In The Studio – Daniel “Ears” O’Toole


This month we had the opportunity to meet up with the friendly faced and Sydney based artist ‘Ears’, while completing an in-house studio visit in the build up to his exhibition at the Juddy Roller Studio.

For those who don’t know, Ears is a Sydney born and bred artist, with a serious multitude of skills and disciplines working across painting, sound, photography and video. He is mostly known for a warped portrait style on the streets, which is illustrative and playful. His artwork offers a unique style which is produced from a very hands-on approached process well before the paint hits the canvas. We caught up over a few beers to chat about what he has been up to.

JUDDY – G’day Mate, it’s been quite a while since we’ve had the pleasure of having you around in Melbourne, what have you been up to since your last visit?

EARS – Yeah! It’s been a minute, Last year I spent some time traveling in China, I held a solo exhibition of abstract works referencing my video work and framed the pieces with a frosted perspex so you couldn’t actually see the works clearly but they created a spatial illusion and messed with your depth perception in interesting ways. Other than that I’ve been working away on the music and have just finished an Album ‘Delicate Empires’ which will be out later this year.

JUDDY – Sounds busy! So, a lot of us know you as ‘Ears’, but your real name is Daniel O’toole, I suppose this is a fair giveaway that you used to create work within the street. The work you are producing for this exhibition is clearly not street art, do your think your time working on the street still influences your studio work or have you completely moved on from that?

EARS – Yeah, I guess it is a bit of a natural progression, it’s hard to say what is and isn’t street art these days. I’ve always been of the mind that the attractive thing about working outdoors is that we free ourselves of institutional ideas about what aesthetic boundaries are placed on artists to fit within a genre, or commercial pressures. I still enjoy working on the streets when I have time, and am actually doing a mural next week in Sydney in the style of my recent works from this ‘Bending Light’ series. So I guess it will be street art then..?


JUDDY – When and where do you find most of your inspiration? During your residency here at Juddy Roller, you’ve almost been a 9 to 5-er, coming in early and leaving pretty early as well. Is that your usual workflow or can you be a bit of a night owl too?

EARS – Early? Haha, I’ve been coming in around 11 or 12, and leaving around 9 or 10pm. I don’t start early, usually up late watching films or noodling away on some beats.

JUDDY – We’ve known each other for quite a while now, maybe 8 years? It feels like you were just a wee boy when we met. What do you think has changed most about Juddy Roller since then?

EARS – Juddy has grown up, and it’s got fewer milk crates and astro turf. The good vibe is still there, and it’s as social as ever, except it seems to be attracting more focused creative people who want to work and push artistic boundaries. Positive change for sure! It’s awesome to see how the space has transformed into the new gallery and studios that have been built since I first saw it and had beers on an old couch up on the roof top.

JUDDY – Besides painting, you’re also known for creating your own music, founding a record label that’s now 10 years strong, opened and curated two galleries, as well as all the video and photography works in between. How do you define yourself as an artist?

EARS – Okay that is a big question! Haha, are you ready?

I try to avoid being easily defined and aim to keep challenging myself to try new things and keep things interesting for myself. I think a lot of people identify with being the thing that they do, my view is that the art you make, or the coffees you make for that matter, are just tasks you complete during the day, how much you enjoy them and what tasks you choose to take on is up to you. Staying the same or being limited by your own ideas about your-self, and then having that reinforced by society seems like a bit of a trap.

I suppose I’m restless, and I would define myself as hard working if nothing else, I’m a believer that having talent is only useful if you can back it up with by consistently putting in the work to develop what you’re doing, and really there is no need to develop anything unless it brings satisfaction and a sense of joy or growth, but I find that it always does.

I also value the creative process and the forming of innovative ideas over craftsmanship, so it seems a strange choice for me personally to dwell on the honing of one skill if it takes over from creating new ideas.
For example, if I generated a series of works that was so popular I could continue manufacturing similar works for the rest of my life and make large sums of money, but it took up all my time, I would be honing a skill undoubtedly but my creative freedom would be somewhat compromised.

If you get too comfortable, maybe it’s time to change it up.

Transforming self 114 x85cm

JUDDY – Very well said… So, Your father is a pilot, your brother creates video games. How and when did you decide to become an artist? What inspired you to go in such a unique direction and when did it hit you that this was your main purpose in life?

EARS – I think I remember really deciding I wanted to be an artist around 1, which was around the time I realised I wasn’t keen to be a pilot and because flying planes wouldn’t be creative enough of a path for me to take, plus I was terrible at maths and science which I saw as fundamental to the pilots life since my Dad is so great in those areas.

