Featured Artist: Wendilee Heath O’Brien

Wendilee Heath O’Brien’s selected work will be taken home by a lucky winner at our 2015 Art of Giving Gala, September 17 in Portland.

Wendilee Heath O’Brien creates paintings that bring a Japanese aesthetic and a Quaker ethic to bear on the Down East landscape. Familiar coastal scenes and the flora and fauna of the region are rendered in sumi ink paintings and a traditional Japanese gold leaf painting tradition known as kinpaku. Determined to keep her work accessible and affordable, O’Brien takes the unusual approach of charging by the hour. O’Brien, who spent her childhood summers in Steuben, lives with her husband and three sons in nearby Winter Harbor, where she has a gallery and studio, whopaints.

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Where did the Japanese influence in your work come from?

I went to Japan on a college exchange program and did my teaching practicum there. Then I worked on a reforestation project in a small fishing village in northern Japan. I spent 3½ years there during and after college. I failed French in high school, but I took to Japanese right away, and I found both Japanese history and the aesthetics of the art very compelling.

Wendilee Heath O’BrienCan you explain the kinpaku technique briefly?

First, I stretch a fiber paper with a seaweed glue on a wood panel. After the paper is waterproofed, I gold leaf it. Then an underpainting done in sumi pine pitch ink develops the underlying abstract value structure. In Japanese art, the negative space is as important as the positive. The underpainting of sumi helps define this. The last step is making the “paints.” Iwa-enogu, ground rocks, and gofhun, ground seashells for opaque whites, are mixed with Nikawa, a glue that is heated. Then water is added to this mixture, and this is floated onto the surface of the gold.

Why do you charge by the hour?

My goal is to be a community artist. I don’t want to be known. I want to paint for my neighbors. My business vision is deeply entwined with my artistic one and this greatly informs my work. I am committed to keeping original art affordable and accessible to everyone. I charge materials and time, $12 an hour and $24 for gold leaf. I offer rent-to-own plans and installment plans. I have had more than 100 folks use the latter.

What is the significance of your Art of Giving painting, August Dawn – Pigeon Hill?

The picture is from the top of Pigeon Hill in Steuben. I do not know how many times I have climbed it and sat and looked out to Canada and Mount Desert Island, watching the tininess of humanity below. We used to have sleepouts there, and mom would make blueberry pancakes in the morning. It is one of those magical places. I grew up going to Petit Manan Point, spending all my time running over rocks and romping through the woods. I learned that stewarding our earth is paramount to me. Each painting is a story about that, as is the charity I have chosen — Downeast Coastal Conservancy, which takes care of Pigeon Hill.


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The Art of Giving is our annual celebration of Maine art, artists and the organizations they hold dear. This year’s event is generously sponsored by WEX Inc., Maine Spirits, Camden National Bank, Down East Books, and the Penobscot Bay Y. Learn more about this event and buy tickets here.

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