Working with the title of Chief Potato Officer, artist James O’Brien knows a hell of a lot about one root vegetable – and most importantly its artistic attributes. For the past five years, James has been carving and peeling potatoes on the regular, whether he’s trying to illustrate animals, film posters, and most recently, celebrity dentures, using them to produce accomplished potato prints.
Back in 2015, James began to think of potatoes as a possible creative tool off the back of a comedy sketch around the fragile egos of dictators. “This got me thinking about the consequences an artist might suffer if they presented a potato printed portrait to a dictator,” he tells us. Naturally, this then led James to create a potato printed calendar, Dictatoes, “where Idi Amin celebrates his birthday every month with another dictator of his era (as per the legend). Because that’s what people want to see on their walls every day, right?” From that moment, “the potato printing got out of hand very quickly.”
As mentioned (it wasn’t a mistake) James’ latest potato prints star the perfectly formed dentures of some of stardom’s biggest names. Beginning the project a few weeks ago as countries around the world began to head into lockdown, “like most people at this time, I was feeling a bit lost and longed to hear or see something familiar,” says James. “My dad loved listening to Terry Wogan, so I made a set of Wogan’s dentures. I don’t quite know why dentures,” he says, “but I found it oddly comforting.”
Posting the results on his Instagram, James then decided he’d offer up his services to anyone in need of a free set of celebrity dentures on a postcard (everyone). “It went berserk: Freddie Mercury, Jurgen Klopp, Joanna Lumley, Elton John, Madonna, Bowie (original set), Ken Dodd, the list goes on.”
Since then, James has been busy printing and has sent out over 100 postcards, like some starch obsessed new Mr Bingo. The reaction too, very understandably, “has been lovely,” he says. “I think folks just want something to distract them from the absolute chaos that’s consuming us at the moment. Hopefully, I’ve helped a tiny bit.”
In terms of process, if you’re looking to have a go at your very own potato printing, James recommends five steps to novices. Firstly, “it’s all about the potato,” recommending a good-sized Maris Piper, “nothing waxy”. From there, it’s really about thinking of your particular creation so draw out “what you’re going to be printing and think about how all this going to be layered,” he explains. Next, turn this drawing into a template, “paper or card is fine,” followed by using those templates to cut your potato stamps. “Start printing!” If anyone is still unclear, please do join James’ live print-along sessions each Friday evening at 8 PM (GMT).
In this brilliant project, which certainly reaffirmed our faith in creativity, we’re keen to see what James might turn his potatoes to next. “Working with potatoes makes you think about what you’re trying to do,” he explains of this very unique process. “It makes you study your subjects and think hard about what makes them distinctive – their shape, colour, size.”
On this note, James is thinking about working on toenails or nasal hair next. He concludes: “If ANYONE wants me to potato print Bobby Davro’s toenails, please get in touch.”
About the Author
Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019 she was made deputy editor and in November 2021, became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.