The artist John O’Reilly died in May at the age of 91, leaving his partner, fellow artist James “Jim” Tellin, in their home in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Imagine two young men, lovers, driving up the eastern seaboard in the early 1960s. They are heading to Bar Harbor, where they intend to settle, post college and military service. Their car breaks down, a common occurrence when even 100,000 miles on an engine was considered a minor miracle, and the humans inside were not expected to live much past 70. Gay lives and relationships, if acknowledged, were expected to end far sooner. This particular car, an old three-tone LaSalle, selected Worcester to end its journey. The two men, lacking funds and perhaps believing that such was their fate, set up house.
Prior to this trip, the two young artists had finished what would be their one grand international adventure, a honeymoon of sorts, traveling to Spain in 1960 to settle for a year in a small town in the hills behind Málaga. They were advised that this less fashionable coast would be affordable. Almost 60 years later, sitting in their home in Worcester, contemplating the move to a retirement community, it was the small hill town in Spain, not Massachusetts, that they spoke of as being their real “home.” Perhaps this was where the enduring focus of their lives became clear. They walked, they worked, and they lived in a backwater town, absorbing and creating, as they would for the next several decades in the United States. That house in Spain had no running water; the single phone and refrigerator were in the town bar. They recall no newspapers, and in fact no paper products at all. “There was no trash,” Jim recalls. Residents showed up at the small store with bowls and plates into which the day’s harvest and staples were poured. Their landlady bought them a pig, figuring it would eat the couples’ garbage and fatten up for slaughter once they departed. Thus was the economy of Spain during Franco.
Many years passed. The two settled into the job they shared as art therapists for the large local mental hospital. Relative recluses, for many years they had no phone (easier to keep distance from their clients), and never acquired computer or internet access. They had their art, and they had each other. John collaged imagery from mostly found photographs, Jim painted and sculpted. Then, at age 65, John’s work was selected for the 1995 Whitney Biennial. They both had gallery representation but remained mostly off the art world’s radar.
I met John and Jim when they were in their mid-70’s. Those first visits were to an old house, towering on a rise above a busy street, with a well-tended flower garden in front. A house full of visual stimulation, provided by pictures and objects. Everything was there to be looked at, closely. Entering John and Jim’s world (usually for lunch in their kitchen) meant discussions of the latest odd piece found for almost nothing at an auction house or tag sale. The discussions considered worth not in dollars but in terms of aesthetic stimulation and inspiration, with great latitude for whimsy. There were personal check-ins, health and career and all that, but reliably re-directed toward us visitors: tell us what you are up to, show us what you are making.
John once told me, referring to his modest studio, that he “makes do” with what he has, not what might be. “I don’t tend to get stuck. I’m open to what comes along.” In the materialistic and impatient culture of the United States, this is an act of subtle rebellion. I wonder now if this came from the couple’s work with mental health patients. With such a population, you learn to watch, to acknowledge what is in the room. Art will come from the material, human or other, right there in front of you.
In their late 80s, they realized that a narrow two-story house at the top of a stone stairway might turn isolation into infirmity. They moved to a one-story, two-bedroom cottage in a sprawling retirement community nearby, and continued as before, immediately converting one bedroom into Jim’s studio and the living room into John’s.
What did we go to their house seeking? To be in the presence of creative maturity, lacking nostalgia or bitterness while always moving forward. There was also that pleasure of being the younger couple, the (relative) lads looking into the future. In Jim and John’s presence, we could experience our own aging, along with theirs, as something dynamic and creative. Then there was their artwork, right there, and they were doing it. For gay men who were young when the ongoing disaster of AIDS began, older role models vanished in unnatural numbers. Older generations were no more inoculated against a devastating virus than the young.
Jim’s recent sculptural constructions, some freestanding, others projecting out from the walls, combine basic shapes and colors. You can see the seams, the joining and dimensionality. You’re meant to move around his structures, as the work changes with the perspective.
John’s work meticulously merged images from multiple sources, primarily photographs, but often with indications of a drawn line or two, the many parts making a whole. The myriad cut lines are visible on the back of the artworks. When we bought one — our first joint art purchase — my partner proposed matting the work in such a way that the jaggedness of the process could be seen. John approved.
I’ve written about John’s work previously in Hyperallergic, (“John O’Reilly’s Radical Photomontages,” July 2017, and “Studio Eye,” March 2015). When the Boston Globe obit (May 30, 2021) quotes me I am reminded that there will be no new art, and that my work now is to remember John while remaining a part of Jim’s life. With couples, individual perspectives are often accompanied by a shifting, dual recollection. The corrections are part of the process, a central pleasure in the dialogue. John and Jim gently corrected each other, but also seemed to enjoy the act of mutual remembering as a form of re-creation. For my partner and myself, they provided an instructive and working model to aspire to; conversation as a kind of collaborative cubism.
In any relationship, there are social and power dynamics. I’m a writer and performer, and John’s multilayered work had a narrative complexity and layering that I could write about, whereas Jim’s drawing, painting, and sculpture proposed aesthetic questions I am less equipped to respond to. Although our conversations flowed back and forth, we spent more time on John’s work. Did Jim notice? He always seemed an enthusiastic reviewer of his partner’s work, taking pleasure in the light directed toward John. During a recent visit, Jim spoke of John plowing through porn images in Times Square long ago, as the proprietor urged him to “stop looking and buy something.” John was searching for people flying through the air. “That’s some strange fetish,” snorted the shopkeeper. What was Jim doing? Finding his partner’s search amusing and endearing, a story to be told, keeping the experience alive.
How do two artists live together and work together, specifically two gay men? John and Jim had separate art practices, yet shared a job and a home. My own partner and I have been together for almost 40 years. I teach to sustain myself, while he focuses primarily on his own production. We had a brief moment of collaborating (he as photographer and me as writer/performer), but that was long ago. Now, when friends visit, he might take them to his studio, and I tag along and make careful commentary. Our individual work is central to our lives, and those lives are increasingly merged. I look to John and Jim.
The Deviant’s War by Eric Cervini chronicles the struggles of Frank Kameny, a blacklisted gay astronomer just a few years older than John and Jim. Reading this book soon after John’s death, I realized I never pursued the issue of homophobia in their lives; they were recluses more than activists. As John said in a 2000 interview for the Amherst College journal Jubilat, “I was devouring Simone Weil and St. Francis of Assisi trying to find out how you could exist and live a menial life and make pictures.” So John and Jim’s house became a mini-monastery of creatively deviant monks. We trooped up their hill in adoration.
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