Oakland painter Mary Lovelace O’Neal honored at On the Edge gala at de Young Museum

Tony Bravo, SF Chronicle Datebook, October 7, 2022

I offer three words to summarize what I loved about the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s On the Edge gala: Mary Lovelace O’Neal.

The 80-year old Oakland artist, well known for her acclaimed “Whales F—ing” painting series, was a guest of honor at the de Young Museum on Thursday, Oct. 7, along with Chinese couturier Guo Pei, the subject of the Legion of Honor’s current exhibition “Guo Pei: Fantasy Couture.” While the fashion designer was unable to attend the event due to China’s pandemic-related travel restrictions, O’Neal brought the gala dinner to its feet with her candor from the stage.


“I thank all of you who have supported me lo these many years, and I thank those who supported my work even though they didn’t like me or my work, but they felt it important to make a way for an African American, quite young artist,” O’Neal said to laughter.

FAMSF recently acquired O’Neal’s 1990 painting titled “Driskell’s Red Dogs aka I Live in a Black Marble Palace with Black Panthers and White Doves #8” from San Francisco’s Jenkins Johnson Gallery. It will go on display at the de Young’s American collection gallery in the next few weeks. The work is an abstract explosion of color with red forms seeming to leap at the painting’s center.

Mary Lovelace O’Neal, “Driskell’s Red Dogs aka I Live in a Black Marble Palace with Black Panthers and White Doves #8,” 1990.Photo: Mary Lovelace O'Neal

In his remarks honoring O’Neal for her “extraordinary art and her lifelong commitment to humanist values,” Timothy Anglin Burgard, the museum’s curator-in-charge of American art, also evoked a gasp from the guests when he mentioned that O’Neal had once dated famed civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael, illustrating the extraordinary swath of Black American history with which her work intersects.

“My life as a painter ain’t been no crystal stair, but it has most certainly been worthwhile,” O’Neal said. “No crystal stairs but not a single boring day in all my 80 years. That is what is important in a well-lived life: a place to make artwork, which should be called art labor. My art labor does indeed have a price, and if one doesn’t want to pay that price, then that art labor is not for them.”

The On the Edge gala arrived this year amid a packed fall season in the Bay Area visual arts world. It has included the opening of the new Institute of Contemporary Art San Francisco in Dogpatch on Oct. 1, as well as a number of new museum and gallery shows. As FAMSF director and CEO Thomas P. Campbell joked, it’s a lot going on for a region that the New York Times recently characterized as having a “struggling” art market.

Steven Thompson, Woody de Othello, Sadie Barnette, Miguel Amat, Jessica Silverman and Sarah Thornton at the On the Edge gala and afterparty for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco at the de Young Museum, honoring Mary Lovelace O’Neal and Guo Pei.Photo: Aaron Wojack / Special to The Chronicle

“I think the death of the art scene in San Francisco is much overpredicted,” said Campbell. “There’s so much creativity here, new directors at several museums, I’m looking to the city to blow it out of the water in the coming months.”

In its second year, Campbell said, the On the Edge gala aims to celebrate the connection between historical and contemporary art that has been a hallmark of his tenure at the museums. Representing both of those themes were the Ramses the Great and Faith Ringgold exhibitions on view that night. In addition to O’Neal, artists in attendance included Woody De Othello, Sadie Barnette, Catherine Wagner, Enrique Chagoya, Ranu Mukherjee, Rashaad Newsome and Lee Mingwei.

Sculptor De Othello, who lives in Oakland, will soon have his 2021 work “Fountain” installed in the sculpture garden at the museum. It is part of an acquisition of 42 works by contemporary Bay Area artists funded by the Svane Family Foundation. He, too, disagrees with the assessment that the San Francisco art scene is on the decline.

“There’s something sincere about the Bay Area. People are making what they want to make. They don’t pay attention to the trends,” said De Othello. “It’s not homogeneous aesthetically; it’s a lot. Baby, we’re here!”

Madame Gandhi performs at the On the Edge Late Night afterparty.Photo: Aaron Wojack / Special to The Chronicle

Following the gala, the Late Night afterparty featured poems created by the Poetry Store, aura readings, sets from DJs Angel + Dren and DJ Christie, and a performance by percussive electronic musician Madame Gandhi, whose love of evening hours in museums goes back to her youth.

“One of the most formative experiences of my childhood was when the movie ‘Night at the Museum’ came out. The premiere was an overnight sleepover at the Natural History Museum,” said the Oakland artist. “We all slept under the blue whale and read ‘From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler’ (a book about children stowing away after hours in a museum). Being in a museum at nighttime when it’s closed to the general public, to be among the art, it’s a soulful experience for me.”