O’Donnell’s work investigates the scope of figurative painting based on archived photographs in terms of its capacity to to represent a created, subjective and manipulated history of women’s narratives. Of interest is the idea that in relation to perception and subjectivity the act of creating and experiencing figurative paintings and the act of creating and consuming history are aligned and utilise comparable methodologies and strategies. With this in mind, she uses painting to re-imagine and reinstate the status and importance of these women’s stories that were ignored by history, while keeping in mind the role of subjectivity and perception in regards to what excluded them from history in the first place. She is not interestested in capturing the photographic likeness of an image in her work but more through the gesture and materiality of paint a sense of the person or scene we are faced with. Also of interest are the similarities between painting, memory and history in relation to having a free hand in terms of its selective capabilities, abstractness, fluidity, as well as creative license. She attempts to push the boundaries in terms of the original photographic image and absorbs it into the painting. Her primary focus is on 20th century Irish women’s history.
She is currently working on projects based on The Archive of The Irish in Britain at London Metropolitan University, the archives of the House of Saint Barnabas and the archives associated with Herstory, a project about the forgotten and untold stories of Irish women whose incredible achievements have been written out of history. She has previously made work based on the archives of The Irish Echo newspaper, New York, The Irish Post newspaper, London, New York University – Ireland House, The American Irish Historical Society, Kilmainham Gaol Museum and The Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Harvard University. The process of going to the physical archives and having access to select from an unedited collection of imagery is a central part of her practice as she wants to investigate what comes closest to the original source.
Her most recent completed body of work was inspired by the oral interviews and images archived for the project that resulted in the text ‘Models For Movers’ written by Íde B O’Carroll. It is a collection of Irish migrant women’s oral histories spanning three waves of twentieth-century emigration to America; 1920s, 1950s and 1980s. This book was first published in 1990 and was reissued for its 25th anniversary in 2015. O’Carroll found historical texts tend to ignore women completely or include them only in accounts of the human experience. They were courageous, innovative and creative in the face of obstacles imposed upon them by the capitalistic and patriarchal society they faced on both sides of the Atlantic and the book and paintings are an attempt to place them back into the historical narrative both visually and academically.