Life Before Art
Growing up in Vancouver, Washington, Mary O’Shea had no clue she’d spend most of her adult life as a full-time glass artist. Her parents focused on getting her and her two brothers through school, and out of the house. Mary went to court reporting school in downtown Portland at the age of 19, then spent seven years working in Circuit Court and Superior Court. “You learn a lot about weird things,” she said. “Ballistics and trajectory paths. Legal jargon. Human nature.” In her mid twenties, Mary left the stressful yet profitable life of court reporting and moved to Hawaii, where she worked at a stock brokerage firm. But eventually she decided to go to college.
Art versus Geology
Mary returned to Portland to study geology. She planned to be a hydrologist, specializing in groundwater. During her university years, she took a glass fusing class at Cline Glass in Southeast Portland. She was such a natural that her classmates tried to buy her work. She described her style then as, “lots of undulating lines and mountainous things going on.” Glass was expensive, so she raided Bullseye Glass’ dumpster in the middle of the night, which used to be in front of their building, for materials.
Encouraged by early successes, she did an American Craft Council (ACC) trade show in Philadelphia. People came by her booth and placed wholesale orders. Before she knew it, Mary had work in 100 galleries around the country. “I got too big too fast,” she said.
In those first years, she juggled art and geology studies. “I realized I couldn’t do both well,” she said. “Finally I go, okay, I’ve got to focus in on the glass and make it my number one priority. I was already making money as an artist.” So she picked art over geology.
Life in Key West
After another stint in Hawaii, Mary impulsively decided to move to Key West, Florida. While many residents and tourists enjoy Key West’s laid back feel, it’s the fourth most expensive place to live in the country, Mary said. She had to make a lot of glass jewelry and sculptures to cover the very high overhead of living in the Keys.
Mary owned a gallery in Key West’s historic Donkey Milk House. She enjoyed the Southern value of hospitality. People would visit her gallery, sitting for a while on her big red Victorian couch and chatting about life in the tropics and events going on. Tourists enjoyed meeting her and hearing about what life was really like living and working as an artist. Part of Mary’s success is her love of people. “Even the stinkers, I like,” she said.
Mary met her partner in love and business, Ted Healy, in her Key West gallery eleven years ago. Ted was on a diet, having volunteered to help out after the 9/11 tragedy in New York where they fed him a lot of comfort food, and the gallery was next door to a GNC. He bought a lot of protein drinks before finally asking her out. He joined her business and helped give it a viable Internet presence.
“I miss the people,” Mary said. “I miss being a merchant. My biggest joy in life is working with people. I’m awful. I’ll go into a shop and help other customers when I don’t even work there.”
Works of Whimsy
Mary’s colorful style further developed while in Key West. She added fish to her whimsical glass sculpture repertoire. “I’m a fish girl,” she said, noting that it took a move to Key West to realize that. One of her favorites is a barracuda with big red lips.
Mary’s work ranges from small earrings to large glass sculptures on wood or metal bases. Animals inspire much of her work, including cats, turtles, fish and crows. She even does pet portraits in glass.
“I’m not afraid of color,” Mary said. “And I love whimsy. When I can combine the two in an art piece and make people smile when they see it, I’m stoked.”
Adding a little color can perk people up. “I saw it in my shop all the time. Women who said they only wore diamond studs, would put on a sassy pair of my glass earrings and be transformed into that ‘fun’ girl who gets all sorts of compliments. It’s fascinating to see the transformations of people.”
Mary’s had many cat companions over the years, and supports animal causes. She donates artwork to such animal-centric causes as Oregon Humane Society fundraisers, but also supports humans through contributing to the Cascade AIDS Project, among others. In “Fresh Caught Friday,” the weekly newsletter she emails to clients, she always features two animals that are up for adoption in Portland, and two in Key West.
Back to Portland
Mary and Ted moved to Portland in 2010, in search of a slower paced life and a return to Mary’s roots. “I absolutely love Portland, the people, the lifestyle, the smells, the look, the vibe. If you’re making your living completely on your art, this is a challenging town,” she said, “because it’s super saturated with phenomenally talented creative people.” Fortunately, she brought a client base of more than 3,000 fans.
Most of Mary’s orders wind up in different states and countries. She also sells a lot of her work at Wet Paint Gallery in Key West. And two years ago, she took to the streets with Urban Art Network’s First Thursday Street Gallery. “I thought this is so funny, my career is going backwards, according to what most people would think,” she said. “I started out really huge. Now I’ve funneled down. I’m looking for a nice, comfortable, not exhausting lifestyle of art.” She’s enjoyed the camaraderie of the other artists, and has grown especially close to painter/photographer Amy McDermott. Now the two artists buy neighboring spaces at the Street Gallery. “Good things can happen if you just say yes and try it and see what happens,” she said. “I’m up for whatever.”
The easy availability of glass is another big plus for Portland. In Key West, Mary ordered glass by the crateful and had it trucked down from Georgia. Here in Portland, she just drives across the river and hand picks whatever she needs for each art piece. “I’m close to my pusher here,” she said, “because I am a glass junkie.”
As for the future, Mary’s dreams are modest. She has her eye on a certain gallery where she thinks her work would look fabulous. But she’s not planning to open her own. Instead, she wants to focus on making her work. And her favorite pieces to make? “Whatever I’m working on now,” she said. “It’s a lovely kind of meditation. It’s my way of being in control and yet working with a medium that you aren’t sure what’s going to happen to it. So it’s a great meditation for just letting go and enjoying the moment.”
Visit Mary’s website at http://keywestglass.com