photos by Simon Blundell
Maureen O’Hara Ure shares her truth, however whimsical, however wrenching, in mixed media on panel.
The incident in “The Night of the Fire,” which is part of Love & Work, her fascinating solo show at Phillips Gallery through Nov. 11, actually occurred in 1978, when the timeworn apartment building in which she lived with her small family burned to the ground, with one fatality among the residents. The artist still can’t shake the events of that cold and terrifying January night: fire frequently makes an appearance in her dreams and in her work, often as, in “Smoke, There’s Fire,” an active volcano. And no wonder: she, her husband and 4-year-old daughter escaped with little. After the fire, she says, “I owned clogs and a bathrobe and a necklace and my husband owned an old ratty parka and loafers and slacks and our daughter owned underwear, a blouse and a baby blanket.”
She recalls the Red Cross being on scene with beverages and doughnuts and refusing the hot cup of coffee husband Lincoln Ure offered because she would never get back to sleep if she drank it and “I had an early class.” Crazy, she says, how our minds work in a crisis, adding that as life goes on, “more disasters get sent your way.”
The couple’s adventures began in 1968, when Maureen O’Hara ran away from home with Lincoln Ure at the age of 18 (“so I guess, technically, I wasn’t really a runaway”). She clearly remembers her father shouting at them as they backed out of her parents’ Minneapolis driveway in Ure’s Volkswagen. Ure was an Episcopalian — he became a priest in fact, and was assigned to St. Mark’s Hospital staff for 41 years. O’Hara grew up in Detroit in a large Irish Catholic family — seven kids in all — and suffered mightily for sharing a name with the famed red-headed screen actress who starred opposite John Wayne in “The Quiet Man,” set in Ireland, among other classic films. Her grandmother, unconcerned with young Maureen’s frequent embarrassments, told her the Hollywood actress would be gone long before the teasing had further impact — O’Hara lived until 2015, O’Hara Ure points out with a rueful smile.
She spent 12 years being educated by nuns and living with “bad, cheesy art”: art that was symbolic, potentially dangerous or sacred, but that ultimately, later in life, gave her the opportunity to travel.to the countries where it originated.
For decades she has continued to travel in the realm of imagination, too, her works frequently populated by the odd creatures that appear in cathedrals and temples. Some of O’Hara Ure’s more fanciful creatures seem to fit that old Scottish prayer, often (incorrectly) attributed to Robert Burns:
“From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties,
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!”
All are fascinating, some can be fearful and, at the same time, awfully cute, like in the 16” x 20” work “Tsunami.” On the other hand, the long-leggedy ones toting dismembered human limbs in their mouths “Endangered Species” may be off-putting. Still, the creatures are based on odd (to us) pre-Renaissance and medieval interpretations of animals O’Hara Ure discovers and then sketches or paints in watercolors during academic research trips to Europe and elsewhere. These sometimes appear in her limited-edition books, the most recent (and affordable) being Seeing and Believing: A Traveler’s Sketchbook, which focuses on Burgundy in central France (available at Phillips, Ken Sanders and UMOCA).
In addition to animals, she is interested in Last Judgment and apocalyptic imagery as well as natural disasters.
Her travels have inspired various academic projects, including a 2002 book on Italy; an installation in response to Scotland and Ireland; and a book on India. In 2012 she collaborated with her colleague, former Utah Poet Laureate and U. English Professor Katharine Coles, on an exhibit that focused on Byzantine art, primarily Italy and Turkey. Of O’Hara Ure’s work, Coles says: “The images rivet us because they bring together despair and darkness with exuberance and a literate, profound wit. The new paintings remind me of Hieronymus Bosch in their precise vigor. They show us a kind of hell, but one surprisingly pleasurable to look at.”
