Mary Jo O’Gara shares Treetop Studio in Hubbard Woods with three other artists. The spare, communal environment contributes to her painting in numerous ways, one of which is size: “Practically speaking,” O’Gara says, “there isn’t a lot of room to paint bigger.”
O’Gara began painting in her 40s, slowly and all at once. “I took my first art class on a whim and it just clicked,” she says. “I almost became obsessive about taking classes, going out of town to take workshops.” Now a member of the faculty at the North Shore Art League, she teaches a gouache and oil painting class of her own.
“If you want to learn something, teach it,” she says. “You come to understand what you believe as an artist, when you’re teaching.”
Her work is primarily painted on canvas or board in oil or gouache (an opaque, water-based pigment similar to but less frustrating than watercolor). Paintings rarely exceed 30 inches in width, and many of her studies run smaller. It’s an intimate confinement, more gestural than it is exact, an impression rather than an imperative statement. O’Gara paints alla prima, an Italian term meaning “at first attempt.” Paint is applied quickly and fluidly, wet paint blended into wet paint.
“I love this medium for its spontaneity and how fluid it is, and how quickly you can paint—I’m a very fast painter,” she says. “I paint in one session. If it doesn’t work right away, I start over.”
In many ways, the paintings are studies of light and shadow. O’Gara refers to the effect as “the perceptual moment,” after a school of art that explores and responds psychological responses experienced within a given moment. She paints from photographic references, more for a sense of the feeling she’s working to capture than for the visual record.
She paints with a limited palette, using mainly the primary triad and white to mix her colors. “You can mix an infinite number of colors,” she explains, adding that she’ll use warmer variations of colors if she feels the need. “I’ve come to love that, because it creates great color harmonies. Every color is related.”
There’s a discernable texture present in O’Gara’s work. Lately, she has experimented with applying paint to board and canvas only to scrape it off with a palette knife until only a thin film remains, repeating the process with different colors. On top of that, her brushstrokes are visible, layered, and a little frantic—which is curious, because her finished work possesses an impeccable stillness. Those brushstrokes go on to capture the thinnest margins between light and shadow, with results that are simultaneously sparse and full to the brim. The edges of each object run into one another, deliberately fading in and out of focus and casting vague shadows.
This is where the intimacy of O’Gara’s small spaces comes into play. On the surface, there’s nothing remarkable about a vase of flowers or an empty barn; but in many ways, art is a concept that’s easy to divorce from beauty. O’Gara isn’t interested in avoiding something lovely. She’s matter-of-fact about deriving “a certain amount of joy” from looking at beautiful things, saying it’s why she paints in the first place.
“If I see something that strikes me, I will bring that feeling back into the studio. If I lose that feeling of being wowed by something beautiful—if I’m not rushing to my easel to paint something, I almost don’t bother,” she says. “If the painting is successful, it’s because I’ve captured that.”
Using these criteria, her paintings are very successful gestures. When the subject matter is more of an idea than an actual object, it’s easy to understand how O’Gara is struck by the elegance and color of something mundane, and there’s a similar satisfaction for the viewer, especially after a long winter.
O’Gara’s style is always evolving. Right now, she’s drawn to minimalism. “I’m distilling. Just getting down to basic shapes and forms of light and shadow,” she says. “What else is left then? If I ever feel like I’ve got it, it’ll be a disaster.”
Mary Jo O’Gara’s work can be seen at Maclund Gallery in Winnetka, H. Marion in Wilmette and Northbrook,
and the Illinois Artisans shop in downtown Chicago. She is on faculty at the North Shore Art League in Winnetka, where she teaches oil and gouache painting. For more information, visit maryjoogara.com.