Bright neon. Gold metallic. Perfect symmetry.  

These factors all come together to form Mary O’Malley’s current art series Menagerie #1 — #5 which currently hangs at the University of New Hampshire’s (UNH) Museum of Art. The series is part of the Impact exhibition that highlights the contestants of the Piscataqua Region Artist Advancement Grant from the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. O’Malley, who was a finalist for the grant, is accompanied in the exhibition by fellow finalist Shaina Gates and 2019 award recipient Victoria Elbroch.  

O’Malley’s intention for the series was to combine her “fascination with nature” and “love of pattern” to create “a fantastical and idealized view of nature,” according to her artist’s statement.  

O’Malley has always been drawn to nature. However, nature it wasn’t easily accessible growing up in the Boston area. O’Malley also spent her college years in urban areas receiving her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston and her Master of Fine Arts degree from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. 

 “I always kind of lived in cities and didn’t really have access to outdoor space. So, I think my earlier work was really about a longing for a connection to nature. I always wanted that, but I just couldn’t,” explained O’Malley.  

Since moving to New Hampshire almost a decade ago, O’Malley’s relationship to nature has become more tangible. “Suddenly, I’ve got hiking trails everywhere, literally in my backyard,” she said, laughing.  

The increased space has also allowed O’Malley to cultivate a flower garden. The garden has since become a large inspiration for her work. O’Malley recalled working on a commission featuring daylilies and being able to see the flower growing in her garden from her studio window. She hopes to try her hand at growing vegetables and herbs again this year after several failed attempts. 

        In addition to nature, O’Malley’s work has also been deeply influenced by South Asian and Middle Eastern art aesthetics. Although she has always enjoyed the style of Eastern art O’Malley credits some of her influence on her trip to India in 2004. 

“Everything [in India] is so colorful, and everything is decorated,” explained O’Malley. She remembers being amazed how even the water trucks and pedicabs in the country were covered in hand painted designs. “Everything is just beautiful. There are so many amazing handicrafts and crafts people doing work there. Visually, for an artist, it’s magical to go there,” she said.  

        O’Malley’s incorporation of eastern influences into her work would help lead to the placement of her art in the U.S. Embassy in Dubai. The opportunity arose 10 years ago when she was working with a gallery in Los Angeles. The gallery owner at the time had a connection with the curator of the Art in Embassies Program from the U.S. State Department. The Art In Embassies Program was founded in 1964 to “promote cultural diplomacy through exhibitions, permanent collections, site-specific commissions and artist exchanges in the more than 200 U.S. Embassies and Consulates around the world.” 

 O’Malley explained that her work was chosen because her focus at the time—birds of prey—are a common art motif in Dubai. 

        “It’s one of the coolest things that’s happened to me in my career,” says O’Malley. 

Her current series Menagerie #1 — #5 continues her focus on birds and nature. O’Malley’s naming process varies between pieces, but the title of this series came naturally. She explains, “It’s a little bit of a misnomer because a “menagerie” is usually a collection of animals, but there’s usually that idea of animals being tamed by humans, and I was thinking of that; the way [the birds] are very symmetrical, and they’re very ordered. I’m kind of taking these birds and containing them within all these decorative flowers and decorative architecture.” 

O’Malley achieves the perfect symmetry in her prints by creating their compositions digitally. She explained that her works usually begin as individual drawn birds and flowers that she scans to a digital database of her drawings. This allows her to not only build her compositions quickly, but to use mirroring and resizing effects. When the pieces are completed O’Malley will print them to scale and trace them on raw paper to begin the coloring process. 

 “If it did that by hand it would take hours and hours,” she said. “I work on raw paper, so I can’t erase marks without them being shown so [creating compositions digitally is] how I get around that, so there are very little eraser marks that I have to worry about.” 

O’Malley is glad that her artistic process was not disrupted by Covid-19 because her studio is located in her home, but she admits she had a hard time staying motivated during the beginning of the nationwide lockdown. 

“You just feel like ‘why am I painting flowers when the world’s on fire,” said O’Malley. She shared the thought to her social media pages and was surprised by the outpouring of positive comments. Many of her followers said they considered her work bright spots in the current uncertain times.  

“I [also] need art more than ever in these times,” said O’Malley. “It’s my sanity. It’s my therapy, so I have to do it for my own mental health.”  

The Impact Exhibition will continue to be open to the public until Nov. 20. The exhibition can also be viewed virtually on the UNH Museum of Art website. O’Malley’s work can also be found in the 13FOREST Art Gallery in Arlington, Mass. beginning next month.  

Photo Courtesy of Isabelle Curtis and maryomalleyart.com