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Meet Caley O’ Dwyer

Today we’d like to introduce you to Caley O’ Dwyer.

Hi Caley, every artist has a unique story. Can you briefly walk us through yours?
I grew up in one of the longest-running regional theaters in the country, Theatre Three in Dallas, Texas. My parents met in this theatre before I was born and, in utero, I was onstage with my mother in The Adding Machine by Elmore Rice. At one point the bench broke that my mother was sitting on during the show and all the actors (including my father, who was also in the play!) stopped the show to see if my mother and “the baby” were OK. My life was fun, somewhat dangerous, and richly colorful before it even got started. My Godfather, Jac Alder (who passed away in 2015), founded Theatre Three with my Godmother, Norma Young (who died in 1998) in 1961, and was the longest-reigning Artistic Director of any theater in North America. Why is this relevant to my own life as an artist? It was in this theater and its diverse yet close-knit, open-minded family of hard-working actors, directors, and theater technicians that I learned the virtues of devotion to art making and to constellate those virtues with pretty much everything else I have come to love: the beauty of language and poetry, openness to and compassion for human beings and their myriad differences, art as a dramatic site for understanding the social pressures exerted by institutions of commerce and thought upon individuals, etc. As a poet, painter, psychotherapist, and teacher (I am actively doing all four and quite happily!), there’s a way in which I am still looking out at the world from the perspective of the light booth where I spent literally years of my childhood watching the play evolve, deconstruct, reload, and re-play.

I moved to Los Angeles to escape a couple of stepbrothers in the early 1980s when I was around 10 years old. Woops! Family life was even crazier in my new home in LA so as a teenager I drew all the time in my room and wrote nail-bitingly terrible poems. My step-father, Edward Anhalt, was a two-time Academy Award Winning screenwriter (Panic in the Streets (1950), Becket (1964)) and I learned even more about dedication to artistic process from him. My first poetry teachers were the late Shirley Windward (founder of Windward School in Los Angeles) and the brilliant Los Angeles psychotherapist, Natalie White, who at the time was my English teacher. My visual artwork evolved on its own with little benefit from or interference by art teachers but I think I learned a lot about making visual art from those who taught me writing and psychology.

Eventually I studied poetry writing and printmaking at Sarah Lawrence College and later did a Master of Fine Arts in Literature and Creative Writing in the writer’s workshop at the University of California at Irvine. I focused heavily on poetry writing but continued to draw all the time. I thought drawing and painting were way too much fun to do professionally. Poetry seemed to me a much more reasonable profession!

Years later, when I’d already been teaching writing full-time at the University of California, Irvine and at USC and publishing poetry for nearly twenty years, I started taking my visual artwork more and more seriously. This is to say I put more time toward having fun with it in increasingly public ways. I was working on incrementally larger pieces but limited by the half-of-a-kitchen I was allotted as my studio at my home in Silver Lake. I felt like there was a visual artist living inside me whose energy and passion for art making was much larger than my physical body could contain, like it had been growing in me my whole life and it was breaking out of my skin. It was too much for the little apartment we were living in. I got depressed wishing I could work on a grander scale but wasn’t able to. I started thinking about moving to another state where I could afford more space. Eventually my wife and I moved to the Brewery Artist Lofts in East LA. My studio space instantly quadrupled and my life changed dramatically. There is nothing as reassuring as living in a community of artists. I feel like I’m home again.

Thanks, so let’s go a bit more into your art. What else should we know about your artwork?
I’m currently working primarily on large-scale, abstract oil painting and, separately, smaller gouache collage paintings that involve some drawing; and black ink line drawings. I approach abstract painting with a heavy emphasis on process, typically without a specific image or plan in mind, although I suppose the plan is more a way of working and a loose set of theoretical obsessions. The figurative pieces usually start with drawings or photographs and involve a kind of back and forth between drawing on my iPad and/or paper and painting on canvas—it’s like the drawing and the painting are in conversation (sometimes more like cordial debate), until the piece is finished.

I’ve also completed two poetry collections, one called American Proverb and another called Light, Earth, and Blue, written entirely after the paintings of Mark Rothko. One of the poems in this collection was included in the Rothko retrospective at the Tate Modern museum in London, alongside the painting about which it was written.

In visual art I’m interested in both fine art and popular art, maybe even commercial art, but they take up very different areas of my psyche. I tend to approach painting to wrestle with more complex ideas and drawing for lighter play.

My paintings are informed by my early life in the theater. The play has transferred to the canvas where scenes wash over its stage, evolving across the surface. The characters are colors, lines and shapes. They are in dramatic conflict with each other in the abstract paintings and more trying to find harmony in the figurative ones. Painting is something like constant rehearsal, keeping in mind that any rehearsal is a recapitulation, a new action, and preparation for something yet to come. 

Here is something from my artist bio that still seems to fit for the abstract work:

My practice is driven by humor, wonder, musicality, joy, love of the line, variation and possibility. I’m interested in process painting, gestures that are sabotaged, partially recovered, renewed…surprises pulled out of wrecks, pairings of surety and dissolution. I’m inclined to seriousness as much as to silliness, to expressions of sadness and doubt as much as to frivolity, delight, color that clashes and color that sings. Increasingly, my painting is engaged with abstraction that bears some figurative legibility but which resists certainty. I’m interested in architectural forms both for their own sake and as analogues for, or signs of, interior experience.”

