Art, Wall Street, Cabs, and Orphans: Kevin O’Hanlon

“The things we think are goals are often pieces of the puzzle.

Today I woke up to learn that a friend of mine lost his college-age son this morning to a vehicle accident. Again, I’m reminded how ridiculously silly most of the things we worry over and complain about really are. In the end, life is too short for all of us, too brief to waste precious time failing to love one another and ourselves. Too short to stop following our dreams. Too abrupt to wallow in our shortcomings rather than celebrate our gifts.

When I was eighteen, one of my best childhood friends was killed in a car accident along with two other girls from my high school. It was the my first taste of death, and the incident changed my life. The vast opportunities before me were suddenly illuminated. Years of possibility stretched out into my horizon–all those my friend had lost. I vowed that I would make my life count, that I’d not be lazy, and that I’d make some kind of difference or live up to my potential. Part of me was bitterly disturbed over their deaths, but another part was finally ready to soar.

Now, decades later, I sometimes wish I wasn’t stuck with living just one life, flying on just one trajectory. There are a million things I’d love to do, a zillion choices I wish I’d made, and many that I’d still like to make. Yet I realize that all my decisions in succession are forming a puzzle-piece path, perhaps one that I won’t clearly understand until I reach the end.

My guest today, photographer/filmmaker Kevin O’Hanlon seems somehow pull off living in many different scenarios set in interesting and diverse places around the world such as Australia, in New York City cabs, on Wall Street, in Haiti, and in the global art scene. How does he do it? Well, he seems to manage by not over managing.

Instead, he goes where his gut leads him without a second thought. What a gift! It sounds easy. (I’m guessing that it hasn’t been.) But he’s worked it out and created a life for himself that’s both comfortable and rewarding, and that focuses on his gifts and interests. In the end, perhaps that’s all we can hope for, whether it means following one trajectory or several. One man’s road may be a five-layer highway surrounded by city lights while his neighbor’s is a twisting gravel path winding its way through a beautiful, dark forest. Both can be filled with danger and beauty, heartache and triumph.

I realized long ago that no matter what I’m doing or where I am, life won’t be a piece of cake. The grass isn’t greener on the other side, and completely dumping one life for another isn’t always the grand spanking hoopla you imagine it might be. There will always be trials, challenges, hardships, disappointment, and even death in every scenario you can envision. In the end, I suppose the greatest goal is to make the most of it, focusing on the positives–to look around and appreciate what’s there and what you can bring to the scene.

Kevin’s inspirational story reminds us that it’s never too late to take on new challenges. The path is still forming. It’s only limited by our own short-sightedness and insecurities.

Life is truly a gift.

What’s your story (in a nutshell)? How did you end up where you are today? Are you surprised by where you are, or did you always see it coming?

My story starts in Dublin, Ireland where I lived until I was twenty-one. With a great interest in writing and shooting 8mm film (mostly of my sibling’s weddings), I came to New York. Via quite a few twists and turns (I was a horse handler in the Australian outback, wrote a series of articles about life in China from my perspective as a bicyclist, an eight-year stink as a broker on Wall Street and a turn at being a cab driver), I now own an art space in Chelsea and make documentaries about artists.

I ask myself how I ended up where I am today all the time. I’m fortunate (I think) in that I’ve never been too concerned with doing things for security or comfort. I always migrate towards the things and people that excite and inspire me. It’s a struggle of course in our industrial world living by what direction your mind conjures up, but I think it’s good for the spirit and that ultimately you’ll end up where you’re supposed to be. It’s all about the ride and enjoying the process of what’s coming next. I really see anything coming.

This might sound embarrassing but my mind always seems to have rejected the notion of time. It’s only now that I’m beginning to get a sense of the cycle of seasons. If a situation or conversation grabs me, I become oblivious to everything else. I’ve never looked at a weather forecast in my life so I’m excited by the potential weather and experience of each day.

For instance, I was just in Costa Rica where I now have a small home. I was making a documentary about this amazing woodcarver in the rain forest. At the airport in Miami on the way back I saw the news about Haiti. The next day my friend asked me to forward an email about a kids school she’s connected with there to our gallery mailing list. I wrote her back that I could do better than that. I could go to Haiti and bring art supplies so I could paint with the kids, have fun, and bring the artwork back to my gallery and have a benefit for them. So, long answer to your short question: I never see what’s coming, nor would I want to.

With regard to your current focus in life, was there an “ah-ha” moment you can tell us about?

Yes (ha,ha) I have had several, two actually in the last few months! I have run my own production company, Rogue Studios, for over 10 years. It’s a creative lifestyle and I’ve always enjoyed its challenges. My studio is in what was two former art galleries in Chelsea NY, so by virtue of my location, I became more and more involved in making documentaries about artists through my company

I find it interesting now that I segued into something I absolutely love and that taps into several areas which are strengths for me. The films I make have been predominantly for American artists. (There’s the background.) Last Summer I was listening to an audio book called The Four Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferris. I was checking to see if I could pick up any tips on how to gain back some free time from my work. One part of the book really turned on the lights for me and in that moment I knew how the next several years or perhaps the rest of my life would be spent.