I was too much of a daydreamer and too easily distracted to be in a focused job like that, where people rely on me to stay alive and stuff, so making art seemed like the natural path, and my folks were super supportive. Any pressure I felt to fly was self-imposed completely.

JUDDY – Your work seems very well informed and you love to reference many great artists from times gone by, have you been classically trained as an artist or have you schooled yourself with hard work and patience?

EARS – I have a hunger for knowledge and inspiration that keeps me searching and investigating other artists work, it’s also useful to know what else has been done that resonates with your own creative preferences so you can learn from those processed and see where you sit in relation to it all.

I had been shooting reflection photography, and portraits through frosted screens for about 2 years before I discovered ‘Saul Leiter’ and it was amazing to find because here is the guy from the 50’s who was smashing it, using very similar ideas and approaches to image making that I could reference. Good to then see which of my own works could look derivative and which seem to stand on their own as unique; to my eye or way of seeing.

JUDDY – Are there any particular genre’s/themes/cultures that influence your aesthetic?

EARS – Themes would be Sci-fi, cultures would be Jazz, hip-hop and African American Culture I suppose. Most the music I love comes from African American artists/movements. The Afro-futurism thing, and ideas of the metaphysical drive my work. I’m a spiritual dude as you often tease me for! Ha no I’m not wearing a crystal. But I think at the core of that interest is a hunger for understanding and wisdom that I see in Buddhist philosophy and the search for more balanced ways of being and evolving the self, which is going to affect the work too.

Fantasy and escapism and a love of film are also key elements in what drive my work. I don’t pretend to be a political artist with messages that can change the world. I hope to offer a moment of relief from such political ideas and pressures; in search of a perceptual artwork that has a transcendental effect.

I don’t personally like to take too many risks with my brain chemistry in the exploration of mind-altering substances, but I like the idea that art can be just as mind altering and bizarre. I’m trying to make Art-Drugs.


JUDDY – Tell us about your process? You offer a very unique style, how do you set out to achieve this?

EARS – I’m not sure I ever set out to make a really ‘unique’ style. I just tried to follow my intuition to see where it leads me. I remember a time when I was very divided with my work. Haha actually things haven’t changed much… but anyway at Art School I was feeling stressed about what my style would be, wondering why I didn’t feel I had one, and having this identity/ego issue.

I was making 3 different types of work around that time, realistic-ish portraits, cartoon illustration, and pure abstract colour play with a heavy Abstract expressionist/modernism reference.

The contour portraits came out of a fusing of these elements and offered an answer to the question- What is my style? How do I mold all my interests into one form that I can be identified by? And so I built my prison and my liberation with decision.

By that I mean, attaching yourself to a style, or to the work you do/make is a dangerous limitation, and I have been working hard to detach myself from it, so it cannot limit me growth and exploration. However commercial pressures to reproduce work are real, and so is paying rent.

JUDDY – What’s the weirdest commission you’ve ever had.

EARS – Hmm haven’t had too many weird ones really, once I’ve been asked to fill an entire sketchbook for someone over the course of a few months. That only happened once, and doesn’t seem to be one that anyone else has thought to request.

JUDDY – Do you have any secret/other talents?

EARS – I can do a one-handed handstand. I’ve been learning flutes the past few years and was getting lessons once a week for concert flute last year, although I have had less time and funds this year to pursue it. I collect folk flutes, native American, and Japanese mostly. But I love world music/instruments and try to learn them all. Haha

Masquerade 117x78cm

JUDDY – What are your creative plans for the future?

EARS – I’m looking to grow my skills as a videographer and keep doing film clips for bands, and eventually I want to learn some animation skills.

JUDDY – Which city do you love to visit most, to work in?

EARS – Melbourne of course! Berlin is equally amazing.

JUDDY – Final question, what would be your dream project to work on? Be creative!

EARS – I would love to be involved with making a feature film, Arthouse/sci-fi sort of thing, possibly something non-narrative that still holds your attention. Doing a film clip for Bjork would also be amazing, working with various artists I admire to make video works/film clips etc.

Touring internationally with music, and visual art projects and collaborating with people abroad.

JUDDY – Good answer! Well Ears, thanks for popping by, it’s been good chatting as always.

Ears is featuring his solo exhibition ‘Bending Light’, hosted by the Juddy Roller Studio which premiered on the 2nd of June and runs till the 17th.

You can catch Ears in the streets of Sydney, or you can try online on his Website or on Instagram at @captainearwax. You can also hear his music on Soundcloud.

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