Queen's windows, in new light

Queen's windows, in new light

This profile is part of the Artists Among Us series, which features profiles of Queen’s staff members who pursue artistic endeavours in addition to their work at the university. The Gazette features staff members on an occasional basis and welcomes suggestions. If you have ideas of people to profile, please contact Wanda Praamsma at wanda.praamsma@queensu.ca

By Wanda Praamsma

July 13, 2016


Mary O’Brien’s most recent creative project started by walking.

The staff member and artist has always been intrigued by stained glass windows, travelling to places such as Scotland and France to see them in spectacular churches and cathedrals, including Sainte-Chapelle in Paris (also known as the “jewel box”).

Staff member Mary O'Brien sits in the Theological Hall stairwell that features stained glass windows she interpreted for her Queen's art-card project.

At Queen’s, while walking on her lunch breaks, she began noticing the many coloured windows around campus.

“Visually, I love the stone buildings of Queen’s, but I began looking at a different aspect of them, wondering about all these windows, and watching them as they changed and evolved during different times of day, different seasons and weather,” says Ms. O’Brien.

“I started thinking about them in terms of education and enlightenment, how we all need to look through different lenses, and how the world offers many different perspectives. Stained glass really shows how things look differently from inside and outside.” 

The result of Ms. O’Brien’s wandering and wondering is a new collection of paintings, which she has made into a series of greeting cards called the Windows of Queen’s, on sale at the Campus Bookstore where she works in accounting. She felt the timing was right for this series, given Queen’s celebrates its 175th anniversary this year.

Grant Hall stained glass windows, as featured on one of Mary O'Brien's cards. [Photo courtesy Mary O'Brien] 

Working from her own photographs, Ms. O’Brien used a water-based porcelain paint on ceramic tile to stitch together images of the windows from buildings across campus, including Grant Hall, Douglas Library, Theological Hall, and the Grad Club, among others.

Not wanting to simply reproduce, Ms. O’Brien juxtaposed different views of windows in a particular building in her paintings, mostly keeping each work specific to one Queen’s building. And while most of the paintings feature windows in the older stone buildings, one card shows the modern “stained glass” on Beamish-Munro Hall.

“I wanted to interpret the windows in a new way and not take credit for the craftsmanship that already went into creating the windows. That’s why I wanted to show different views and stitch together certain images like a collage,” she says.

“I’ve found the whole process, from concept to research and labour, exhilarating. It has given me a chance to explore campus, not only through the physical structures, but through its people and the knowledge that springs from the physical space.”

Ms. O’Brien, with a BFA from Concordia and an MFA from the University of Windsor, blends her work as an artist with her job in accounting. She likes how both challenge different sides of her brain – accounting the more organized, disciplined left side, and her painting the creative right side. But the two are not always distinct – she sees math and geometry in the windows, and in her love of maps, which she integrates into other mixed-media artworks.

Mary O'Brien's Douglas Hall greeting card. [Photo courtesy Mary O'Brien]

“I like organizing, and accounting is like organizing – it appeals to that part of me,” says Ms. O’Brien, who has worked at the bookstore since 1994, when she filled a leave position and ended up staying on.

Despite her love of organizing, Ms. O’Brien keeps her studio and art practice free-flowing. “My studio is not exactly tidy,” she says, laughing. “And while there is definitely a sense of organization to my paintings, I’m constantly working to free myself and be less confined in my art.”

Ms. O’Brien’s mixed-media artwork is on display at Blaney’s Florists on Montreal St. until Aug. 31. Find her Queen’s cards at the bookstore.