I think just about everything I am interested in in art, poetics, psychology, politics and culture is essentially feminist and postmodern in perspective. My writing and painting always have at least one eye on social constructionist thinking and thus deconstructionist thinking. Humor and outrage arise in my work from the influence exerted by manmade “truths” and the compassion and weird sadness that pool at the limits of knowing—the heartbreaking comedy of it all. My work confronts the fearfulness that requires people to be one legible, “valuable” thing, the fear steeped in tradition that needs us to orient to constructed expectations for being a “valid” person. Along these lines, here is an excerpt for something I wrote for “First-Person Singular” on Live Encounters. Although it’s written about my gouache collage paintings it essentially applies to my oil painting projects too: 

“In a recent series of gouache collage paintings, I’m exploring the idea that the self is relational and plural along with my sense that selves are fluid and mercurial. I like the idea that selves are both individual and multiple, that differences in context bring forth variations of self and that these changes happen across time.
“Gouache is a favorable medium for depicting change because it can be worked over and over again, heaps of solid opacity blocking out what was underneath it, or more transparent washes with less pigment inviting glimpses into the under layers. The cutting out and collaging of the painted paper to reposition figures speaks to my sense of life as revision, this process that happens in time and which never ends, but which still images can seem to “fix.” These paintings struggle against this sense of fixity, such that arguably beautiful passages are sometimes sacrificed in favor of painting over them or scratching them out.

“If painting is a kind of conversation wherein physical gestures merge ideas with materials, I’m increasingly interested in keeping the conversation going, with how to render “ongoing-ness” in a way that isn’t just a mess.  But the process involves risking messiness because the paintings typically only feel “right” or finished when they’ve been worked up to an extent that seems almost irretrievable. When they work, some leap of faith into further conversation (more painting, more cutting, more pasting, more doing) eventually yields a new order I couldn’t have planned or known.”
I am interested in curiosity a lot more than knowing.

How or where can people see your work? How can people support your work?

Visual work:

· The best place to see my work currently is at:

· My work has appeared in several Los Angeles galleries and other venues such as at Bergamot Station and Art Share LA.

· I had a solo show of fourteen gouache collage pieces that have been making their way around Los Angeles via Laemmle’s Theaters, thanks to the excellent curatorial work of (amazing!) painter/curator Joshua Elias, the splendid Director for Laemmle Arts, Sheryl Myerson and the wonderful vision of Tish Laemmle. These paintings were last seen at Laemmle’s Town Center 5 in Encino, California.

· “First-Person Singular” features some of my gouache collage paintings, thanks to multi-talented editor and writer Mark Ulyseas and his international publication, Live Encounters:

· Twice a year (April and October) we have the Brewery Art Walk (@breweryartwalk) open studios where tons of artists, myself included, open their studios to the public. It’s a lot of fun and totally free. Great food, interesting live-work studio spaces, and an ebullient, fun spirit abounds.


· A recent online publication:

· Two poems in the May/June 2019 issue of American Poetry Review.

· Other poetry publications in magazines:

· My first book: Full Nova (2001, Orchises Press)

· An Interview conducted in my studio by the wonderful poet Mariano Zaro, for Poetry.LA’s “Hyphenated Poets,” a series featuring poets who are also visual artists and the interrelations between the two:

As an artist, how do you define success and what quality or characteristic do you feel is essential to success as an artist?
Above all, I define artistic success as consistent, committed engagement with making art (and I may change this definition tomorrow, change being one of the best things to do with definitions). I would love to make more of a living as an artist and I’m very grateful for the commercial success and positive reception I’ve had thus far but both monetary, external validation and internal satisfaction seem to me too mercurial and elusive to humanely identify artistic success. In dominant conceptions of success I also beware the clunky capitalist discourses from which notions of “success” and their hierarchical, binary, and oft-disempowering semi-tacit agendas probably spawn. To see artistic success as dependent on reception or personal satisfaction sets up for possible grand returns but also sets up for a particularly useless (and also not particularly reliable or real) experience of “failure.” Since not too many people can be seen as “the best” or even financially solvent on the basis of their art work, most people, by these conceptions of success, are rendered unimportant and failed. I don’t like it, partly because it hurts more people than it helps and partly because its unrealistic for being binary in form. I’m more interested in being in process, in exploration and possibility, in being in conversation with other artists and their arts, and in working towards working than I am in winning.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy (or would enjoy) many of the trappings of “success” most people think of when they think of a successful artist, but it isn’t my North Star and I’m aware that the so called “happiness set point” (check out the field of Positive Psychology) indicates that over time I’m probably going to be roughly as happy as I now am (which is pretty happy!) regardless of set piece successes. Judith Halberstam has a wonderful book, The Queer Art of Failure, that both debunks dominant discourses around success and offers more humane, more inclusive, and more productive understandings.

This week I want to say I’m a success because I put three coats of gesso on two 82” x 76” canvases and I have plans to sand them once again, do another coat, and then paint on them for months, painting over painting until I can’t make any sense of them, until something emerges and snaps together that is unequivocally fantastic and not what I planned. I think in this paragraph I may have contradicted what I said earlier, in asserting disinterest in satisfaction. As per Whitman, I think contradiction is a fairly reliable and underappreciated truth. It’s one of the psychological states I am trying to get use to in life and to make use of in art.

Contact info:

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· Email:

· Main websites: and

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