There was a section where the author asked what are the things you want to do when you retired. I duly answered: Make movies and travel. The author went on to remind me that it makes no sense to wait until retirement to accomplish any dreams. In fact “there was every reason not to.” When I added up those words, what I got from it was that I needed to get out and travel right now and make films about artists in interesting locations around the world.

By traveling I would be creating compelling documentaries about interesting creative people and how they think and hopefully by their collection, I would establish a dialogue between all of those people – something that would provide insight into where we are as people and where we’re going. So philosophically, the question the author posed brought me to this revelation that I could be living my dream right here and now.

Even more of an “ah ha” moment was the fact that I actually, really “had” to get out in the world and make these movies because they would really publicize what I do and popularize the concept. Pretty much everything in the path of my creative life became resolved in that moment. I had all the information already, nothing had been added. It was just a moment of clarity where I re-worked the individual elements of what I had going on, and all of a sudden the new path was not only revealed, but it as also the absolute the only way for me to go. Any concerns about the future were all re-focused on the journey I was embarking on at that moment.

Realizing fully that procrastination was not only folly but in real “today” terms I now knew clearly that there was absolutely no reason not to move forward in my chosen creative direction. It was no longer a reward or some sort of delayed gratification, it was a project I needed to do right now because it brought to the forefront all of my strengths, and in terms of business it now allows me the flexibility to expand into different creative areas. Yes, I’d say that was a real ah-ha moment.

So far I traveled to Costa Rica to make movie about an artist in the rain forest there which was an amazing experience. This week I’m in Haiti to organize 160 homeless children to paint images which I’ll bring to my gallery Rogue Space in Chelsea for an art auction. Coming up next month, I have a trip to Mongolia and one to Greece in June. I’m sure more will materialize now that I’ve put a step forward.

I’ll make documentaries of artists in their own unique corner of the world, experience their creative world, and ultimate see where the dialogue with individual artists interconnects with a universal dialogue. As all artists are out there in the future, charting territories we have haven’t arrived at yet, I think that their combined dialogue will reveal a lot about where we’re at and where we’re all headed.

What are your thoughts on the stereotypes that creative people sometimes fall into?

Owning an art gallery in the heart of Chelsea’s art business, we’re connected daily with a lot of artists. They are generally very cool, open and positive people. One stereotype that seems to keep popping up is that a lot of artists today are convinced they need to suffer for their art or it somehow isn’t valid.

How crazy is that?

I think it feeds into some TV generation notion of western romanticism. I’m not about suffering thing at all. I would love people to flourish in their time. We organize community events, workshops and seminars at our gallery and I always try to encourage people to focus on the positive things that come from a creative life. It’s not always financial remuneration that counts, in fact it rarely is.

I think a lot of artists want to be rock stars these days and that puts a lot of pressure on them to exist day to day. Some of the most successful artists I know could easily be hedge fund managers or investment bankers or be top-of-their-field event planners. They have ability but what makes them exceptional is that they want to flourish and continue to live creative lives. They aren’t interested in being starving artists. It’s very difficult to be creative when you’re living under a bridge.

On the contrary, they’re constantly evolving humans and responsible to their abilities. It’s more difficult path surely than buying into the “‘I must suffer” mode because it requires constant effort but I think most successful artists are unique individuals who burn up challenge and adversity for what it brings. They don’t view the struggle as their diet or crutch, they view it as fuel to be re-purposed and channelled and focused and they trust that something cool will come from it, or that it’s a necessary stepping stone to what ultimately comes into being.

Do you believe being creative has caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life’s aberrations, or both?

I’m all about aberration. Aberration is difference and change. It’s shifting, it’s breaking down what you’ve become comfortable with. It’s about discovery. For a long time I thought life would be easier following a more conventional and stable life than one which requires that you reinvent yourself and not know what’s next. But now I regard that as a gift. My artists friends have thought me how to create a wave which then carries you to the next spot. You have to trust the wave for it to work and you have to enjoy the possibility that you’ll wipe out, too. I worked in finance in the World Trade Center for eight years as a broker, so I’m familiar with a more conventional life with less aberrations, but looking back I see that a life that isn’t based on your spirit and passion and creativity is not always a comfortable existence. Probably a creative life appears more erratic to some, but actually it can is more consistent if it is for real.

Have you had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you’ve dealt with it?

I don’t think people have difficulty in understanding a creative person’s drive. In most cases, I’m pretty sure they admire and respect that person’s choices. I think where it can get more difficult is when artists have to struggle to get through to their next level. Having people be concerned for your well being can be exhausting, even if not articulated. In my own case, the first third of my life was comfortable, even privileged. But I felt so strongly the urge to move away from that and ultimately jumped into a life with no safety net or any feeling of entitlements. It took me years to spiral, literally let go all the support systems, and arrive to a place where I felt like I was actually engaging creatively with the world in a genuine way. That part was very difficult to go through because it’s difficult to explain when on the surface it looks like you’re falling … so you deal with it

So far, the majority of those I’ve interviewed about creativity say that the internal question of, “Am I truly creative or do I just think I am?” has never crossed their mind. Is this true for you? Am I the only one who has, at times, wondered if I’m just kidding myself?

