For over six decades, Mary Lovelace O’Neal’s artistic practice has continually changed and evolved. “I look at the work now, and I go, ‘Wow, that girl sure could paint,’ because it’s the truth,” she said during a conversation at Expo Chicago on Thursday with Jamillah James, recently appointed senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. “I understood the work more or less as I went along, but now I love it. I love what it took to make it, and it took all that I am to make it. That’s my life’s work.”
She added, “I get put in that box of abstraction, and that’s not really where I live. I live in another kind of reality, so what appears to be abstract is so totally realistic to me because that’s the way I see it.”
Lovelace O’Neal, whose work is on view at the fair courtesy of Jenkins Johnson Gallery (of San Francisco and New York), is a fountain of stories, and she’ll be the first to admit it: “I’m Southern so there’s a story for everything,” she said.
James began the conversation by discussing Lovelace O’Neal’s upbringing in the South. Lovelace O’Neal recalled that she and her friends, growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, would “drink out of the white faucet and all kinds of mischief—really resistance because we were old enough to know that this whole system needed to be resisted.”
She first came to art making through the coloring books her father would give his kids on long trains to the North as a way of “having us be calm” so that she and her two brothers “could be kept quiet until we got across the Mason-Dixon line and at that point, you know, everything opened up,” she said, adding, “Many of you were too young to remember this, and others of you just have no idea probably what I’m talking about.”
Though her brothers didn’t take to drawing and coloring, Lovelace O’Neal did, which she in part attributes to her dyslexia because “you have other ways of understanding and you have to take that the information that’s out there and run it through your own systems. It may take a little more time. Being able to work that way was very direct and very direct communication with myself and with others.”
While studying for her B.F.A. in the early ’60s at Howard University in Washington, D.C., Thomas was involved in both the artistic and activist circles, which she described as a “kind of life of duality.”
All the while, however, she stuck to abstraction as her primary mode of painting. “I decided that I couldn’t do the kind of painting that could be used as propaganda,” she said. “That was the work you took to a picket line. The only way I could see to deal with that was to put myself on that line. My painting had information, but it had to be gotten differently. I wasn’t painting Black women jumping out of the bush with a gun.”
Her summer residency at the storied Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture in Maine in 1963 proved formative as there was “nothing to do but paint or to be involved with art history,” she said. “It was very painful because your breakthroughs were rare. You were sent there to figure out what it is you can do and what you need to do with your path. And that’s hard work for a youngster.”
One day she entered the sculpture barn because “I just had had it with painting. I couldn’t stand the smell anymore. I just wanted to be away,” she said. And saw an artist create a sculpture by affixing paper towels dipped in a form of encaustic (beeswax and black pigment) to an armature of wire and coat hangers. She gave it a try and won an honorable mention that year for her sculpture.
That experience stuck with her, and one day, while she was an M.F.A. student at Columbia, she was strolling through the aisles of the now-defunct Pearl Paints in Lower Manhattan when she saw a bag of black pigment leaking onto the floor, “making this beautiful black pile,” she said. At first she just walked by, but she soon returned and packed her cart full of the pigment, which would turn out to be Lampblack, the main material of her breakthrough series in the ’60s.
The mostly black paintings in the Lampblack series were also a response to criticism she had received at the time. “I have been fighting with the Black poets because the work wasn’t Black enough,” she said. “This black stuff I was rubbing into the canvas, so you couldn’t get it in any blacker than that, so that took care of that dialogue.”
She continued, “I decided to show them the way abstraction had played into African history and how it could be as Afrocentric as anything. They couldn’t really figure out how to counter that.”
James replied, “You gave another point of entry into this notion of Blackness. You were actually giving physical, symbolic, conceptual Blackness.”
In 1979, she became the first Black woman to have a solo show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. (For those in town for Expo Chicago, her painting Running with Black Panthers and White Doves, ca. 1989–90, from the “Panthers In My Father’s Palace” series, is currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago.)
The end of the Lovelace O’Neal’s conversation was a truly rousing experience. She spoke truth to power, with each comment being received with roaring applause by a rapt crowd.
Referring to the current generation of emerging and mid-career Black artists, she said, “I hope I am an influence—I feel like a proud parent. Your parents don’t always understand what you’re doing. My mother used to say, ‘You were a better artist before you went to art school.’ I’m happy to see these young people. They’re smart and they’re not going to be taken advantage of, and they are not in stables, and they are not enslaved and they have to know that, because I know it.”
She followed that up by saying she felt it was only appropriate to address the reality of this conversation taking place at a commercial art fair.
“I want to talk to the galleries and the gallerists: You have to realize that artwork is just not a cute little phrase. That’s what this shit is about—it’s work. This is my life’s work, and I’m not going to let it be sold off. This is what I do. This is what I did with 80 years of my life, so do not think that I’m going to give it up because of a trend or anything like that. And there are no discounts. That’s what we all have to understand. Four hundred and eighty years of discounts, I think, is enough. That’s where Mary Lovelace O’Neal is coming from.”
And with one final remark Lovelace O’Neal concluded the talk by saying, “I’m so proud of all of you who have fought for these positions that you deserve. You own them. You get in there and say who you are and you keep saying it until people understand that.”