Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Source of Hope

Throughout Barack Obama’s campaign, several words became practically synonymous with the president-elect. “Change,” certainly. But also “hope.”

Hope is what Obama represents for Marilyn O’Brien—and she knows a thing or two about the word.

Starting in 1993, a string of injuries and accidents over the course of fourteen years left the Madison-area artist with brain damage and injuries in her back, hand and hip. Doctors told her she may never be able to paint again, but through rehab—and a good deal of hope—she’s continued making art.

O’Brien paints a wide range of subject matter, including Brett Favre, landscapes and spiritual images. And she’s finishing up a series on U.S. presidents that includes Obama.

As inauguration day approached, O’Brien took some time to answer a few questions about her path, her art and her connection to our newest president.

How and why did you become an artist?

I was an artist with a camera when I was thirteen years old. When my father died I didn’t know what to do to get past the grief. I knew I could take a picture but he wasn’t here anymore and I just wondered if I could paint. I didn’t have any idea how to paint. The grief was so overwhelming. One day I picked up a pencil and just sketched my dad.

I then painted it and my mom was upset because it looked identical to him. I was humbled by her perception of my work. My parents were especially fine people and whatever I did/do is a reflection on them, but my halo isn’t perfect. My big brother, Warren … and his wife, Rae, kept encouraging me in what a fine artist I am. I had a way to handle my emotions.

What is your typical subject matter?

I have no idea what I am going to paint until I feel something about a subject from deep within … I try to paint uplifting things to make people smile when they view my work or relate to it somehow. I want the world to relax when they see what I can do. Or to think to paint with bright colors. I really have a hard time answering why I paint. I just feel something and I paint it if I feel it deep enough.

What inspired you to create portraits of presidents?

I didn’t feel our country was patriotic enough and should know about the work/history of our forefathers. These great men are the basis for this wonderful country. I did President Abraham Lincoln first. When he was done I just decided to do all of them. This is a wonderful country and my grandfather and father went through the rigors of Ellis Island and that shouldn't be forgotten. They came here honestly and worked hard to raise their families and I wanted to show in sketch, painting and story how they accomplished this. I wanted to show that 9/11 shouldn’t ever be forgotten—and how dare they—this is my country. My father and grandfather as our presidents worked hard to make this country free for you and me.

What does the most recent election mean to you?


Tell me about your painting of President Obama.

I just liked painting him. He has a beautiful smile and when I was painting him I felt good. He was very easy to sketch and paint.

What do you hope to express or share with viewers through your work?

My paintings are an exploration of observation and storytelling. Sometimes the inspiration comes quickly and other times it resides in my mind for some time. My inspirations are my feelings with regard to a subject.

Whether I capture the mental image or the digital photograph of a subject, I first sketch the picture and then use oil paint to explore a variety of color contrasts and depth to give substance and meaning to my work. I start with a blank canvas, which allows the completed piece to be a reflection of my intelligence, research, hope, values and trust in myself and God. The end result is my mind, heart and soul expressing themselves.

I continue to work on my style that merges personal experience with images of world peace in order to bridge the gaps in humanity to build a stronger foundation built on compassion, inspiration and faith. My use of variance and relevant subject matter provide an overall sense of peace and empathy between myself and the viewer.

Images from top to bottom are of Barack Obama, Andrew Johnson, John Kennedy and Warren Harding. All are courtesy of Marilyn O’Brien. (Additional works can be found on her website.) 

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