A Spotlite on Richard Killeaney
Richard Killeaney by Marie Havens
Everyone now is an “environmentalist.” We recycle, use the subway, carry grocery tote bags, plug in our vehicles, use iPads to replace magazines, choose organic, grab a Kindle instead of a book. Not so long ago, for most, trash was trash and paper was paper. But for artist and designer, Richard Killeaney layers of plain paper evolved into a new white shirt, a pillow, a quilt, a work of art. For nearly two decades he has quietly redefined the word craft and I recently had the opportunity to sit down together in Grand Central Station to catch up.
Marie Havens: Hello Richard!
Richard Killeaney: Hi, Marie!
MH: Hard to believe, but we’ve known each other for over 20 years so interviewing you is a real privilege. Thanks for taking the time between your daily voyage to and from Connecticut and NYC. How busy are you these days?
RK: I’m quite busy, but I’m happy with lots on my plate. I’m teaching full time in New York and one class at Fairfield University in Connecticut. Days I’m not in New York, I work in my art studio and on my house. I do some freelance design here and there, too. I tend to get more done when I’m busy.
MH: I consider you to be an artist, in addition to being a textile designer, quilter, and environmentalist. In your opinion, what do you like to be recognized for? Are labels important to you & your work?
RK: Labels aren’t super important to me, but do seem important to the press and in getting recognized for your work. My education was in the fine arts and textile design. I can’t imagine approaching my design work without both a background in painting and the technical sides of design. That said, the fine art world often relegates fiber-related fine art to the craft world. Ultimately, I think of myself as a designer as that’s been my focus during the last seven years.
MH: Your work has certainly evolved. In the 90′s you were one of the first artists I had ever seen to incorporate recycled products, materials, and vintage fabrics into your quilts, clothing, and accessories. You were also living a very organic and vegan lifestyle, before mass society caught on. Why was that environmental philosophy so important to you at such a young age?
RK: I fell for the environmental movement hard in seventh grade, related probably to how trendy it was then. Living in San Diego and seeing the work the zoo was doing with the Black Rhino and the California Condor had a big impact on me. My mom would deny the title of environmentalist and was not a hippie at all, but simply recycled and composted because it was practical. In the end, I hate the dogma of movements, and I’ve stuck with a “green” lifestyle as it just seems practical.
MH: We originally both lived in San Diego, California and met in high school during the Beverly Hills 90210 decade. Being artists and being gay, we were certainly not “in trend,” but we survived. Ironically, the environment and color palette of life in California was an important source of creative inspiration. Can you explain your love for the western landscape?
RK: Maybe I took too many college writing courses about how we all create from “what we know?” I’m certain now that I left Cali for college upstate New York to run away and create a new persona, or find the real one. My current design work was the result of my master’s research at RISD. I was ready to explore both where I was from and how I ended up who I am. In 2001, I was reading a lot about masculinity constructs, such as Susan Faludi’s Stiffed and Paul Monnete’s Becoming a Man. At RISD, we always had to select a place as inspiration for our textile work, or a place where the work would go. I was thinking a lot about Southern California and missing the specifics of the landscape, like the Mediterranean architecture and Torrey Pine trees. I still think about my work ending up in beach bungalos in a place like San Juan Capistrano.
MH: You truly are a visionary. In addition to being an environmentally-friendly artist, you defended the concept of creating, sewing, and designing quilts as an art form. It was a strong personal cause for you, even when the society-at-large clearly didn’t recognize it as art (in the same way as painting or sculpture). How did creating and designing quilts come into your life and work? And do you think society and the art world has embraced & recognized quilting more in 2011?
RK: As arguments go, I love “art versus design.” I don’t think there is any answer in the end, but it’s fun to contemplate and it’s something so many museums are exploring right now. I’m especially thinking of how New York’s Museum of Arts & Crafts has renamed itself to be the Museum of Arts & Design. It’s like the word craft has become both pejorative and naughty, which makes me love it more. I’d rather redefine the word “craft” than eschew it. I started taking quilting lessons while we were in high school, and designed and made my first one to take to college with me. I don’t remember if you know this, but I started doing needlepoint in 3rd grade in Mrs. Ritchie’s class, and just never stopped. Needlepoint led to knitting–not my passion–which led to quilting. I’m lucky that both my grandfathers sewed and my parents never even hinted that boys weren’t supposed to sew. They totally supported me. By 16, I was going to stitch & bitch sessions at the Country Loft with middle-aged women, and loving it! Now, I’m not sure that quilting has been embraced as serious, but the Gee’s Bend exhibition shown in 2003 at the Whitney did help.
