John O’Brien is following his dream.
No longer the owner of the Dolphin gallery and frame shop in the West Bottoms, he’s now a full-time creator and idea man.
O’Brien’s spring 2013 announcement that he would close Dolphin stunned the art world. The gallery (now Haw Contemporary under Bill Haw Jr.) was widely regarded as the hub of the Kansas City art scene, showing top area artists and functioning as an important gathering place.
O’Brien called it quits at Dolphin after almost 25 years in the business, which began with a frame shop in Westport. In the early 1990s, O’Brien moved to the area that would become the Crossroads Arts District and added a gallery. With artist Jim Leedy, O’Brien began encouraging other artists and small businesses to set up shop.
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The migration eventually turned the neighborhood around 20th Street and Baltimore Avenue into a major downtown attraction, especially on First Fridays, when hundreds of people turn out to dine and attend dozens of exhibition openings.
O’Brien moved again, this time to the West Bottoms, where in 2008 he renovated an industrial building into a spacious exhibition space worthy of a museum. The gallery showed works by more than 50 artists, and by the time it closed, O’Brien had mounted more than 175 shows.
“I feel I have another gear. I’m ready to not do retail. I feel like I’ve done what I can do,” he said at the time.
Last August, O’Brien began remodeling two prefabricated industrial buildings in Independence, headquarters of Hammer Out Design. Each building has 7,000 square feet of space.
“I wanted to be in a neighborhood and off the beaten path,” he said. “I’m trying to give myself time to think, which I didn’t have a lot of in the other place.”
From the moment one walks through the doors, it’s clear O’Brien is pursuing something new. Although the side-by-side buildings are similar to the one he renovated for Dolphin, the spirit and aesthetic of the Hammer Out space is different.
“I wanted volume, concrete floors and natural light,” he said.
Despite art on the walls from his personal collection, there’s no mistaking this place for a gallery.
The walls aren’t white and there’s no lighting, save a couple of table lamps. “After coming from a white box, I didn’t want one,” he said.
Hammer Out Design is O’Brien’s idea factory, where he is collecting and experimenting with a wide variety of things — notably textiles, furniture and rugs — as well as doing fabrication work.
“I’m very curious about objects not being in the traditional white box,” he said.
In Hammer Out’s large showroom area, he bypassed drywall for Homasote, a dense board made of recycled paper that exhibits subtle variations in tone.
“I bought different ages of stock so they have a checkerboard effect,” he said.
The showroom’s contents are minimal but compelling. They include an eye-popping 10-by-14-foot contemporary Persian flat-weave rug with a design of staggered stripes, tapered like brushstrokes, radiating from a central seam.
“It reminds me of a serape,” O’Brien said.
He flips back a corner to reveal another carpet. This one is from Turkey and has a vibrant geometric design woven from leftover yarns.
“I love the shagginess and palette of it,” O’Brien said. “I’ve always liked crazy quilts. It looks fresh today, kind of Bauhaus, but also ’70s.”
For now, he’s just amassing objects he loves.
“I might use them in a project, I might keep them,” he said.
Ranged around the walls are 8- to 9-foot-high slabs of book-matched wood (slices of wood that mirror each other like an open book), which he purchased from a source in Chicago.
“I might get some tables going,” O’Brien mused. “I’ve always been into tables, but I’m not going to build them and have a retail shop.”
Another material that attracts him is Viroc, a particle board made of cement and wood fiber that has a beautiful, weathered-looking patina.
“I love these panels,” he said, indicating two large Viroc slabs leaning against a wall. “They remind me of Chinese scroll paintings.”
O’Brien used Viroc in the Bill Brady/KC gallery in the West Bottoms, which he helped design and build with Robin Beard.
“They skin buildings with it in Europe,” he said. “I’ve always been interested in things that are rugged, and putting them in a situation where you can slow down and embrace their beauty.”
The most intriguing thing in the showroom is a furniture grouping of low chairs and sofas that O’Brien has covered with colorful tulu rugs and patterned textiles.
“I want to start thinking about color and furniture,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about hippie stuff, and I think it’s coming back. I’ve always been interested in trends in culture.”
The rugs, with trailing tufts attached to a woven base, are extraordinary.
“They come from the edge of Turkey,” he said. “Some people call them scorpion rugs.”
At night, their original owners might flip them over to trap scorpions in the long, hairy tufts.
Behind the showroom is a high dock and flex space for fabricating, where O’Brien has parked an enormous van, big enough to haul those book-matched slabs and anything that might come up on a job.
Two 1860s doors, among a number of treasured items moved from Dolphin, lead to an adjacent “dirty workshop,” used primarily for woodworking.
“I job the welding out,” he said. “I have so many resources when I’m doing a project, I can pull people in.”
From the workshop, one can see straight through two offices to the front of the building. His sister, Pat, occupies the business office, which has glass doors into O’Brien’s spacious design studio.
Dominating the room is the large framing table from Dolphin. Now it holds lighting and tile samples, and O’Brien uses it to lay out blue prints and peruse catalogs.
Right now he has seven projects in the works.
“I didn’t go looking,” he said. “They came to me.”
One is a patio addition for Boulevard Brewing Co. Other clients include Aixois and Dark Horse Distillery in Lenexa, and he’s conceptualizing a restaurant in City Market.
“I’m also remodeling a few things,” he said, “and working on some small stuff where I go in and give them ideas.”
Hammer Out Design is in the easternmost of the two buildings. Ceramic artist Andy Brayman will be working in the west building, which O’Brien remodeled into a pristine studio/display space at the front. In a workspace in back, Brayman will do commercial decal work and make ceramic molds.
The Brayman space has all the comforts of home, including a kitchenette and a bathroom with a shower. O’Brien has plans to design a movable pod office with Brayman for the front space; the two will collaborate on some product, O’Brien said.
The ceramics world will converge in Kansas City in spring 2016, when the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts has its 50th annual conference, stimulating a citywide focus on ceramics.
Already, O’Brien is thinking about working with Brayman to organize a pair of ceramics exhibitions in their two spaces during the conference, and O’Brien is open to other collaborations.
“Soon, I will have a guy coming in who makes chairs, and I eventually may pull in other artisans,” O’Brien said. “Instead of a gallery of fine art, I may show objects, pulling together local makers — furniture, lighting, carpets, whatever — things that are interesting to me.”
O’Brien’s daughter Caitlin, 18, sometimes joins him at the space, where she makes jewelry and pots. He seems happy with everything about the move, the drive to work through the east side, the endless possibilities of what he can make and do, and the gradual honing of a distinct Hammer Out aesthetic.
“I’m still finding my way, doing something a little different,” he said. “You’ve gotta come up with ideas.”
This is the second in a series of three profiles looking at “the other side” of professionals in the local art world and how they channel creative energy in other endeavors. Last week’s profile was on public art administrator Porter Arneill. That story can be found on KansasCity.com.