TSOTA x TRS Studio Visits is a collaboration between The State of the Arts and The Royal Standard. TRS is an artist-led gallery, studio, and social workspace in Liverpool, working with over 40 artists. Every month we will be presenting interviews and studio visits with artists working in the space and chatting to them about their practice, inspirations and what art means to them. This month, we talked to artist, poet and performer Daniel O’Dempsey.
He has a passion for collaboration and socially engaged activities and is interested in making art accessible both contextually and financially to the wider public.
Helayna: Hi Dan, thank you for taking time to sit down and chat with me.
So, I guess my first question is what is your process of creating art? What does that look like for you?
Dan: My work stems from conversation. When I was around 19-20, whilst I was in my foundation I spent a lot of time working with people who were experiencing homelessness and created work in response. I had so much trouble with the fact that people never stopped to ask people what their name was, so I went around Liverpool and started to talk and get to know people. We ended up spending a lot of time together, went for coffees, shared stories and I started documenting the tales of these people’s lives. That began my interest in using art to create spaces which would facilitate these conversations about homelessness.
When I was younger I had anaplastic large cell lymphoma, which is like a type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, so I spent a lot of time in the hospital. I often felt separated from people, so then when I would speak to people experiencing homelessness that became my transactional tale and people would give me theirs.
Helayna: So, did you create work in response to those conversations you had, or was it a case of creating work to facilitate those conversations?
Dan: I think it was a bit of both. I was interested in public artwork and was responsive to conversations. At one stage I made 150 models which would degrade and deteriorate and respond with the elements and weather. It became a physical representation of homelessness.
So going on from that, I became really interested in how space can create narratives. I began to place homeware, things that are safe and warm and secure, outside in the middle of a field where it’s open and exposed. People would see the work in the distance, they’d question ‘What’s that?’ and curiosity would take over. From there you’d see them let their imaginations run wild. It kind of brings you back to being a child and just not being inhibited by the ‘Don’t touch’, ‘Don’t talk speak’ ethos within art spaces.
Helayna: That’s such a wonderful way to approach creating work, being very curious about how people interact with the work and it’s lovely to see you consider that within your practice.
How did this way of working translate when COVID hit? Would you say COVID then changed your practice?
Dan: For the last 2-3 years I have gotten really into painting again. When COVID hit and we all got locked in, I was in my mum and dad’s house with my siblings and their partners, so about seven or eight of us.
At first, I would go to the beach, collect huge stones and paint paths on them. They were large site specific public installations, and because no one can go anywhere I’d create them for everyone as well as me. Then when someone walks down to the beach it becomes: ‘I’ve walked this 400 times, but I’ve never seen that blue and orange set of rocks before, neatly arranged into this very fun composition’. During this time, I began to use a lot of spray paint and loved it because I didn’t have to wait for it to dry! I started making large scale stencils of abstract compositions and produced large scale colourful paintings, several metres by several metres. It was really fun to watch these stencils become paintings of pure organised chaos.
Helayna: In the bio of your Instagram, you mention ‘Red Lite Radio’. I was wondering if you could explain what exactly it is?
Dan: If I go right back, it stemmed from when I was 14 and thought of the name Red Lite Radio, wrote it down in a notepad and left it there.
Then years later me and my mate James were on our residency at the Pier Arts Centre on behalf of the Royal Scottish Academy and took a tour around the Isles in an orange Vango called Safe House, created by Scottish contemporary artist Edward Summerton. We recorded podcasts under Red Lite Radio and had a harmonica introduction and everything! The idea was that it would be an art platform, a place to talk about creative or cultural things.
[Listen to an episode here!]
When the residency ended I moved back to Liverpool, then COVID hit, so I decided to bring back Red Lite Radio. I spoke to my sisters and their partners who are all musicians and a wonderful local Liverpool band called ‘Loris and the Lion’ and we joined forces to create a multidisciplinary collaborative project which aimed to connect artists of different disciplines together. This then made me think about how great it would be to have a load of great bands playing in an exhibition. It becomes a party then!
