitan, open and friendly environment to work as an artist and it was there that I was able to distil my vision, experiences and techniques and translate them into form. The Netherlands also provided new influences for me from the perspective of its artists and its people who have a refreshing and genuine interest in the arts without the surrounding ‘hyped-up’ nature such as surrounded the ‘Brit Art’ scene.
Pimm became a primary support in helping and encouraging me to exhibit my work, often visiting Egypt during my long periods of work in the oasis (re-stocking the Bombay gin supplies!) and helping with the transport of art work from the desert to Cairo on the back of an old Land Rover and then on to Amsterdam by plane. Quite an accomplishment in itself with the added obstacle of satisfying the dubious Egyptian custom inspectors that it was actually art work being transported!
My first adventure into the Dutch art world was with gallery owner Charlotte Daneel. Through the support of the Mondriaan Foundation and subsequently Hester Alberdingk Thijm, director of the AkzoNobel Art Foundation I was able to create work on a larger scale, developing my installation pieces. Shortly after this time I was privileged to join Galerie Nanky de Vreeze an antecedent of Galerie Roger Katwijk who is now my representative in the Netherlands.
In 2005 I moved back to the wild, inspirational beauty of Cornwall, a coming home of a kind, basing myself here with my partner Amin and our three large dogs in a ‘hidden green valley’, continually developing my work as an artist and collaborating on three dimensional work with the talented sculptor Simon Gaiger.
I continue my work in Cornwall and frequently travel abroad to work and exhibit. My work evolves, based on observations of nature, time and science with a continuing sense of awe at our fragile and beautiful planet and our place in the universe.