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The art historian Juanita Marie Holland sees the career of Bay Area painter and printmaker Mary Lovelace O’Neal as illustrative of “how to construct self, how to be black in white America, how to be an artist, and how to arrange all of these selves in one body and one lifetime.”

Born in Mississippi in the 1940s and raised in Arkansas, Mary Felice Lovelace attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., in the heyday of 1960s civil-rights activism. Speakers like Malcolm X, Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King, and Stokely Carmichael spoke on campus, thrilling the students but also discomfiting black faculty members of the older, gradualist generation. One of Lovelace’s mentors advised abandoning “the path of social nonsense” to fulfill her artistic promise; another foresaw that she would have to choose between Paris (symbol of artistic freedom and career respectability) and jail. Lovelace was drawn to Abstract Expressionism, an adamantly white and macho style at the time; yet to a young woman who felt restricted by realism, it seemed an artistic path alive with possibilities, heroically free. Franz Kline’s “mysterious and impressive” abstractions and Jacob Lawrence’s “magical and mystical” depictions of black life were particular favorites.

After working briefly in New Orleans in the Free Southern Theater, founded by her new husband John, O’Neal was admitted to graduate school at Columbia in 1968-the only black in her class. Living in Harlem, the couple met Black Art Movement artists and writers, some of whom dismissed her new work, now influenced by Minimalism, as “empty abstraction” and even “not black enough.” O’Neal recalls: “I knew what they wanted was women jumping out of the bush with guns. Those were long nights of arguing over cheap wine and cigarettes…” She was rubbing powdered lampblack into the weave of her huge canvases, achieving a tenebrous majesty relieved only by zips of bright color, and imparting a covert social subtext to modernist style, so she defended herself: “Isn’t that black enough for you?” Determining that her art needed to fit no agenda but hers, she continued her social work, and marching in protests, but sought personal refuge and meaning in art: “No matter what else I had or didn’t have, I would always have to have a studio… Whatever it took to have a studio is what would fuel my life-if I had to teach school, if I had to be a waitress, whatever it was, it was about having a place to work.”

Pursuing that goal, O’Neal moved to Oakland, Calif., teaching at several schools before being hired in 1979 by the University of California, Berkeley, where she taught until her retirement last year. Remarried, to the Chilean painter Patricio Moreno Toro, she traveled extensively in the ’80s and ’90s, finding creative renewal in the decorative traditions of Africa, Asia and South America.

O’Neal’s intuitive, associative process produces works that combine abstract, ambiguous space-nocturnal velvety lampblack alternating with patches of riotous tropical mixed-media color, all applied with a fearless dramatic physicality-with figurative elements suggestive of narrative. A series on whales was about freedom and intelligence at play, for example, as well as saving species. However, she is less a storyteller than an orchestrator of the vivid images obsessing her. “I set out to activate surfaces and put down the images in my head. What I care about is getting up there to do it, staying there long enough to make me feel something and unraveling the mysteries as I put them down… The mystery and the magic of the making are above all else the important thing for me: watching the unfolding.”

“Scream So Heaven Can Hear You,” 2007, mixed media on paper, 33 1/2″ x 24″
Photo: Courtesy of Togonon Gallery

Mary Lovelace O’Neal’s new work, “Adventures & Misadventures” will be showing at Togonon Gallery, 77 Geary Street, San Francisco, October 11-November 24, 2007; (415) 398-5572 or www.togonongallery.com