After graduating with a BFA from the Columbus College of Art & Design and an MFA from the Cranbrook Academy of Art, ceramist Kass O’Brien accepted a position with a nonprofit photo agency, one she disliked, and soon quit to take a job cooking on a private sailboat instead— much to her parents’ chagrin.
To be fair, O’Brien had grown up fishing and sailing on Lake Erie, spending weekends with her family in Canada exploring the outdoors. One of seven kids, O’Brien and her sister also spent weekday afternoons at the local Erie, Pennsylvania art museum— where their mother was a docent—taking classes after school.
“My love for nature came from my father, and my love for art came from my mother,” says O’Brien.
She spent just one season on the sailboat and then moved to Florida to become an art teacher, where O’Brien jokes the young children were her “intellectual equals.” Where her style in Pennsylvania focused on urban decay, inspired by the monochromatic steel mill owned by her father, the Sunshine State added color to O’Brien’s work, so to speak.
“The headmaster was incredibly supportive of my art and encouraged me to use the school’s art room as my studio on the weekends,” O’Brien explains. “Walking on the beach and seeing things that had washed ashore inspired me. I used to read the book Miss Rumphius to my class, and the gist was that the character promises to make the world a more beautiful place. Similarly, I hope my art elicits happiness.”
The Florida landscapes inspired O’Brien to begin experimenting with clay and working in ceramics as a way to express her love for nature and to return to her own childhood. Whether it is seaweed that has washed ashore or a leaf that has fallen from a tree, she tries to transfer these moments into each piece that she creates.
Her signature pieces—like the bestselling anemone pots—are brought to life with three-dimensional texture and movement. Appliques that resemble shapes like a pinecone or sea kelp are cut by hand, and every component of O’Brien’s creations has her fingerprint on the final product.
Take one of her first pots, a large-scale anemone in pink, for example. O’Brien hauled the design to the famed Kemble Interiors in Palm Beach unsolicited and wheeled it inside the store strapped to her then-husband’s ripped up office chair. They bought the pot on the spot and have been selling O’Brien’s work ever since.
Today the anemone and spiky pots are most popular with collectors, and O’Brien also takes on a select number of commissions. A client recently sent a Benjamin Moore paint swatch so O’Brien could match her work to the client’s interior décor.
“My pieces have a lot of me in them, and so much emotion goes into each one,” she says. “I try to push the boundaries every single time and add something extra. I want my work to look different each time someone takes a look.”
She is inspired by the work of abstract-expressionist artist Willem de Kooning, German painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer, American painter, sculptor and photographer Cy Twombly, and Palm Beach potter Dodie Thayer, known for her lettuce ware.
O’Brien lived in Florida for 20 years but eventually left her teaching job, divorced, and remarried a Midwestern man from Lincoln Park. The couple moved to Lake Geneva before buying a historic Lake Forest Howard Van Doren Shaw home in 2016.
“We have four dogs and are always outside,” says O’Brien. “I have my hands full of leaves, grass, or shells when back at my studio in Florida. And in Lake Forest, I take ceramics classes at the Stirling Hall Art Center. There is always something new to learn, and I have made lifelong friends along the way.”
O’Brien was slated to exhibit at the upcoming One of a Kind Show Chicago, but it has moved to a virtual platform because of the COVID-19 pandemic. So have O’Brien’s beloved marathons— she has run close to 30 in her lifetime—for which she just finished a virtual ultra-marathon, running 624 miles in just under 80 days.
“I still love to fish, too,” she says. “We go to the Bahamas to bone fish and fish for salmon in Canada. My dream is to catch a muskie on a fly in Wisconsin.”
Now to relax she listens to “goofy” podcasts. One of her favorites is Smartless with Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, and Sean Hayes. Ultimately, like the three comedians, O’Brien simply hopes to spread joy.
“I love making people happy,” she explains. “When people buy a pot and send me a photograph to say how much they love it, that fulfills me. The glass is half empty right now because of COVID-19, but when I make my art, it feels half full instead.”
For more information, visit kassobrien.com, or follow her at kassobrienceramics on Instagram.