The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, April 20, 2001


Kathleen O’Hara visualizes the unspoken language

by Anne Marie Brako


One of Kathleen O'Hara's favorite pieces, "Calendar," appeared at the Fitchburg Art Museum in the New England New Talent showcase of 18 artists.

Simplicity, order, and balance characterize both the work and the artist Kathleen O’Hara. These are unusual traits for abstract painting, which often appears somewhat chaotic, but are features embraced by this modern woman managing family and career demands. In the capable hands of O’Hara, everything appears well under control.

Make up your own mind and go see O’Hara’s exhibit entitled “Language” at the Gleason Public Library. The show, the first in the library’s Visual Arts Program, will run from now until June 2. The Gleason exhibit marks the first presentation of “Language” which incorporates about eight related paintings.

“You put the bits and pieces together and gain understanding,” said O’Hara. “It’s about an undiscovered language, and it’s up to viewers to put their own meaning into it. I don’t expect people to come away from this and say, I get this.’ My hope is that people go away wondering, What did she mean by that?’”

O’Hara has averaged a gallery show or two a year in the past decade. Last year the Fitchburg Art Museum recognized O’Hara and showed her work as an emerging new artist. She also teaches as a guest lecturer at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and at the Massachusetts College of Art.

Keeping things simple

O’Hara finds her mundane life of a wife and mother inspiring. She picks up something off the floor or finds something at the grocery store and experiments with it in her studio. She’s been known to take apart the most basic item, shine light on it, and then capture the distorted shadow as the central image for a painting.
Detail of O'Hara's "Calendar"

“I have always been interested in work that was primal,” said O’Hara. She specialized in psychotic art and work by people without formal training while receiving her Master in Fine Arts at the University of Washington in Seattle.

While always pursuing a personal interest in fine art, she spent the first ten years of her professional career as a college lecturer and as a designer in a variety of jobs. She exhibited whenever she had the opportunity. In the next ten years, she experimented with various abstract styles. She played with geometric patterns. She applied crafting techniques, such as knitting and crocheting, in her design. She even wove metal together. Her pieces grew more and more intricate. Now she has put aside away the ornamental to examine the most basic elements.

“My work has become more minimal,” confessed O’Hara. “I feel it’s more of my true work.” In the Pulse series of “Language,” a single wavering image is set against a muted background with one dominant color shade. Each piece highlights a different color and mood.

“My goal is to create colors that are interesting but are not pretty,” said O’Hara. “I’m also very interested in the absence of color.”

Each painting at the Gleason Public Library carries the gallery price that O’Hara’s work sustains, $1,500. If sold, a portion, 20%, will underwrite the library’s Visual Projects Program.
Order based on a focused goal

O’Hara always knew that she would become an artist.

“There was never any doubt for me or my identical twin sister,” said O’Hara, “She’s also an artist.” The girls grew up in an environment that encouraged visual expression. After all, their father ended the family greeting card business. The twins stayed centered on art as they grew up, and then went on to study art together, first at Colgate and then at Skidmore.

Both sisters always had a job in the greeting card business if they wanted one. In fact, they have both worked there in some capacity for the past twenty years. O’Hara’s sister, an illustrator, has made a much fuller commitment to the business, while O’Hara has struggled to reduce her own hours. Today, she still works at the business in Connecticut but has cut back from two days a week to one.

“I’m kind of the black sheep of the family,” O’Hara said of her choice. Despite her attempts to distance herself, her business training shows. In fact, according to Gleason Library trustee Brooke Cragan O’Hara’s knowledge and gallery experience has made her invaluable in setting up the first show.

“I think the library is being very brave and trusting,” said O’Hara. “I told them I would make little holes in their new walls, but that I would cover them up.” If all goes according to plan, the work of other artists fill the spaces she leaves behind.

Balancing art and life

O’Hara and her husband Malcolm Walsh moved to Carlisle about eleven years ago. Before that, they were living a bohemian lifestyle in Cambridge: she as a painter, he as a musician. Their house on School Street, situated near a scenic pond, contains two studios. She paints in hers; he writes and records music in his. Two years after the move, they added a nursery for daughter Isabel.

“I went from being a free-spirit with a boyfriend to being a fairly older mother with a daughter and a domestic routine,” recalled O’Hara. “It made me realize this connection between all of us is very mundane.” The basic component of her style was revived.

One of the things O’Hara likes most about Carlisle is the serenity to reflect and to create. Her daughter, now nine, attends the Nashoba Brooks School, so O’Hara’s contact with the community is more limited than most mothers.

“I need my privacy,” she said. “My major concern is making enough time for my work and still having time for my family and my life.” Her husband often plays gigs. Her daughter often has school events. She tries to gives both of them her time, and still work 25-35 hours a week in her studio. She also maintains her professional connections with the artist community in Boston, hence her regular gallery shows and enviable teaching assignments.

O’Hara tells parents to stay away from art kits when bringing up children as potential artists. She adds, “I think kids are artists to begin with. Give them materials, and let them choose their media. If you give them a kit, they expect a certain product, whereas if you give them materials, they’re much more inventive.”

While recognizing the value in formal art history training, O’Hara believes that people expect too much from art. They want to know exactly what is going on. She said, “They want answers. It’s the questions that are important. They can be an end in themselves.”

Don’t worry if you leave the Gleason Library wondering about what you just saw. It’s what the artist would want.