The Art Biz ep. 85: Returning to Grad School for an MFA with Kelly M. O’Brien

Back in 2015, Kelly M. O'Brien started selling a lot of work, in a way that surprised her at the time. And while she has continued that work, she has added new work—what she calls emerging work—since deciding to go back to graduate school in 2017 to earn her MFA.

Since Kelly was experiencing such great commercial success, I wondered at the time why on earth she wanted to return to grad school. Now that she has been out of school about a year, Kelly is ready to talk about her decision on the Art Biz Podcast.

©2017 Kelly M. O'Brien, Playing with Fire No. 67. Paper, gold leaf, ink, and flame, 28 x 40 x 1 inches.

I'm tying this to the theme of adjusting your approach. Tweaking this or that. Looking at new possibilities. Or even turning your art business and career upside down and returning to school like Kelly.

We make these adjustments to get better results in our business and lives, to make us feel more fulfilled, or just to bring a greater sense of happiness.

Listen to hear what it was for Kelly. You'll hear about how she juggles two very different art businesses, the biggest benefits of grad school for her, and what her daily practice is like.

Music by Wildermiss


Kelly's MFA Studio in 2018. Photo by Nicola Turner.
  • Kelly M. O’Brien shares her art path and the works that have gone viral. (1:49)
  • Finding more meaning and depth in your art. (5:47)
  • Changing the focus of her work resulted in Kelly creating two different practices. (8:08)
  • Finding the right time and the right approach to return to graduate school. (11:51)
  • The value of intentional planning sessions to help you grow as an artist. (17:15)
  • The biggest benefits of returning to school. (20:02)
  • How to determine if an MFA is right for your career. (23:45)
  • Balancing money-making ventures with your education. (24:49)
  • How to respond to the stigma surrounding serious artists who work to make money. (26:27)
  • Changes in Kelly’s practice as a result of earning her MFA. (28:32)
  • A look inside Kelly’s daily practice in the studio. (31:04)
  • Learning a visual vocabulary that shapes the statement of your work. (34:47)
  • What is holding Kelly's attention in her studio. (38:18)


Artist Support Pledge in support of artists and makers

Arts Council England working to create a country transformed by culture

Chuck Close at Pace Gallery

Kelly M. O'Brien Quotes

“I frankly believe artists of any ilk need to make money. If I can sell work, if I can get paid to do installations and museum projects and get grants and all that, bring it on.”

“I’ve really started to understand how an art practice could be a place of voice and advocacy and engagement.”

“The key is to have a lot in the pipeline. Just keep moving and keep looking forward.”

About My Guest

Kelly's MFA graduation. Photo by Damon McKay.

Kelly M. O’Brien is an American mixed-media sculptor who lives and works near Bristol, England. She completed a Master of Fine Art (Distinction) at Bath Spa University in 2019.

Kelly is co-founder of A Gathering of Unasked Possibility, a collaborative project fostering active hope through creative practitioners, and runs PaperJoy Studio, offering bespoke paper art originals and hand-embellished prints for hospitality and important residential projects.

Follow Kelly's emerging work on Instagram: @kellyobrienart

Follow PaperJoy Studio on Instagram: @paperjoystudio

Music by Wildermiss

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6 thoughts on “The Art Biz ep. 85: Returning to Grad School for an MFA with Kelly M. O’Brien”

  1. Hi Alyson! I skimmed through everything and I couldn’t find the name of the documentary from which you quoted “mistake spin a mistake equals a masterpiece” (paraphrasing!) Can you list it for me? Thanks! I enjoyed the interview, btw!

  2. Thank you for producing this interview Alyson and Kelly! The topics you addressed really spoke to me at this moment in my own life (ready to graduate with an MFA & wondering how to balance where my work is now with the need to create income). So many intriguing ideas about how to create a life as an artist. Most importantly I feel like you’ve given me permission to make art for two different purposes.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Wendy: Thanks for listening. I’m so glad this reached you at this juncture. How exciting for you – Congratulations!

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