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Helen O’Toole’s What Was: unmarked Premieres at SJI Museum of Art

What Was: unmarked, showing now through May 30 at the San Juan Islands Museum of Art (SJIMA), features the monumental paintings by Helen O’Toole. Her abstract landscapes, full of emotion, exhibit the loss and displacement she feels from the land where she grew up and her desire to connect with her ancestors.


The burnt-out big houses, the remains of famine cottages, and the limestone walls surrounding stony green fields are expressions of the stories told, marking out what’s mine and what’s yours. Land markers and erasures divulge the stains and concealment of past histories in What Was: unmarked.

The pivotal art piece, Pirate Queen, covers one whole wall of the museum. The title has special meaning relating to the 16th century mythic female Irish leader, Granuaile, whose story captured O’Toole’s sense of “a visceral relation to the land.” While creating this seminal work, she made many small paintings where her new ideas were born. A few of those preliminary sketches of Pirate Queen and others are part of the exhibition.


"If you were to walk into my studio today, you would encounter huge paintings, abstract and cumbersome to deal with, and obstinate when it comes to moving them. These paintings are like gawky, awkward children, and like child-rearing, demanding. I work slowly and deliberately on these paintings as if I am tethered to my canvas, building, scratching, adding, poking, and revealing. […]. I make a lot of small paintings. The work frequently starts as an idea for one of my big paintings, where I can explore color or structure or the materiality of paint uninhibited. Often, I respond to something that I have read. Working small like this, alongside the big paintings, gives me time to contemplate my next moves in the studio.” Helen O’Toole, February 2022


O’Toole is Professor of Art and Chair of the Painting and Drawing Program at the University of Washington. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in Fine Arts, a Contemporary Northwest Art Award, and a Pollock Krasner Award in 2013


We are grateful to our many sponsors for bringing these thought-provoking works to SJIMA - The Honeywell Charitable Fund, Anonymous, Town of Friday Harbor, San Juan Island Community Foundation, Orcas Island Community Foundation, Browne’s Home Center, Printonyx, and Harbor Rentals.


Exhibition hours are Friday – Monday 11-5. Admission is $10, with SJIMA members and those 18 and under admitted free. Mondays are Pay As You Can Days.


SJIMA is located at 540 Spring Street in Friday Harbor, WA. See www.sjima.org for more information.




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