Mary, Toro and Tillie are driving from Berkeley to Tougaloo. Traveling back to Mary Lovelace O'Neal's birthplace and home until the first grade. Now she is head of the art department at the University of California at Berkeley, her home for the last 30 years. She is also in the forefront of abstract painting today, and is on the short list of the country's greatest African-American painters. An exhibit of three decades of O'Neal's work, more than two dozen paintings, opens Dec. 6 at the Mississippi Museum of Art, so Patricio Moreno Toro, fellow artist and husband, and Tillie the dachshund are accompanying her for her first visit back to Jackson since 1996.
"I'm very excited to be coming home," O'Neal says in a Sunday afternoon phone conversation from her home in Berkeley. Her parents are no longer living, but she has other relatives she is anxious to see. Her father, Ariel M. Lovelace, was the choir director and a professor of music at Tougaloo, and later at the University of Arkansas while she was in elementary and high school. She then attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she was close to members of the student and black protest movements, including the late Black Power leader and Mississippi freedom rider Stokely Carmichael, whom she dated while at Howard. She got her MFA from Columbia University in 1969 and moved to the Bay Area. There she's painted and taught ever since.
Back in the 1950s and 60s, Academia allowed O'Neal the budding artist freedoms that were unheard for most Southern African Americans during that time, and it still allows her to live and create as an artist in the 21st century. Her academic grounding may have been consistent, but O'Neal's journey as an artist has led her through many phases in her work. Her work started out in the 1960s as free-wheeling abstract expressionism, but has become somewhat more precise over the years with more repetitive patterns, but no less passionate. O'Neal has described her work style as "aerobic." She paints in batches—"choreographing" as many canvases as she can fit on her studio walls at one time, so the works are parts of a larger theme created from the same big pots of paint, with individual pieces detailed while the other "brothers and sisters" dry. She tends to paint large canvases with some in her current show reaching 12-feet high. She spends weeks and months with paintings, drawing in the drying times between.
O'Neal's series have included whales in the 1980s and a move toward more architectural themes in her recent palace series. As a visiting artist at a month-long artist's festival in Morocco, she lived in a palace with other artists for the duration of the show. As an observer of the vibrant North African life around her, she was most struck by the Moroccan women's garments. O'Neal was intrigued and inspired as much by what was unseen as what was seen (a shot of bright-colored sandal peeking out from underneath dark flowing robes, for instance). Indeed, her canvases are often dark and flowing, with sudden bursts of color and activity just beneath the complex surface.
The North African landscape unlocked childhood memories of Menotti's opera
"Amahl and the Night Visitors," inspiring a new series of painting based on the architecture of Moroccan palaces. In the opera, the black king says, "I live in a black marble palace with black panthers and white doves." That image gave rise to more figures emerging in her work, especially the panther.
O'Neal explores her own African heritage in her work, often subtly. In her painting, "When History Speaks, It Dreams," a stone arch and its supporting walls lie beneath the purple of the painting. The dungeon image came from a 1992 visit O'Neal made to Goree in the West African nation, Senegal. Millions of Africans spent their last days in a Goree dungeon before shipping out to the New World. O'Neal's work titles are decidedly not subtle: the work "Racism is Like Rain, Either it is Raining or it is Gathering Somewhere" needs little explanation.
Perhaps due to her own academic childhood, O'Neal knows that each of her students must learn to bloom individually. To be her student must be something like being a canvas in her studio or a flower in her garden: She coaxes the potential out of each student. "I am not interested in a bunch of little Mary O'Neals running around," she says," adding that she is "a participant in the development of each student." She wants her students to "take responsibility for what they do, what they see and what they make." O'Neal lives what she teaches by taking an active and colorful interest in life and embodying the trust she relied on in her best teachers. Like Toro and Tillie, her students and those of us who see her work are fortunate fellow travelers on a rich journey.