BY PENNY WEBB
Whidbey Life Magazine contributor
Nov 11, 2013
When Mary Ellen O’Connor walks into her studio each day she never knows what might grab her interest. Adept in multiple mediums, she might be drawn to her latest glass-etching project, or toward her metal work. Or perhaps she will grab her camera and head down the hill to the pond to photograph herons.
“I call myself an ADD artist,” O’Connor said.
“There’s always something in the studio to catch my attention. If the rigidity and precision of glass-etching isn’t speaking to me today, I might pick up a scarf to paint, where I can be more spontaneous and creative.”
O’Connor is one of two featured artists this month in WLM’s Virtual Gallery.
She starts with taking photographs of her subject matter: Birds, landscapes, plants, animals. Sometimes those photos are so exquisite that she prints them up for sale. Other times, she simply uses them to capture silhouettes of her subjects.
Then, she may paint on canvas; or paint on silk; or etch on glass; or sculpt on metal. There’s always something to do, always something to try. Whatever medium she is working in, her inspiration is the same. “It all starts from my love of animals and being outdoors,” she said.
An artist since childhood, her studio is packed with all manner of tools, from brushes and paints to carving tools and canvases. As an old-school metalworker, she has a plethora of specialty hammers that she uses to mold her pieces by hand.
“My degree is in metalsmithing, and my first love is metal work,” she said.
“I put it aside for many years to raise my daughter, but I’m coming back to it now with full gusto. It feels unbelievably good to be back to it.”
Looking for a way to add color to her silversmith designs, O’Connor uses epoxy resin inlays that allows her to “paint” her creations. She makes jewelry, belt buckles, boxes and knife handles with intricate wildlife designs.
Those same designs may turn up in her etched-glass creations, which she has been making for 35 years.
“I usually have a new commission every month or two,” she said. Her installations can be seen gracing the entryways of many homes on Whidbey Island, and around the Puget Sound.
Then, there are her paintings and her silks, which are saturated with color in contrast to the more muted glass and metal forms.
“It can be confusing for people with so many mediums going on,” she said. “But, for me, there’s a logical extension and each new medium gives rise to the next.”
She has also given rise to another artist — her daughter, Linnane Armstrong.
“My daughter spent a lot of time in my studio growing up,” she said. “I encouraged her to play with whatever interested her, and when you’re an artist, and have done it your whole life, you have a lot of resources.”
Her daughter is a successful printmaker and the two share ideas, collaborate on pieces, and share a booth at Choochokam and the Coupeville Arts Festival. They also both show their work at the Rob Schouten Gallery at Greenbank Farm.
“Sometimes Linnane will see an image I’ve taken or painted, and ask if she can use it for the basis for her own work,” she said. “Of course, I always say yes. It’s wonderful to be able to share this passion with my daughter.”
Another of O’Connor’s passions is teaching.
“I teach at Home Connection in Oak Harbor,” she said, referring to the parent partnership program through Oak Harbor schools. “I love to give back, but I learn from my students all the time.”
“They’ll say, ‘Can I do this?’ and it’s a light bulb moment. I’ll say, ‘I don’t know! Let’s check it!’ Their minds are more open than mine, and they keep me thinking. They give me new ideas all the time.”
Visit the WLM Virtual Gallery to see a slideshow of O’Connor’s most recent work and visit her Whidbey Life Magazine page. Her studio is on the Whidbey Art Trail, and is open during studio tour weekends. O’Connor and Armstrong will be at Made Right on Whidbey, a holiday season gift show, on Saturdays and Sundays, Dec. 7, 8, 14 and 15 at the Pacific Northwest Art School in Coupeville.
O’Connor can be reached at 360-320-3313.
(Pictured at top: O’Connor’s metal frog belt buckle. / Photo courtesy of the artist)
Penny Webb is a writer, a musician, a gardener, and a mom. She is currently waiting for the power to go out.