Accent Gallery Features Its Youngest Artist Ever
Ocean City High School senior Lilly O'Brien, a doodler since childhood, has six pieces of artwork on display through September.
Lilly O'Brien is unlike many teenagers.
The Ocean City High School senior is not spending this fall obsessing over college applications—she has a multi-year plan to travel and experience the world after she graduates in June.
She's not afraid of manual labor—she's worked for two years at Pelican Pete's car wash, getting uncomfortably wet feet on the job in the winter. She holds citizenship in three countries -- the U.S., Australia and Mexico -- and speaks two languages. She's the youngest-ever featured artist at the Accent Gallery.
But what really makes her unlike many teenagers is her ability to focus and get the job done. That determination, to see a project through now rather than later or never, is what she credits most for her artistic productivity.
"I have to get it done all at once," says O'Brien, who has five watercolors and one mixed media piece on display at Accent Gallery through the end of September. "It's so annoying when I forget what I was doing. I trash a lot of paintings because of that. I have to finish it."
For O'Brien, three hours of painting is a marathon. High school art class, a 42-minute period that represents about a half-hour of actual work time, is torture.
"I hate it," she says of the limited time and interrupted inspiration. "I keep a book with pictures on one side and words on the other so I remember what I was doing."
"Deep Love," a watercolor that is on loan at the gallery, is an example of a work O'Brien was inclined to trash because she does not consider it finished. The woman in the painting is wearing a purple octopus around her shoulders like a scarf. She was supposed to be wearing a hat, too, as any fashionable woman would when wearing a scarf, but O'Brien had to stop working on the piece before she could complete it. Her mother, Maxine, claimed the work for herself.
The mixed media piece, named "God Save The Queen" by her mother, features a woman with a Union Jack painted over one eye and pieces of broken plates in the center of the work. That work, and another titled "Dead End," a combination watercolor and pencil-and-ink drawing of one of O'Brien's classmates, are products of high school art-class assignments.
While she dislikes the time constraints of art class, O'Brien says she does enjoy the assignments she's completed under the direction of art teachers Paul Matusz and Aaron Bogushefsky.
"I'd like to do another one with plates," she says. "I wouldn't have done that on my own, but now that I have, I actually like it."
Five of the six pieces in O'Brien's exhibit at Accent Gallery are of female faces, a form she prefers because of the detail she can work in. All of the pieces on display, including "Bar Code" of a male face and fabricated mathematical equations floating in the background; "Monster Ball," inspired by Lady Gaga and Pink Floyd; and "High Tide," a watercolor of a small boat sailing on a woman's hair, are $600 to purchase.
That may seem ambitious for works from an unknown 17-year-old, but Accent Gallery director Rody O'Rourke is convinced O'Brien is a legitimate talent.
"If you weren't good, you wouldn't be here," she told O'Brien one afternoon after O'Brien walked over to the gallery in the 900 block of Asbury Avenue after school.
O'Rourke, who has been assessing artistic talent for 23 years, says the ultimate barometer is whether she would hang a piece in her home. With O'Brien, she's already done that: When O'Brien gave O'Rourke's daughter, Caroline, a portrait of Caroline in the future for a 15th birthday present, O'Rourke framed it and hung it in her daughter's room.
That portrait started O'Rourke thinking about putting together an event unlike any other Accent Gallery had held. She gathered six artists, O'Brien among them, all of whom had something new to offer, and opened "Fresh" on the first day of spring in March 2010. O'Brien, a high school sophomore then, sold all of the pieces she had in the exhibit.
O'Brien does not label her style, but points to Russian artist Lora Zombie and London-based artist Oscar Wilson as influences. "I usually take a bunch of photos of random things and pull out the things I like," O'Brien says of her work process. "Sometimes it's a dream I had, sometimes music, sometimes another artist."
The idea for "High Tide," the watercolor that features a boat sailing along on a head of long, flowing hair that turns into waves of water, came to O'Brien in her sleep. "People always tell me my hair is really long," says the long-tressed brunette, "and I dreamed that my hair turned into water. It was more like a nightmare."
"The best part of Lilly as an artist is that she hasn't lost her imagination," O'Rourke says.
Or, as O'Brien is grateful to note, her hair.