Painter, art educator, and civil rights activist Mary Lovelace O’Neal has been a force in American art since the mid-1970s. Lovelace was born in Jackson on 10 February 1942 to Ariel M. Lovelace, a professor at Tougaloo College, and Edna R. Lovelace. Mary Lovelace received a bachelor of fine arts degree from Howard University in 1964 and a master of fine arts degree from Columbia University in 1969. She went on to teach at the University of California at Berkeley, where she was the first African American to earn tenure and the first to chair the Department of Art Practice. Although her dynamic compositions and vibrant colors place her work decidedly in the abstract school, her approach creates a provocative balance between narrative and pure abstraction.
O’Neal developed her interest in art, education, and social issues while growing up in Mississippi and Arkansas. As a child, she and her brother drank from “whites only” fountains and ran through Woolworth’s and other off-limits establishments to spin the stools at the lunch counters. Later, at Howard University in Washington, D.C., O’Neal focused both on art and on the civil rights movement. While studying under art historian David Driskell, she helped organize rallies, voter drives, and other actions. For a time she had a serious relationship with future Black Panther Party icon Stokely Carmichael. During this era she gave speeches in Canton, Mississippi, and elsewhere; served as an educator in a Mississippi freedom school; and went to New York to console the family of slain civil rights activist Michael Schwerner.
In 1963 O’Neal received a fellowship to the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, where she spent the summer focusing on her artwork. Inspired by Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and especially Franz Kline, she developed her abstract expressionist style. In graduate school at Columbia University, where she was the only African American in her class, O’Neal soon began to fuse her political awareness with her work—no easy task, given the nonnarrative context of her aesthetic. A striking characteristic of the works she ultimately produced was the lampblack pigment ground into the canvas. The process created a striking black background on which she added minimal strikes of color to make a social statement without betraying her minimalist, abstract style.
In the 1970s O’Neal completed her Whale Series, which is among her most noted work. While still featuring the lampblack canvasses, these paintings also feature large, vibrant shapes of color, the primary form of which resembles a whale. In general, the figures and broad swaths of color represent a departure from the minimalism of her earlier work. In the decades that followed, O’Neal’s painting continued in this fashion, with contrasting colors and (at times less abstract) shapes evading literal interpretation in favor of an emotional exchange with the viewer. In many cases her paintings became more crowded by color and shape as well as layers of color and texture. The titles of the paintings offer a window into the political influences behind the work, complementing the limited subject narrative of the paintings themselves: Running with Black Panthers and White Doves; Racism Is Like Rain, Either It Is Raining or It Is Gathering Somewhere; Running Freed More Slaves Than Lincoln Ever Did.
O’Neal retired from the University of California at Berkeley in 2006 and became professor emerita. Married to Chilean painter Patricio Toro, O’Neal continues to make art and spends time between the Bay Area and Santiago, Chile. She is described as a raconteur with a highly flamboyant personality. Her works are in the collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Oakland Museum of California, and the National Museum of Fine Arts, Santiago, Chile. She has received the Artiste en France Award from the French government.
- René Paul Barrilleux, ed., Mary Lovelace O’Neal (2002)
- Patti Carr Black, Art in Mississippi, 1720–1980 (1998)