O’Toole’s Tears of Joy

Deborah O'Toole's exhibition 'Tears of Joy'opens at the Drill HALL Studio on 23 August PHOTO: Supplied

While you may know Deborah O’Toole as vocalist for Townsville’s 1 RAR Band, or as the Dragon from January’s production of Shrek the Musical; you may not realise her artistic talents extend beyond her beautiful voice.

Deborah is also a textile artist and she’ll have her work on display in a solo exhibition, titled Tears of Joy, at the Drill Hall from this Friday.

We caught up with Deborah to learn a little more.

Tell me about this exhibition?
It’s a body of work that I created in 2016 when I was living in Hobart. I basically took a year off work to live in Hobart where my husband was living – we’d been apart for about 18 months and it was meant to be the best year of my life because I was taking leave and I didn’t have to work and we were going to travel around and it was going to be great. But I found I was feeling quite isolated and a bit of a loss of identity because I wasn’t doing my normal job, which is singing. I found myself a little lost. Luckily, I had the time to be a bit creative and get into the studio and make things, and I really found that making the pieces that I stared to do, gave me solace in the process of creation. I work with silk and beads and sequins and it’s just a physical pleasure to be around the colours and the tactile nature of the work. So that was quite therapeutic. Then I realised, without even meaning to, that a lot of the shapes I was working with turned out to be teardrop shapes that I’d put together to make florals and things, so that’s where the title Tears of Joy comes from.  

The work is textile art and I use quilting and machine embroidery and hand beading to create florals and other abstract collages.

Deborah O’Toole with her textile work

Was this a practice you’d developed before your time in Hobart or did it emerge from that time away from performing?
I had been doing it for a while. I finished a Diploma of Arts, studying Textile and Design at RMIT in Melbourne. I finished that in 2011 and I was dabbling with products, doing natural dying and making scarves, cushions, quilts and things. But while it was fun to make those products it wasn’t as creative as what I prefer, so even in Melbourne I started to make artworks of different descriptions. When I got to Hobart and launched into this creative process, it did change the game for me because I found a technique that I’d never seen used before – I was sort of using similar techniques, but in a process that put them together. Most people embroider onto a background of fabric, but I was embroidering onto it and then cutting it out and that felt quite radical to do because you don’t normally cut into silk … Everything I’d done previously with my textile art was try to make it ‘beautiful’ but I found that I was just starting to scribble on these pieces of fabric with the sewing machine, just going backwards and forwards like taking a sharpie or a crayon onto paper. I started to scribble into it, and it gave the work a bit of an edge that I didn’t have before. I quite like it.

Is this the first time these works have been exhibited?
No, I exhibited them in Hobart that year I was there, and I had them up in a pop-up shop for PUNQ in 2017, but it’s never actually been in a proper gallery in Townsville.

Why give these pieces another showing now?
I felt like the work needed another airing. Because a lot of people here know me as a singer – either through my work with the 1 RAR band or through theatr – I just thought it was time to expose myself as a textile artist. I plan to do another exhibition of some new work in the next few years, but I felt like this collection had another showing in it and I was lucky enough to get into a spare spot in the Drill Hall at quite short notice.

Is there much of an overlap between your visual arts practice and life as a performer?
I would generally say no, but when I think deeper about it, I am influenced by theatrical costumes. I grew up being one of those dancing girls, back in the day when you had to make your own costumes and I was always sewing sequins. The mantra was really ‘If in doubt, add more sequins’, so I really love vintage fabrics, luxe fabrics, things that look like they might be on a costume, and lots of beading. So, I guess my work visually is kind of formed by my background in theatre.

How do you find time for it all?
I would love to be able to say that I’m one of these artists who does something every day, but I just don’t. When work with the band is busy, sometimes I just don’t have the brain space or the creative energy to do anything, so I tend to fit it into ebbs and flows if we have a spare weekend or some time off. Having said that, when I’m organised, I do tend to take some beads and some things to sew on the road in the vehicles that we travel in and try not to spill sequins all over the vehicle.


Deborah O’Toole’s Tears of Joy will be on display at the Drill Hall Studio from 23 August to 19 September 2019. The official launch will be held on 23 August from 6.30pm.

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