John O’Connor: 365 Days Drawing Leeds

Our Highlight section focuses on artists who live or work in social housing. John O’Connor is a graphic artist who has lived in a highrise tower block in Burmantofts, Leeds for over 20 years. Following a career in graphic design for multimedia and print, he decided in 2016 to go freelance and make a conscious return to traditional media, working primarily with paint, drawing and collage.

“Living in such close proximity to the centre of Leeds, I am able to walk daily through the city and often capture a variety of subject matter through different media, including photography and drawing. My ongoing series of paintings record the less obvious landmarks of the urban landscape. They aim to draw attention to a mix of the everyday urban experience, alongside elements that are often hidden from view and remain unknown. Derelict buildings, secluded doorways and dimly-lit back streets all have a unique visual appeal. They act as stimuli and are subjects of personal fascination.

At the beginning of 2018, I set myself a challenge to draw in Leeds every day of the year. This was my creative response to a number of challenging issues within my personal life, including a diagnosis of depression. At that time my dad was also suffering from the Alzheimer’s form of Dementia and I was acting as his main carer. Observational drawing outdoors encouraged me to channel my focus elsewhere for a set period every day. I avoided pre-planning and attempted to keep the process spontaneous. Subject matter within the drawings would vary, some days it could be a building, other days it may be a street scene, gestural drawings in a shopping centre or the movement of people traffic through an arcade. There was little time for self-critique during this intense process, though I became aware of how it affected both my artistic skills and creative practice.

By the end of 2018, I completed my creative challenge, producing almost 500 A4 and A3 drawings and achieving a connection between myself and the community of Leeds. I didn’t appreciate how I would be perceived by the city; however, the project received a massive response, with passers-by often commenting and giving positive feedback. Drawing in a public space breaks down barriers and often leads to numerous topics of conversation. The positivity and enthusiasm I’ve received has been rewarding and it’s encouraged me to continue in difficult times. The natural curiosity of people witnessing my creative work whilst drawing on the streets of Leeds, elevated the process of completing my creative challenge into a project that was inclusive of the city’s diverse communities.

My dad sadly passed away in April. This has been a difficult period for me, as we have lived together all my life. The recent lockdowns have also impacted upon my creative process and have given my 2018 challenge a renewed poignancy pre and post pandemic, as there have been many changes to the city and how people move and interact with each other. Following my bereavement and the challenges of Covid-19, I have gradually returned to drawing on the streets of Leeds. I hope to capture the city as it evolves to meet the challenges of a post-Covid landscape.”

See more of John’s work on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube.

Image: Freehold Projects