Helen O’Toole

Helen O’Toole

Fellow: Awarded 2016
Field of Study: Fine Arts

Competition: US & Canada

Helen O’Toole is a painter who was born in the west of Ireland. She attended the RTC Sligo; the National College of Art and Design, Dublin, BA; the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, MFA; and the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. She is the recipient of a 2016 Contemporary Northwest Art Award, a Pollock Krasner Award, the Jack and Grace Pruzan Endowed Faculty Fellowship, and numerous other awards and research grants. Her work has been included in international exhibitions in Ireland and Singapore, including solo exhibitions at galleries in Ireland, Chicago, Provincetown, Pittsburgh, and Seattle. Her work is currently featured in the “Contemporary Northwest Art Awards” exhibition at the Portland Art Museum. O’Toole has participated in residencies at The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown; the Bemis Foundation, Omaha; and The Tyrone Guthrie Centre Residency Programme, Annaghmakerrig, Ireland. She lives in Seattle and is currently Professor of Art and Chair of the Painting and Drawing Program at the University of Washington. She has also taught at La Salle College of the Arts, Singapore, and The University of Washington Studio Art Program in Rome.

O’Toole’s paintings are an evocation of the powerful implications of dwelling and place. Her work focuses on specific historical, cultural events, and locations that probe beneath the surface, revealing layers of oppression, economic privation, and an irrepressible desire to survive. This is painting that is considered and layered, in a manner similar to how O’Toole relates still to the vastness and isolation of the landscape in which she grew up: the measured pace of working, the slow yielding of the ground, and the daily rhythm of life on a farm in County Mayo, Ireland. The work pays tribute to the memories, stories, and histories of the locale. The stories – told or merely gestured toward – the memories and a sense of place have compelled her to expand her investigation and understanding of the land as a place of sublime beauty and haunting sadness. Her ancestors and neighbors paid history’s judgment, rendered by the colonizers of a people, who in turn incarcerated their own. And in the name and fear of what? The west of Ireland continues to be deceptive in its beauty and easy absorption by the eye: despite recent progress a persistent connection to a darker past resonates still.

Photograph credit: Doug Manelski

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