The flamingoes look darker than they’re often portrayed – more natural peach, less lurid pink. Three are fully visible, plus part of a fourth, and they’re active in that strangely comic-elegant, intent-on-the-water way that flamingoes have. The water, green as it is blue, swirls and shines around them in the heat. You feel the heat.
People who know the Fort Lauderdale art scene might recognize the painting, Shimmering Jewels, as the work of local artist Mary O’Hara. Like much of O’Hara’s work, it takes a scholarly, meticulous knowledge of the natural world and applies it on canvas with bold, Floridian colors.
The painting’s also a risk. Flamingoes are an obvious visual clue, and sometimes punchline, for Florida. Done poorly or uninterestingly, this could devolve into kitsch. It is to O’Hara’s credit that her flamingoes have something to say for themselves. This is art by a South Florida artist that speaks to what is beautiful, and imperiled, in South Florida. “I want to document these animals,” O’Hara says. “I almost became a zoologist. I love being around animals – working with them.”
O’Hara grew up in Fort Lauderdale, attending St. Anthony School and St. Thomas Aquinas High School. From an early age, she loved drawing and was fascinated by nature. She was, she says, a well-behaved kid – although she did have views on animals and the natural world. “I had uniform infractions because I was a vegan, so I wouldn’t wear leather shoes,” she says. She remembers one football coach in particular who, having busted her for incorrect footwear on campus, couldn’t quite grasp her reasoning.
“The look on his face, I think I broke him a little. I said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t wear leather,’ and he was ‘I’m done. I’m done here.’”
She got a degree in illustration from the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale – but first, she got a degree in psychology from the University of Miami.
“It’s actually helped me to solidify a mood in a painting,” she says. “How people will react to different color schemes.”
Those color schemes are among the most recognizable, compelling elements of O’Hara’s work – and she works hard to get them right. That means getting out into the muck.
“I do most of my paintings from photos, but I take the photos,” she says. She goes to some places where the nature’s more tamed such as Flamingo Gardens, but often, she’s out in the Everglades. “I see something new there every time,” she says. “It’s very eclectic; I’m never doing the same thing.”
In this work, she’s following a path laid out by artists in Florida and farther afield. Canadian artist and naturalist Robert Bateman is one inspiration. “He painted because he wanted to preserve what was there, and that’s what I’m doing,” she says. “I want to paint that before it’s gone.”
Nearer to home, she speaks highly of Guy Harvey, the artist-philanthropist whose ocean art empire has roots in his background as a marine scientist, and Clive Butcher, the Ochopee-based fine art photographer widely regarded as a master of documenting natural Florida.
She also understands what she and others like her are up against.
“I’m not just trying to get it out there, I’m trying to get people to appreciate art,” she says. “I am competing with a digital age, I’m doing a traditional medium, and I’m doing animals that people might not know about.”
In Fort Lauderdale people can learn about those animals – and the artist behind their representations – at a couple of extremely different spaces. O’Hara mostly shows at art events, but her work is also displayed at two local galleries. There’s Pocock Fine Art and Antiques, the Las Olas gallery where the work of local artists might mingle with that of a European post-impressionist who also pops up in art textbooks. And there’s Inchoate Art Gallery, an altogether edgier space run by Fort Lauderdale artist Thaddeus Inchoate in the organically reborn former industrial zone of the MASS District.
It’s a balance O’Hara appreciates. “The art scene here is pretty interesting because you’ve got the serious collectors … and then you’ve got the other side who want to support local artists,” O’Hara says. “I like that about Fort Lauderdale – there’s art for everybody.”
This year O’Hara’s beginning part-time teaching work, and that last point is something she hopes to drive home to her students.
“The point about art is that it is subjective, it’s whatever you want it to be. You can literally do anything and it can be art.
“I’m doing a more classical style and I think most people recognize it … that’s what I want. I want it to be accessible art. And I want it to be good.
“I want to do the best that I can to get the message out there.”