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Diane O'Leary

Modified: Thursday, Feb 14th, 2013


Rougheye Rockfish - Diane O'Leary


Diane O’Leary (born 1935), a noted artist, intellectual and political activist, died peacefully at her home in Newport, Oregon from natural causes on Sunday, February 10, 2013.

O’Leary attended Texas Christian University (BA, BS & MS), Bacone College, Harvard (MS) and Stanford (MA, MFA & PhD. She never took a class in art. Early in her life she worked as a commercial illustrator. Her other distinctions were: piano, baroque literature (music), nursing education (public health) and archeology. A natural scientist, she hoped to study physics at Stanford but, ironically, was denied that opportunity and cemented her dedication to artistic expressions that stressed the equality and dignity of women.

Her father was Irish. Her mother was Native American (a member of the Comanche Indian tribe). Raised in a small Texas college town, she was exposed to many accomplished individuals. In 1967 Diane O’Leary moved from Texas to New Mexico where she became an early leader in the renaissance in Native American art that blossomed in the Southwest at that time. In Taos, New Mexico, she studied under Canadian landscape painter Eric Gibberd and Taos Founder Emil Bisttram. O’Leary was privileged to know and have occasional artistic criticisms (sometimes withering) from Georgia O’Keefe during that formative period. O’Keefe’s influence is most evident in O’Leary’s botanical pieces. O’Leary is perhaps best known for her sparse, stylized paintings of Native American figures. O’Leary’s style continues to be widely imitated by Southwest artists.

O’Leary moved to Tillamook County (Garibaldi) in 1989. She was fond of saying, “I was weary of the desert. I needed rain.” She began, almost immediately, to focus on environmental and public health issues. While researching the Tillamook Bay jetties to prepare testimony for Congress to advocate for their rehabilitation, she learned how the biodiversity of Tillamook Bay had been, in recent decades, diminished. That inspired her to initiate a new series of collages, “The Living Waters of Tillamook Bay.” Those compelling highly original prints, aimed at both children and adults, reflect her deep commitment to improve the conditions of our nation’s nearshore waters by mobilizing public opinion through art. Many of us have seen her brilliantly colored collages celebrating the uncanny, and often overlooked beauty of Oregon’s marine life. For this series, O’Leary mastered the Japanese art media of gyotaku which starts with an impression taken from a actual fish. She learned to speak Japanese so she could communicate directly with gotaku masters. Once, when asked to confirm the unmistakable Asian influence in her later works, she responded, “Well, look at the subject matter. We share many of these marine species with them. Where do you think they got it from?”

She is revered for being scientifically and anatomically faithful to her subject matter. A major reason she moved from Garibaldi to Newport was to have ready access to the Oregon Coast Aquarium and the scientific community at Hatfield. O’Leary sought out many scientific and fishery experts to ensure her subject’s accuracy (e.g., Waldo Wakefield, Milton Love and Terry Thompson). Her collages of cloth and paint were among the first works of art exhibited at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport. Her less wellknown body of work includes tapestries, weavings and art quilts, two of which have been published by the Smithsonian (1994 and 1997) in their outstanding Native American Expressive Culture series and displayed at the National Museum of the American Indian. Diane O’Leary is represented in most public major Native American collections and numerous private and corporate collections including the National Estuary Program offices in Washington, D.C. and most recently The Archives. Many of her admirers noted that O’Leary’s art became even more brilliant as she aged. Public collections including Diane O’Leary’s work are: Berne Museum in Berne, Switzerland; the Denver Art Museum in Colorado; the Solomon Guggenheim Museum in New York; the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona; the Museum of American Indian, Heye Foundation in New York; the Mitchell Indian Museum at Kendall College in Evanston, Illinois; the Millicent Rogers Foundation Museum in Taos. New Mexico; the Philbrook Art Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma; the Peabody Museum at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Stanford University in California and the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Locally, many of her last works featuring anatomically scaled depictions of tide pool species are on display at Local Ocean Seafoods in Newport, Oregon.

She was preceded in death by son, Robin McNeil. She is survived by daughter Toby O’Leary of Phoenix, AZ. and son John (Sarah) O’Leary of Garibaldi, OR. Memorial services are being planned for in the coming weeks. If you would like notification of the date and location please send an email to info@localocean.



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