Now an assistant professor lecturer, O’Hara Ure has been at the U since 1990, when she was given a one-year appointment. “This is a beautiful situation for making art,” she observes. ”Being in an environment all day, every day, where art is important. I’m in a building and have peers where this is meaningful activity. Teaching, particularly for an introvert, is a really good balance in terms of being very monastic, which I am, and being alone and then having to come out and perform and have care and concern about other people and concern directly about communicating, which I’m not in my art. If the art communicates something, fine, but it’s me talking to the painting. The paintings are serving my own needs to take something here and work with the materials and get it out there, but if it’s misunderstood it’s not a miscommunication. The fact that I’m working with metaphor means that I’m not shooting for clear communication. In teaching I have to be absolutely every minute involved in communication and I tell my teaching assistants that you find out very quickly what you don’t know when you have to teach.”
Sophomore drawing is about her perfect class, she says. It’s not loaded with “all kinds of preciousness.” Students go through some 70 sheets of paper, and they can be handed gesso and get rid of everything they did the week before and start over – “and I talk to them about giving up, about losing and moving forward.” She also teaches seniors as they are about to graduate and covers about 50 percent creative process and 50 percent “nuts and bolts issues: taxes, contracts, jobs, resumes, web sites.”
“I talk a lot about time, particularly to seniors, and that all you have is time and how are you going to use that and how are you trivializing that.” She prints up a calendar and asks them to keep track of their time in quarter hours for a week — not to hand in, but to visualize it. One student said he was spending an awful lot of time cleaning. “I asked him if he was spending his best drawing time washing his socks when he could just throw them in the washer and draw. I mean, probably an architect would have to have a totally clean apartment before he could do a drawing,” she observes. But perhaps not an art student.
Like her fellow faculty members she works in a not-quite-large-enough office/studio; hers with a big window overlooking the football stadium. It’s cluttered with an enormous collection of books, colored pencils, sketchbooks from her trips (she is never without one and urges her students to carry one, too).
“I start out with gesso, layers and layers of gesso, and I feel like I start painting then,” she explains. “I work really directly at that point. I might be looking at a corner of a medieval painting or something in my sketchbook and just be messing around and I work a lot of things all at once so if you go into the studio there will be eight things stretched out — I may touch down on eight or 10 surfaces and most things don’t work and then I put stuff away – I find it again – it’s all water-based, and then color pencil and ink and it’s again sprayed. And I do a lot of sanding,” says the artist. “My process is as reductive as it is additive. So I’m taking off as much I’m putting on. And it’s all real thin,” she adds.
Love & Work features a pleasing variety of work from this artist. There are the creatures and beasts she’s best known for. But the show also has Western landscapes with pale apricot skies that grab your attention from across the room; and there’s a particularly effective stormy seascape featuring crashing waves, marvelous soaring birds and a storybook ship with full-blown sails.
Some pieces in the Phillips show celebrate her husband and their strong, vital relationship that was upended this past June when he died swiftly and unexpectedly of a very rare (200 cases since 1870), very aggressive cancer. He started the first hospice in Utah, was reportedly easily met and inventive about how he did his job as hospital chaplain at St. Mark’s. He was clearly a popular man: the opening at Phillips was flooded with doctors — as well as with U. students and faculty in support of his wife.
One work that was resolved for the show long before it opened has eerie significance. “Sorrow” features a weeping willow, Early American funerary art seen in embroidery samplers and stonework, which was completed, titled and signed a month before her husband’s diagnosis.
She continues to paint out the tragedies in her life and simply go on with it all. Teaching helps; as does walking her beloved dog; and the couple’s daughter Heather, now 42, and their four grandchildren who live nearby in the Pacific Northwest.
O’Hara Ure has never before had a car as an adult. She has walked; biked; taken mass transit. Now that it’s available to her, and with the deadline of the show, she uses the family car all the time — and just got her first faculty parking pass.
She listens to British mysteries on books on tape while she works, or even to informational podcasts, having found music too dictatorial in terms of mood. “I’m fairly regular and ritualistic,” she says, and quotes Flaubert: “Be regular and orderly in your life so you may be wild and original in your work.” O’Hara Ure concludes: “I definitely feel like that. It makes a safe space for me.”
Love & Work by Maureen O’Hara Ure is at Phillips Gallery in Salt Lake City through November 11.
A graduate of the University of Utah, Ann Poore is a freelance writer and editor who spent most of her career at The Salt Lake Tribune. She was the 2018 recipient of the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Artist Award in the Literary Arts.