WINTER HARBOR — It took artist Wendilee Heath O’Brien five years to learn how to draw. Art is “hard work,” she said, but it’s incredibly gratifying, as well.
The Main Street resident, whose gallery’s name “whopaints” begins with her initials, says people are especially difficult to capture. They move around and one tiny mistake can make them unrecognizable. Still, the artist has strived to sharpen her skills in a variety of mediums from oil and watercolor to pastel, Asian ink and Japanese gold-leaf painting.
O’Brien, whose Main Street house is within sight of Henry Cove, draws inspiration from the sea and other aspects of coastal Maine’s wild beauty as well as Winter Harbor and its people.
“I’m a little bit political in my art in that it’s about our environment and our children — our greatest gifts,” she said.
Earlier this year, O’Brien’s delicate gold-leaf paintings, for which rocks and shells are ground to make the pigment, and other pieces were featured in London’s Parallax Art Fair. Setsuko Ono, the younger sister of Beatles singer John Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono, was among the 200 exhibitors.
Closer to home, the Winter Harbor artist and a young pianist, Pedro Najar, each received Schoodic Arts for All’s annual WOW! Award. They both were awarded $1,000 toward their future creative endeavors.
Gouldsboro novelist, playwright and farmer Cynthia Thayer founded Schoodic Arts for All and conceived of the award to recognize artists whose creations make people stop in their tracks and say “Wow!” The WOW! Awards also are intended to spur cultural growth in the Schoodic region. The awards were made possible by the late Gouldsboro resident and musician Jeremy Strater’s 2015 bequest of $2 million to local nonprofit groups.
Besides O’Brien, teen pianist Pedro Najar is being recognized for his cultural contributions to the Schoodic Peninsula’s performing arts scene. He lives in Austin, Texas, where he attends a magnet performing arts school. His summers, though, are spent in Winter Harbor, where he and his sister have engaged in Schoodic Arts for All’s programs since they were toddlers.
At age 12, Najar served as a “junior intern” assisting at the organization’s two-week Schoodic Arts Festival. He has ably assisted with stage sound and lighting for live musical performances during the festival.
“He’s so amazingly poised for his age, everyone thought he must have been in college,” said Laury of Najar as an intern.
In an interview at whopaints Gallery & Studio, tucked behind her home, O’Brien said she was surprised to be picked. She also is a member of the SevenArts Gallery, an artist’s cooperative, comprising seven artists, in Ellsworth.
“I’m not quite sure why me, but I’m actually thinking about what I can do to honor the award,” she said.
Inside the gallery, vibrant oil paintings of the ocean, flowers and children cover the walls. In one multi-panel painting, iris bloom under a knarled tree against a gleaming gold sea and sky.
Originally from Pennsylvania, O’Brien attended Earlham College in Indiana. After graduating, she lived in Japan, where she taught at a Quaker school in Tokyo. While there, she studied art, learning Japanese brush techniques and traditions such as Asian ink and gold-leaf painting. That experience continues to influence her artwork combining Asian and Western styles.
O’Brien’s husband, Denny, notes she has a strong command of Japanese language.
“She’s really modest about it, but she speaks fluent, idiomatic Japanese, which is really special,” he said.
Since moving to Maine in 2005, O’Brien taught English and social studies at Sumner Memorial High School. Over a decade ago, she began focusing wholly on art, both teaching and selling her paintings in the Schoodic area. As an educator, she sees the WOW! Award as a means to expand her offerings.
Like Schoodic Arts for All, O’Brien’s underlying mission is to share her knowledge and connect with people through her artwork. To acquire a piece, she offers people multiple options from rent-to-own to installment plans.
“I believe everyone should have access to original art,” she said.