Last week, Cucuru Gallery Café, a bright, homey establishment, opened its biggest show to date. The show's title, Ellen O'Brien: A Retrospective, offers few clues to the longtime local artist.
At close to 120 works, it's nearly impossible to sum it all up neatly. The gallery walls are packed with O'Brien's oeuvre. There are sketches from her time in France to vibrant oil paintings from her master's thesis. Conveniently, the show is arranged chronologically to allow viewers to watch O'Brien's style progress and shift over time.
The artist, 85, has been creating art for most of her life, utilizing oil paints, watercolors, pastels and lithography to capture landscapes, figures, portraits and abstractions. For this exhibit, also her largest to date, she and show manager Ceil Horowitz have brought out pieces that are nearly 70 years old.
Many have been stored in O'Brien's basement since their inception. Some O'Brien hadn't seen in almost 40 years. "I was just in a hurry all the time," she says, recalling her working method. O'Brien finished one project only to swiftly move on to the next.
O'Brien was educated at Cornell University and Cranbrook Academy of Art in Detroit, earning a masters in fine arts. But what she recalls most fondly was the emphasis the schools set on giving her freedom to rely on herself for artistic direction.
"I wasn't thinking about other people (when I worked)," she says.
This attitude served her well in her career. After getting married and living a short time in Colorado, O'Brien and her husband moved to Europe for four years. For one year she worked in the studio of French artist and filmmaker Fernand Léger, and once attended a party with Pablo Picasso. She remembers that the icon didn't want to talk to anyone.
O'Brien has admired such artists as Picasso and Matisse, yet shies away from the idea of any direct influences.
"I suppose somebody had some influence," she says, "But I never really looked at paintings that way. I always felt really independent about what I wanted to do."
O'Brien and her family returned to Colorado Springs in 1951. O'Brien was painting when the Broadmoor Academy became the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, and she was an original member of the Colorado Springs Art Guild. Then she started teaching art for adults at Colorado College, Pikes Peak Community College and the Fine Arts Center, to name a few. She taught part time over a span of 30 years, always refusing to show students her own creations.
"I don't want them to see it or be influenced by it. I want them to figure out their own way."
While she painted alongside peers such as Lew Tilley and Mary Chenoweth, O'Brien's last major show was at the Fine Arts Center in 1974, and comprised of only 18 artworks. She displayed here and there in recent years, yet this exhibit is the best so far, she says.
Cucuru owner Guillermo Alvarado agrees it is the best exhibition the gallery has had, despite the fact that Cucuru specializes in Cuban art.
"Her [works have] so much knowledge and so much ability and heart in them," says Horowitz. She points out the expressive lines that are a part of O'Brien's signature. For portraits Horowitz explains that O'Brien doesn't have an obvious "format" for drawing faces or features, yet still captures a compelling likeness.
From large landscapes to simple sketchbook studies, each composition possesses O'Brien's sophisticated line. From a group of rhythmic fencers painted when she was 23 to a swirling conglomeration of color and line executed only a few years ago, her gestures and contours are singularly elegant.
Most pieces are for sale and O'Brien is happy to show them. But she's as energetic as ever to get back to her art.
"I really want to get started again. I can feel it."
Ellen O'Brien: A Retrospective
Cucuru Gallery Café,
2332 W. Colorado Ave.
On display through July 21
Free; call 520-9900 or visit cucuru.santuario.com for more.