Hmmm, that’s interesting. Ultimately any creative act has great merit. We’re certainly not all Picasso but in my humble estimation all humans have an element of creativity. To be human is part of being creative. We are the product of creation. It’s really just a matter of how much the drive exists to pursue expression. I interview a lot of artists in my work. Sometimes artists I speak with are consumed by a desire to reveal, sometimes to celebrate, sometimes to understand their relationship to the world. These are all forms of being creative. Not all will end up in a gallery in Chelsea or at the Whitney Biennial, but it’s important more so that those artists progress with their expression and not get discouraged.

I’m sure there are people who like the idea of being an artist, just like some people like the idea of being in a relationship in theory, but really might not be actually want to be in one. If people do anything because of the idea of it versus a genuine connection to it, then of course they’re kidding themselves. But other than that, a kid drawing on the back of a matchbox can be as artistic and interesting as a Jeff Coons, for example.

Unfortunately, many creative people never achieve the success they dream about. Which of your dreams have come to pass and what do you dream about now?

Success is relative. If you’re talking about financial success then of course not too many people are going to be able to succeed there. How many artists do you know who live entirely from their art? It’s a very difficult thing to do. But this whole wealthy artist thing is such a recent phenomenon.

We forget that creatives have almost always lived hand to mouth throughout history. Van Gogh painted through prison bars for goodness sake. It just very recently with Soho and Chelsea and Charles Saatchi, that the concept of being an art superstar has crept into our vocabulary. If people are real and they find an outlet for their connection to the world, then they are already successful artists in my book.

I don’t really look at dreams in terms of them coming to pass. I spent many years and poured all by energy into trying to make a feature film I wrote with a friend. We came very close; we had studios in Hollywood flying us out for meetings. We had famous actors committed. It took so long and there were so many variables that it just somehow passed by. As disappointing as that was in my life, I try to look at that stuff philosophically. The story had some elements of me in there, plots I wanted to resolve. But now that I review that period, I think just the examination of those things pushed me in the direction I needed to be in–making documentaries–and I couldn’t be happier or more excited about what’s next. The things we think are goals are often pieces of the puzzle. The trick is not to stop, ACT out the next scene because more than likely it’s the whole reason for the rigmarole that preceded it.

I often wonder about the similarities and differences creative people have in terms of thought processes. Is there one method or way that you get most of your ideas, and if so, can you describe that? If not, can you tell us a little bit about how your mind works?

Jeepers, that’s not a tough question at all! I think I can answer it though. I like to be spontaneous in life. And I love people’s mind, particularly creative ones. I love to daydream and transport myself to another place or time. So what I do 9-5 is absorb and collaborate and daydream. I’m very fortunate in my work situation. I own a art gallery space in Chelsea – Rogue Space.

We have group shows there, all sorts of fun events, art auctions and benefits, artists workshops, all that. I also have a revolving group of interns who work at the space. My favorite thing is to have a conversation and discover some kernel of a creative project that might be cool. Then that gets teased out, logistics be damned, and I state the aim, pick a date and start the engines.

One recent example came a few weeks ago. I was making a transfer at Miami airport and saw the earthquake in Haiti. I really hated the reportage style. I think we often are comforted by misery–some dark thing that morbidly attracts us to disasters. Probably it’s a way of feeling better that it’s not happening to us.

When I arrived home I read an email from my friend who asked if I would forward an appeal letter for a school in Haiti that had been destroyed. I started to email her back and in that instant promised that I could do better than forward a link. I’ll go there myself and I’ll put together a big art project and get all the kids to paint and draw. Then I’ll get the artwork back to NYC and have a benefit in my gallery and it’ll help rebuild the school.

Boom. Boom.

Having stated it, there was no choice but to do it. Having seen some creative projects languish through elongation, my creative process now is the catapult approach. I like to grab onto a thought and wrestle it into being.

What are the top three characteristics highly creative people need to be successful, in your opinion?

I think creative people are connected to life and are curious about the world and people. They are open. They are generally thoughtful and kind because more than likely they’ve been on the road and know how important it is to lend a hand to a fellow traveler … because we are all travelling ultimately.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

I don’t know that I’ve ever had a mantra. To be honest a mantra that one would speak over and over to me can become a little like a religion. A mantra sounds like it’s something I’m not supposed to vary from. As I’ve been a card carrying atheist since I was in my early teens, I think my equivalent of a mantra is to always be open and receptive to everyone and everything.

If I found myself not doing that I would repeat some mantra to remind me. There’s nothing more fascinating than people. I like to see where they’re at. For me personally, my own version of God is that we are all parts of him, and in many ways we’re all different facets of each other at different phases. So how cool is it to see the many faces of God and ourselves each day and to assemble those parts into who were are. I think that’s one of the most creative acts period.


Be sure to check out Kevin’s films on artists here.

Also, learn more about the Rogue Space Auction to benefit the Maranatha Orphanage and School in Haiti on April 27th.

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