Sixth grade student Mary Miller dipped brush into ink. Her short brown hair fell into her eyes but she didn’t move. She held her breath, attention on a small sheet of tin, on a moment in her life painfully opaque, mysterious. A moment so precious she would shroud her self-portrait in a soft halo.
“Art is supposed to tell a story,” Miller mused after class. “It’s one way we can share who we are with each other.”
Rio Gallinas School art instructor Maureen O’Brien would agree.
“Ex-votos are a Mexican traditional form of art.” O’Brien smiles as she speaks, the gentle contented grin of a woman who teaches children to walk in beauty. “The people’s art. That’s what they are. For and by the people. You create an ex-voto to give prayerful thanks, to celebrate an important or powerful moment. The sixth grade students have painted incredible ex-votos. They focused on the first moment when they realized they were here to help others. That’s the inspiration.”
O’Brien studied art under Hans Hoffman, a German-born American abstract expressionist painter whose work centered around authenticity, around the canvas as a sacred plane. A proponent of the New York School, O’Brien considers Esteban Vicente one of her idols, and uses methods she’s learned from Vicente and others with her students, who range in ages from 7 to 14.
“More important than the produced art itself, is the way that the children learn to view the world. When we did a series on Persian “Bigiatures,” O’Brien paused, explaining how a precious student renamed the study in miniatures “bigiatures” due to their size and content. “I read Rumi to the students. I described what life was like in ancient Iran. The students had to sit and consider that life, to become Persian in thought and attitude. They brought insight and awareness to the canvas.”
The carefully considered work of O’Brien’s students is the subject of deMARE Fine Art’s new gallery show. Students from grades two through six are represented in selections ranging from self-portraits, watercolor flowers, and ex-votos to Tibetan tankas and Persian-inspired pieces.
“I know these children are proud of what they’ve accomplished. By putting their work up in as professional manner as we can, they will know that we’re proud of them as well,” says gallery owner Elizabeth deMare, who is donating the gallery space and all proceeds to the school.
Students worked for four months to produce the art in the show. Some of the work was part of their Expeditionary Learning studies, where students are immersed in an area of study through which they learn their core curriculum such as Social Studies, History, and Science.
“We painted pictures of Jesusita Aragon,” said fifth-grader Marisol Meyer as she described one series of paintings her class conducted under O’Brien. “Jesusita was an important midwife we studied in class. She delivered thousands of babies in Las Vegas. We were honoring her with our paintings.”
In one painting by Lafitaga Sosene, a baby birthed by Aragon rests in a series of concentric circles, as if the midwife pulled radiating joy, the echo of experience, from the birth canal. Sosene inscribed one circle with a stream of words: “Jesusita delivered her first baby when she was 14 years old in Trujillo.”
O’Brien breathes easy as she describes her students’ work. “This is the essence of authenticity, a brand-new look at the world. These children are helping us see the world around us in new, very real, ways. Beauty resides everywhere. Sometimes it takes a child to show us.”