The idea around Red Lite radio is to create a more accessible stream of content by combining different art disciplines. Be that you’re interested in dance or sculpture or installation or painting or folk music, it links people who may never have got the chance to meet.
‘Rise and Fall of Icarus’. Poem by Dan O’Dempsey. Filmed by Pete Richards.
Helayna: It sounds like such a wonderful and fun project that seems to bridge the gap between the arts and a great way to support fellow creatives!
There is also another name in your bio: Fenris Wolf and Ragnar Thorfinn. Could you explain a little about that?
Dan: I’m Ragnar Thorfinn and my mate James McKenzie is Fenris Wolf. They’re our alter egos. We both have a love for writers like Neil Gaimen and of Greek and Norse mythology, so we decided to write a subversive play about Norse mythology during our residency in Scotland. As mentioned before, we toured the Scottish Isles and one of the places we travelled through was Orkney, which is renowned for its own Orcadian folklore, and considered ‘The Egypt of the North’ because of its many archeological sites.
This was a great inspiration and seeing as we both do spoken word poetry interested in installation, it became the perfect vessel which allowed us to do that. We recently performed at the Royal Scottish Academy at the Scotland Small exhibition back in June, where we performed Act Four. Overall, it’s just two mates coming up with a ridiculous title so we can work together.
Helayna: Your work is full of so many fascinating and varied ideas and themes. What would you say your process of ideas generation is? Do you think the ideas are always there?
Dan: Ah, it’s always there! It also depends on what it is I’m doing also. I’m also a writer as well as a painter and do a lot of spoken word, poetry and performance. So, if I’m writing and I’m going to create prints or billboards, they are often social commentaries and day-to-day observations.
There’s a poem I wrote called ‘Silent Auction’, which is about this fella trying to sell me air pods on the street in London. I was having a coffee and he looked at me, pulled them out of his pocket and raised them to me. He nodded and I nodded back and tapped my headphones, as if I was saying, ‘I’m all good, Sir’ and then the silent auction ended. He puts it back into his pocket and goes. Not a single word is exchanged. It’s things like that, they’re just really funny.
I’m inspired every day when I look out the window. I’ll see mist and a patch of clouds in the sun and think ‘Wow that’s a sculpture’. I’ll look at other artist’s work and feel inspired. I feel like a big sponge and I just like soaking it all up. Trying to apply what you soak up, that’s the difficult part. I need to apply them somehow otherwise I’ll explode. Poems are great though because they allow you to collaborate with other people. My practice is socially engaged, and that’s probably why I feel I have to stop painting for now and develop more of an intentional way of working.
Helayna: So, when you say that you want to start creating with more intent what does that look like for you?
Dan: I think that mostly looks like trying and encouraging a more formalised structure to my work. But also exploring more about myself in my work. I have Tourette’s which is something that impacts my day-to-day life and for years I didn’t want to create any work about it. But now I want to start exploring this because I want to pursue making work that opens up conversations. Neurodiversity is a spectrum and I think it would be great to start formalising a creative structure of my own that allows me to use my life experiences and challenge the way I look at myself. From there I can, for example, organise and hold workshops because then you have a multi-sensory, tactile and engaging setting to work in.
There’s a poem I wrote, the first poem I ever wrote and it’s called ‘Man Over Matter’. It goes:
‘Man Over Matter’. Poem by Daniel O’Dempsey (Stromness, 2019). Filmed by Glen Thomson.
That whole poem was about when I was younger and being told by doctors that I was going to be terminally ill and they were going to put me into a Hospice. But thanks to the hard work of my mum and dad, they pushed the doctors to try this one last thing. When they tried it, voila, I became healthy.
Art provides an opportunity to get into the nuances of what work is actually saying and from there have interesting discussions with people. I think my main interest is storytelling.
Thank you to Dan for chatting with me about his wonderful practice!