MH: You also own OCHELTREE DESIGN, a studio & design business in Connecticut. Can you tell me about the symbolism of the name, the work you create now and how living in Connecticut helps cultivate your creative process?
RK: The name is nothing fancy: I felt that Killeaney was too ethnic and hard to say, so I chose my great-grandmother’s maiden name. Unfortunately, it’s still hard to say! My design work now all tumbled out of the 5 quilts I made for my thesis collection at RISD in 2003. I always have ideas bumping around in my head for quilts, but they take a lot of time and energy and math to develop. Sewing pillows gives me that sense of immediate satisfaction. My pattern ideas come from all over: old barns in upstate New York, fashion photography, crumbling walls, you name it. I’m also really, really obsessed with fabric and it alone often leads me to a construction or design.
MH: You also teach sewing and fashion design at various colleges around NYC. How has teaching affected your life and work?
RK: Teaching is probably the only thing I’d ever admit to having an aptitude for. I’m sure it relates to both my parents being teachers. I’ve been teaching off and on for five years and it’s fulfilling and makes me crazy. I am inspired by great teachers I had at Hobart College and RISD. I aim to improve on the bad learning experiences I had. It also forces me to keep up with culture, which ultimately informs my work.
MH: February is certainly an important time for fashion, being that NYC Fashion Week is Feb 10-17th. Will you be attending any shows this season?
RK: I tend to hit a few shows each season. I’ve ended up at some big shows in the past almost by accident and always head to small shows from young designers downtown. These days, I go to shows when it means I can hang out with old friends. It’s always exciting to see what folks pull together, and the people watching is priceless!
MH: For over a decade, you have been designing and creating incredible apparel, in addition to accessories. I will never forget the paper shirts you would sew & wear to various events. It was magnificent how you would combine art and fashion in one garment. So, how important is fashion to you? And how has your love for accessories evolved?
RK: I can’t believe you remember the clothes I’ve made! I’ve always ended up sewing myself pieces either because I couldn’t afford something I wanted, but usually because a certain fabric wanted to be a certain garment. I’m obsessed with white dress shirts. I made one for a fashion show in Providence in 2002 using wrinkled loose-leaf paper from my 6th grade math class. I follow fashion both to see the clothes and how they can redefine who we are but also for the fabrics. As for accessories, I think I end up making scarves and small items because I often can’t afford more than a yard of a fabric I love. I’m making myself this black scarf right now using a brushed silk fabric and Victorian mourning beads. There’s a goth kid in me that’s dying to get out!
MH: I know you loved Takashimaya on 5th Avenue, here in NYC…any other favorite NYC stores that you draw inspiration from?
RK: It’s so sad that Takashimaya is defunct in the US. It was the most remarkable shopping experience! I love window-shopping. For amazing suits and men’s jewelry, I’m really into Against Nature and Occulter right now. Vintage Thrift Shop on 23rd Street is my favorite vintage shop. Soho is where I go for my Tiffany’s experience.
MH: On that note, cheers to quite a year ahead…any 2011 projects you can share?
RK: I’m planning on teaching a fabric related project to mentally disabled adults in Rhode Island this Spring. It will be a new teaching experience for me. I’m also pushing to take on more wholesale clients for my pillows and baby collection. I always have more going on than I can tackle!
MH: Richard, you are such an important, unrecognized artist. I truly hope this interview brings some recognition to your craft. Thanks for the chat! Where are you headed now?
RK: Thanks for your amazing insight, Marie. You always push me to think about work in a new way. Right now, I’m off to bed before getting back on the train to Manhattan. I always seem to be running to catch the train!
Richard Killeaney is an environmental artist and designer from Southern California. He currently divides his time between New York City and Connecticut where he runs his design studio, Ocheltree Design.
Written by Marie Havens
Photography by Caroline Valites and Cathy Carver / Courtesy of Richard Killeaney
Design by Marie Havens
Richard Killeaney, Hands in Pockets, portrait in front of “Missing the Point” quilt by Richard Killeaney, 2009, Photography by Caroline Valites
Tweed “Man in Wool” Pillows, Black, by Richard Killeaney, 2009, Photography by Caroline Valites
Seated smile in front of “Missing the Point” Quilt by Richard Killeaney, 2009, Photography by Caroline Valites
Making “Warm Fuzzies” Pillow Detail by Richard Killeaney, 2009, Photography by Caroline Valites
“Missing the Point” Quilt, Red, by Richard Killeaney, 2008, Photography by Cathy Carver
“Sierra View” Quilt by Richard Killeaney, 2009, Photography by Caroline Valites