The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, July 19, 2002


At Gleason Library: An artist draws from fantastic imagination

An innocent girl frolics carelessly in a sunlit cottage yard. A picture window opens on a sparkling night view of the city. A solitary man fishes at a serene ice pond from a rowboat. These simple scenes are straight out of the Mystique exhibit by Jonathan Donahue at the Gleason Public Library until September 4. Most of the 23 framed drawings on display are for sale, ranging from $35 to $90.

Donahue, seen here with "Urban Owl," gives a tour of his work at the library. (Photo by Anne Marie Brako)
Don't be fooled by the accessibility of Donahue's work. You need to take a second look to wonder if the girl realizes a boar has just entered the clearing. You might not enjoy the city lights as freely when you realize you share the view with the outline of a dancing ghost and you gasp at the huge whale lurking beneath the pond surface. You may also find that the picture you like the most is 'Not For Sale' (4) or it may be the lone image to exceed $100 ($225).

"You can take a picture at face value, or you can look into it," said Donahue, who calls his work "simple" yet "layered" with multiple meaning. The drawings have clearly depicted subjects, but they include positive and negative elements. You can find a multitude of possible meanings if you take time to examine the pictures.

Uncovering personal creativity

Donahue didn't set out to have his art play tricks on you. In fact, he didn't plan on becoming an artist at all. A licensed mental health counselor, Donahue has worked in the field of psychotherapy since the early '90s. He graduated from the University of Southern Maine with a B.A. in Communication in 1987, and then went on to earn his M.A. in Expressive Therapy from Lesley College in 1994. The program attracted him because it encouraged the therapeutic use of arts, and he liked acting and writing. As part of his graduate work, Donahue held an internship at a social club for severely mentally ill people in 1992.

"My boss wanted me to lead an art group there," he recalled. "She kind of forced me into it. I had drawn my share of pictures when I was a kid, but always thought that I wasn't very good. I hadn't done it for many years. So, I just sat down with these schizophrenic and bipolar people and we started drawing together. In the beginning I felt nervous, inadequate, and self-conscious. I made it clear to my boss that I had no art training at all."

Donahue started the sessions by playing music, and encouraging the group to communicate their feelings through drawing. The open group, averaging six people per session, was a tremendous success. Several members found art such a safe outlet for their troubled and convoluted feelings that they stayed with the group for three years. In the process, Donahue discovered he had an aptitude for drawing. The earliest painting in the library exhibit, "Arctic Lagoon," actually was done in 1993 with the group; however, he completed most of the work on display in the last five years.

"My work has become a little less primitive and more detailed," said Donahue. "It's grown more sophisticated with time. There's more to be curious about. I'm very spontaneous, and I make mistakes, and I try to work them into it. There is a lot of unconscious stuff that appears in it, and symbols that I don't intend to put there but I see, and that's what I mean by mystique."

Over the past decade, Donahue has exhibited in local libraries in Arlington, Concord, North Reading, Lincoln, Somerville, and Wayland. His work has appeared at restaurants on Newbury Street, Charles Street, and the Fenway in Boston as well as in Cambridge. In 2000, his piece entitled "Thin Ice" of the man fishing won first place for mixed media in a Wilmington town competition. He sold his first piece "Lurid City" at a Boston café in 1997.

"I consider myself to be a naïve artist, and my subject matter is kind of quirky," said Donahue. "So I find it very satisfying and amusing when somebody likes something and it isn't a lighthouse or a bouquet of flowers."

Reaching out to others

Donahue currently works full-time for Psychotherapy Associates of North Reading where he does much work with troubled children. He still applies the technique of having them express themselves through drawing.

At home in Woburn, Donahue only has several hours a week for creative work, which includes drawing, refashioning broken clocks, decorating cigar boxes, and writing poetry and articles. He hopes to open his own practice and work part-time so he'll have more time to spend creatively. When Donahue does devote time to art, he occasionally starts by sketching his concept, but usually gets right into using media. He uses a variety of elements: paint, pastels, glitter, and even whiteout in a pinch. His favorite subjects are animals and fairy-tale scenes, with the fantastic element extending to ghostly apparitions.

Donahue lived for three years in Concord, and got to know the area. He comes out for a visit every summer. Divorced, he spends a lot of time alone, and said that much of his work deals with isolation and loneliness. Occasionally, however, he will bring friends out to Carlisle.

"Coming out here is a big summer ritual for me," he said. "I like to go to Kimball's and have an ice cream. There are different trails I go on, and I like to swim at Punkatasset." Last year he noticed pictures hanging on the stairwell at the Gleason Library, and inquired about exhibiting. Now, a year later, he is sharing his work with the town.

"There are a lot of artists who say their stuff isn't autobiographical at all," Donahue said. "Woody Allen always says that. I'm not ashamed to say that it is about me in one way or another."

In his artist's statement at the library, Donahue wrote: "Indeed, each of these drawings is inspired by my life, though some are abetted by stories and songs. And if you ask me what they mean, I might tell you. Or I might not."

If you're at the library, take time to look at the Donahue drawings carefully. You may be surprised at some of the hidden meanings you encounter. And you may even run into the artist himself who, if you tread lightly, will point out a few more.

Large-print books at the Gleason Library

Thanks to a generous donation from the Friends of the Carlisle Council on Aging, the Gleason Library offers these popular books in a large-print edition, just in time for an afternoon of lazy summer reading:

Running Scared by Elizabeth Lowell, a suspenseful romance for back yard or beach reading;

Elizabeth Berg's True to Form, a tale of an adolescent girl wise beyond her years;

Jan Karon's In this Mountain, a surprising novel in the Mitford series about small-town life;

Breathing Room by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, a love story set in Tuscany,

Cold Flat Junction by Martha Grimes, a mystery with a 12-year-old sleuth, set in a fading resort hotel;

Anthony Bourdain's A Cook's Tour, a chef's search for the ultimate meal;

Rosemary Clooney's autobiography Girl Singer, tells the story of the '50s pop sweetheart;

Love Stories of World War II features touching stories of couples brought together by or in spite of WWII;

Andrew Weil's The Healthy Kitchen includes recipes and witty and wise health tips

Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks is a memoir of a childhood in and near London in the 1940s ­ and a growing love affair with chemistry;

The Gleason Library is always looking for suggestions for titles and types of large-print books from patrons. Mention titles to any librarian or call 1-978-369-4898 with recommendations.

2002 The Carlisle Mosquito