Great Balls Of Art By Danny O
Christine Temin - Boston Globe
NORTH ADAMS - Seventeen thousand and counting. That's the number of balls - tennis, squash, and golf balls, basketballs, footballs, beach balls, soccer balls - forming a huge circle on the floor of a gallery at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.
Danny O, whose last name so conveniently echoes the shape of his favorite category of object, is the owner-collector of the spheres. To some, his quest is silly, and the sight of balls huddled together in various stages of deflation is indeed a hoot. Those versed in art history will put O in the found-object camp - or in the camp of artists whose modus operandi is to go on long walks and bring back bits of nature. O's circle of balls is a Technicolor version of the sacred-feeling rock circles of British artist Richard Long. Elements of both community and solitary contemplation figure into his "Ball Walks." He's enlisted others to help him find balls, and as the word spread, he'd come home to his Fort Point studio to find bags of balls dropped by his door, as if it were a Goodwill collection center, and e-mails with tips on good hunting grounds. But he also walks - and wades - alone, sometimes mucking about in rivers in search of specimens. The interior of his car smells of dirty water and rotting rubber.
He's inspired others. He and his brother, whose nom de guerre is Charlie O, rebonded over balls. He's also connected with collectors he's never met. Part of his MoCA show is a vitrine filled with the finds of Canadian ball hunters Michael and Angus Devey. Angus, a cairn terrier, obviously has an advantage in the "fetch" aspect of the chase; Devey discovered O's work in the catalog of MoCA's current "Games" exhibition, and got in touch. O was so happy to find a soul mate that he invited Devey to contribute to the show.
"We don't like to say we're obsessed," O declares on behalf of them both. "We're just equally committed to balls." The ones O has found have distinct personalities, he feels; hence his unwillingness to name his favorites, lest he hurt the others' feelings. Senior citizens, meanwhile, are respectfully retired into his "Balls of Fame" vitrine.
O lived in Boston's Fort Point Channel until a couple of weeks ago, when he packed up his worldly goods and drove west. When he hit North Adams "a perfect round globe rolled down the road," he recalls. "I tried not to think of it as an omen."
He didn't move to North Adams to rejoin his ball installation, which has been at MASS MoCA since May - it was the housing crisis for artists that had finally driven him out of Boston. He'd been living at 300 A St. "My roof leaked heavily. The elevator would break," he says. "Nobody would fix anything. The city ignores Fort Point," which has become an island surrounded by the Big Dig. Living conditions have declined as landlords look to a future when they can get higher rents for the old industrial buildings where hundreds of artists have lived and worked for years.
"I'd go to all these meetings about housing in Fort Point and it was clear [Boston] wasn't recognizing its talent pool," O says. "Artists are losing hope and moving out. There used to be a sense of being part of a great art clan," he says, describing long visits with other artists. Often, the artists are forced to relocate to less expensive communities, a situation O finds offensive: "Would they ask the Celtics to move to Lowell or somewhere else that's cheap?"
O, 38, was born in Lexington to a working-class family named O'Connor. He was the only child in the family who didn't play sports, something that may partly account for the ball thing. His post-high school career was varied, to say the least, including a stint in the Navy, where he learned cartooning and photography, and a pilgrimage to India, where he studied with Hindu spiritual leaders. He believes they now guide his walks, leading him, for instance, to a disproportionately high number of orange balls in August. "Through meditation," he says, "I found it wasn't about what you did, but how you did it, staying calm all the way through."
On a more mundane note, he did attend art schools up and down the East Coast, without graduating from any of them. He worked as a commercial illustrator, greeting-card designer, and portrait painter, and eventually found his way into the world of found objects. It was gloves for a while, then scraps of paper from which he made collages. Infiltrating the surfing community in Virginia in the '80s, he changed his name. "I did some T-shirt designs and signed them `Danny O,' " he says. (He's still O'Connor in the phone book.)
A decade later, he was painting on Nantasket Beach when he was smitten by the sight of lost balls. By 1999, he was able to create an installation of 3,000 of them on a wall at the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, part of a show dedicated to spheres. That led to the MASS MoCA piece, which opened with 6,000 balls and grew over the summer to 17,000.
Most of them were collected while he was still in Fort Point. His goal was 16,000, one for each artist affected by change in the beleaguered neighborhood. "On the best days, I'd have a team of 12 and we'd find a thousand," he says wistfully. "We'd go out in cars, canoes, and even rafts on this quest. Other artists would help me and I'd help them. I'd make frames for them, or act in a movie someone was making."
Berkshire folks are also adding to the score, depositing balls in a dedicated bin outside the museum, to live in limbo before their rise to join their colleagues upstairs. "Ball Walk" is at MASS MoCA through April 2002; when Danny O dismantles it he'll sort the balls by color so that next time he can create a more conscious, coherent composition. Meanwhile, he's enjoying North Adams, where his studio costs him $200 a month, a third of what he paid in Boston. And he's got a job right in town, at Boxcar Media, where he makes art destined for transformation into new technologies.
Danny O is reaping recognition in addition to the DeCordova and MASS MoCA shows. He brazenly wrote to the Guinness Book of World Records to suggest categories that would recognize his achievement. Guinness has sent word back that there will indeed be a new one, going to the "largest artwork made solely from found balls."