Madeline O’Connor’s love of art and nature started in the pastoral setting of her childhood home in Refugio and developed over the course of her lifetime. Selected works that showcase her minimalist and realist styles will fill the galleries of the Nave Museum for the retrospective exhibit, “The Natural Artistry of Madeline O’Connor.”
The members only preview party is 6-8 p.m. Sept. 26, and the exhibit, co-curated by Mary Carroll McCan, opens to the public Sept. 27.
“She was always interested in art – it was part of her childhood – drawing and painting the world around her,” said Mary Lasater, associate professor of education at the University of Houston-Victoria, Nave Museum board member and co-curator of the exhibit. “As she became older, her work just evolved and became more of a minimalist style.”
O’Connor also found inspiration for her work that spanned almost 30 years in her “deep religious roots,” Lasater said.
More than a decade has passed since O’Connor’s work has been gathered in one place for Crossroads residents to appreciate. O’Connor died in 2002, and the Nave Museum hosted the first retrospective exhibition of her work in 2008.
“Those who knew her and her artwork for so many years are excited about the show,” Lasater said. “And a whole new generation of people need to be exposed to the depth and breadth of her work.”
O’Connor was a naturalist and conservationist who cared deeply about the environment, Lasater said. The Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, among other museums across the country, featured her work in the 1990 exhibit, “Revered Earth,” along with the work of several other artists with concerns about the environment. O’Connor referred to the earth as a fragile “beautiful blue egg,” Lasater said.
She could see things in nature that people without deep affection and respect for it often overlook, she said.
O’Connor’s work, “Purple Gallinule Series,” which refers to an at-risk bird in the Texas wetlands, will be one of the focal points at the upcoming show. The long, horizontal work is composed of 19 canvases painted with gesso, a base paint, mixed with metallic powder. Each canvas is coated with 50 layers of paint, which O’Connor sanded between coats to create the iridescent shine and sheen resembling bird feathers. The work is traveling to the Nave Museum from Refugio where it resides in the collection of O’Connor’s sister Nancy Shelton.
“Ibis Series,” another of O’Connor’s works, refers to a bird species also in decline.
O’Connor had a “deep emotional connection to her work,” and part of her creativity and expression came from the act of doing art for so many years. She continually expanded her creativity in ways that formal training cannot teach, Lasater said.
“It’s the spiritual, emotional connection that comes from her love of nature, the world and getting it down to its very essence of color, form and shape,” Lasater said. “She boiled it down to its clearest and cleanest form.”
O’Connor also was a beautiful realist painter, Lasater said. Her portraits were painted in the style and precision of John Singer Sargent, and she demonstrated her mastery of trompe l’oeil, a realistic three-dimensional painting style, in two of her works, Lasater said. However, O’Connor found fulfillment when she moved into minimalism because she wanted to go beyond seeing what was on the surface.
The Nave exhibit will feature about 10 of O’Connor’s minimalist works, some of which are large and consist of many pieces, and several of her realist works.
Lasater, a former art teacher, will deliver the gallery talk about O’Connor’s work during the preview party. Before Lasater earned her doctorate in education from University of Houston-Main Campus, she earned her degree in art from the University of Texas and taught art.
The exhibit would be impossible without James Materanek, 85, who is hanging O’Connor’s work as he did for almost three decades, Lasater said. Her shows are “complicated” to hang because of the precise ratios necessary between the pieces that form many of her individual works. Roger Saski also is indispensable in his assistance with this, she said. Lasater also expressed gratitude to the O’Connor family for making the show possible.
During her prolific career, O’Connor had 26 solo exhibits at 15 different galleries and museums in Texas, Louisiana, California, Connecticut, New York and New Mexico. She participated in more than 45 group exhibitions across the country, including a “very special” two-person exhibit in San Antonio with her daughter, Nancy O’Connor, also an artist, according to Lasater’s news release.
About 50 photographs of O’Connor’s art and papers are archived in the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.
She was among 12 women chosen to be part of the “Texas Women” art exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., where she showed the “Purple Gallinule.”
Her work resides in permanent collections of the Museum of Fine Art in Houston, Art Museum of South Texas in Corpus Christi, and in the renowned modern minimalist collection of Giuseppi Panza in Milan, Italy.
The exhibit is a community effort, Lasater said. More artwork than could be shown in the Nave was offered by owners of O’Connor’s artwork.
“That’s how much people loved her work, revered it and were proud of it,” she said. “The ones lucky enough to have her work in their homes wanted to share it with the community.”