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Uncovering hidden treasures

"Ray of Hope"

“Ray of Hope”

A former Mississippi School of the Arts teacher has returned, this time to showcase her own art.

Anne O’Hara started at MSA when the school first opened and spent a large amount of time helping others. But as O’Hara said during a recent reception, the school and students were also helping to cultivate her own work.

“Hidden Treasures,” which is currently being displayed in Enochs Art Gallery on MSA’s campus, began partly from her students.

Becoming an artist

O’Hara, a native of England, first began perusing art at the age of 16 when she dropped out of regular school and enrolled in art school to study sculpture. In 1966, she graduated with a diploma in art and design. Though she had followed her passion, O’Hara found herself lost.

“Nobody had counseled us on what we could do with an art degree,” she said.

O’Hara decided to enroll in San Francisco Art Institute in August 1966, where she arrived with just one suitcase. She quickly discovered that the school did not offer studio space to its graduate students. She would be competing against those much older with fantastic places to work with no place of her own. Although disheartened, O’Hara refused to give up.

“I couldn’t go home,” she said. “It was hard, but I couldn’t go home.”

While in San Francisco, O’Hara met her husband, Bruce, and somehow they managed to get through the difficulties at school together.

After graduation, Bruce was offered a job at Tougaloo College, and the couple quickly moved across the country to Mississippi. Despite having earned her MFA, O’Hara still had no clue what she wanted to do.

“I always said I’d never be a teacher,” she said.

That sentiment was quickly reversed as the O’Haras tried to support their growing family. O’Hara started out working part-time for Tougaloo, as well as teaching at Head Start and the Choctaw Reservation. Finally, O’Hara found that she had to commit to teaching full-time and took a job with Jackson Public Schools.

“It was very challenging, but I’m not a quitter,” she said. “I couldn’t quit, we needed the money.”

Soon, O’Hara found herself teaching in a variety of positions before arriving at MSA. With each stop, O’Hara was able to learn a little more about people and art.

“I learned to teach as an art facilitator rather than an authority figure,” she said.

Through teaching she was forced to explore mediums and learn quickly.

“Each year, I probably learned more than my students did,” she said. “But most importantly, I learned to never stop producing art.”

Since retiring from MSA, O’Hara has dedicated much of her time to exploring new ideas and developing new images.

“My students were always inspirational to me, and it was from studying some of their drawings that I decided to work with charcoal for a while,” she said.

In 2011, she began the drawings in traditional black charcoal before later changing to tinted charcoal.

The students also served as inspiration for her shadowboxes. While teaching, she always required her students to keep sketchbooks, a task she herself did not enjoy. In 2008, however, she chose commit to the task.

“I decided this would be the one summer I would keep a sketchbook,” O’Hara said.

She covered the sketchbooks in colorful designs. As she continued to explore this work, she decided to turn the designs into 3-D images.

“The 3D objects in the designs are based on shapes seen in the drawings that make up the backgrounds,” she said. “I was trying to bring the drawings to life and in so doing, got excited about using beads of various kinds as decorative elements in the pieces.”

The shadowboxes contain gems and beads which link back to the “Hidden Treasures” theme. The theme was inspired by O’Hara’s path with her Baha’i  faith.

It was while attending San Francisco Art Institute in pursuit of her Master of Fine Arts degree that she first found Baha’i, which has influenced much of her work. The inspiration for this particular series came from two pieces of writings:

“Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom.”

“The purpose of the one true God, exalted be His glory, in revealing himself unto men is to lay bare those gems that lie hidden within the mine of their true and inmost selves.”

O’Hara said these values truly revealed themselves while she was teaching.

“I learned that it was important to search for the good qualities in people and not to dwell on the negative,” she said. “Sometimes, one has to dig down beneath the layers to find the treasures that will almost assuredly be hidden below.”

In the pieces that make up “Hidden Treasures,” there are layers that reveal themselves as you explore the paintings. O’Hara said the longer you look at the pieces the more will be discovered.

“It is my hope that through the beauty of nature the pieces will make a connection both visually and spiritually with those who see them, leaving spirits uplifted and curiosity kindled,” she said.