Artists on Diaries: Sunspot Diary

By the Archives

January 28, 2015

This is the next installment in the Artists on Diaries series curated by artist Mary Temple, in which guest authors will comment on contemporary diary practices.

— Archives of American Art Blog editors

William E. L. Bunn diary, 1933. William E. L. Bunn papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
William E. L. Bunn diary, 1933. William E. L. Bunn papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Although some artists I’ve spoken to recently do keep proper diaries, most have found other diary-like activities that document their joys, concerns, interests and goings-on. For many, posting updates on social media satisfies that need. Still there are many artists today finding ways of connecting the idea of diary to their studio practice. John O’Connor has done this with his project, Self Portrait with Sun Spots. I’ve asked him to describe what led him to this surprising body of diaristic work. His description made me think of an ink-spotted page I’d seen in William E. Bunn’s diary regarding a play he’d just seen—“great,” then a note about a “nice walk” with a woman and hitchhiking from Iowa City, “took 1¼ hrs.”—all on the same day. Then he drew a line under the hitchhiking entry and on the same page writes, “1 Year later Jan 27. 1934 Sat., I worked almost all day in Stagecraft building w big clock case (chippendale).” I love the ink blots and the gap and the continuing-on without needing to explain.

— Mary Temple, Artists on Diaries series curator

John O'Connor, Self Portrait with Sun Spots, April 11, 2013. Image courtesy of the artist and Pierogi Gallery, Brooklyn, NY. Used with Permission.
John O'Connor,Self Portrait with Sun Spots, April 11, 2013. Image courtesy of the artist and Pierogi Gallery, Brooklyn, NY. Used with Permission.
John O'Connor, Self Portrait with Sun Spots, April 18, 2013. Image courtesy of the artist and Pierogi Gallery, Brooklyn, NY. Used with Permission.
John O'Connor, Self Portrait with Sun Spots, April 18, 2013. Image courtesy of the artist and Pierogi Gallery, Brooklyn, NY. Used with Permission.
John O'Connor, Self Portrait with Sun Spots, May 2, 2013. Image courtesy of the artist and Pierogi Gallery, Brooklyn, NY. Used with Permission.
John O'Connor, Self Portrait with Sun Spots, May 2, 2013. Image courtesy of the artist and Pierogi Gallery, Brooklyn, NY. Used with Permission.

When Mary Temple asked me to contribute to this blog, I was very excited. When I was younger, I perpetually started diaries but never got more than a few days into them before I forgot to write more. I was never able to handle the pressure! I’ve always thought of written diaries as records of personal truths: a place where someone records their inner secrets as a way to understand how and why we think the way we do. Diaries may function like transcriptions of deep, unmediated thoughts. They are mysterious and elusive (especially those with keys). If we could read someone’s diary, what would it really tell us about that person? Or ourselves? They are, in many ways, the most rudimentary form of self–study and self–reflection (how we differentiate ourselves from other animals). In essence, the words in a diary become physical, tangible, “real” evidence of thoughts, both powerful, personal, and fleeting.

John O'Connor, Lifespan of an Itch. Photo: Cary Whittier. Image courtesy of the artist and Pierogi Gallery, Brooklyn, NY. Used with Permission.
John O'Connor, Lifespan of an Itch. Photo: Cary Whittier. Image courtesy of the artist and Pierogi Gallery, Brooklyn, NY. Used with Permission.

In the daily, diaristic self-portraits reproduced here, I wanted to explore the relationship between thought and action, between humans and nature, between the micro and macro. I also wanted to combine different snapshots of temporal patterns—how I looked each day and how the sun looked as well. This happened somewhat by accident at first. I was documenting my face in printed photographs and drew onto them. Via drawing, I was mapping the patterns of where I had itches each day. I would concentrate on the sensation of an itch, and mark the photograph where an itch occurred. I then made patterns and forms from these by “connecting the dots.” My mind’s machinations rendering visual patterns.

After these, I started researching—not intending to make anything at all—the ways in which the sun’s activity affects our climate. Solar activity is most apparent through sunspots, visible dark spots on the surface of the sun. They indicate areas of lower temperature, which result from magnetic field concentrations. NASA documents these spots each day with a high-resolution photograph. It’s a kind of solar diary.

These sunspot patterns result in changes in our weather, and I was interested in the correlation between these patterns and our actions, as humans, on earth, and my own personal behavior. How does the climate affect our micro movements—where we walk (indoors or outdoors), or how much we eat, which affects our weight, which affects our physical and psychological states? Does it affect us emotionally (positive or negative heliotherapy)? We all are aware of global warming, but how weather affects individuals is equally important to explore. These patterns have consequences!

For these works, I documented my own face, which I thought of as a surface—like a microplanet. I then downloaded the NASA image of sunspot patterns from that same day, and fused them via Photoshop. The first one I made shocked me. The surfaces digitally fused in a way that looked “real,” like my face had physically changed, or had been damaged; the spots looked like skin lesions or birthmarks. It felt as if this celestial pattern was imposing its force directly on me and was out of my control. As I made more of these portraits, my face evolved incrementally over time. The sun’s surface mutated and churned as I grew incrementally older. I saw it as a diary akin to that of something from George Langelaan’s “The Fly.” My face became strange.


John J. O’Connor was born in Westfield, MA and received an MFA in painting and an MS in Art History and Criticism from Pratt Institute in 2000. He attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, was a recipient of two New York Foundation for the Arts Grants in Painting and Drawing, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation grant, and the Marie Walsh Sharpe Foundation Studio residency. John has been in numerous exhibitions abroad, and his work is included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Weatherspoon Museum, Southern Methodist University, and the New Museum of Contemporary Art. A catalogue spanning ten years of John’s work was recently published with essays by Robert Storr, John Yau, and Rick Moody. He is represented by Pierogi Gallery in Brooklyn, NY.

The exhibition A Day in the Life: Artists’ Diaries from the Archives of American Art is on view through February 28, 2015 in the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery at the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture (8th and F Streets NW, Washington, D.C.). Admission is free.