Born in Mississippi and raised in Arkansas, Mary Lovelace O’Neal is a painter and printmaker whose early works consisted of large-scale monochromatic and minimalist works on unstretched canvas. Her later works were bold, expressionistic color field paintings where her feverish brushstrokes gave the paintings movement and energy. Recent works are colorful narrative tales executed in pastel on paper.
She attended Howard University in the heyday of the civil-rights movement and received her B.F.A. in 1964. One of her teachers at Howard was the artist Lois Mailou Jones. She was admitted to Columbia University in 1968 – the only African American in her class. At Columbia, she was involved in the Black Art Movement in New York. She received her M.F.A. from Columbia in 1969.
Lovelace was drawn to Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. In her “Lamp Black” series from the 1970s, she rubbed powdered lampblack into the weave of her huge canvases with her hands, relieved only by touches of bright color. She continued her marching in protests and social work but sought refuge and meaning in art. “No matter what else I had or didn’t have, I would always have to have a studio.”
She moved to California and in 1979 was hired by the University of California, Berkeley where she taught until her retirement. She traveled extensively in the 1980s and 1990s, learning about the decorative and artistic traditions of Africa, Asia, and South America, where she maintains a studio in Chile.
In later works her abstractions solidify and indicate persons and objects often jumbled together. Her figurative elements, while barely recognizable, are suggestive of narrative. Movement and action are conveyed by dynamic brushwork and richness of color.
She has exhibited in solo and group exhibitions worldwide. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Oakland Museum of California, National Gallery of Art, and Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art.