Maureen O'Brien remembered for much more than her stunning art
Maureen O’Brien, 78, died on Saturday, June 12 following a three-month illness from COVID-19, pneumonia and a perforated bowel. She was being treated at the University of Minnesota Medical Center and was unaware that her 103-year-old rural Solway home was destroyed by fire on June 1.
BEMIDJI -- Known around the region for her stunning paintings, Maureen O’Brien is being remembered for her kindness, humility and presence.
O’Brien, 78, died on Saturday, June 12 following a three-month illness from COVID-19, pneumonia and a perforated bowel. She was being treated at the University of Minnesota Medical Center and was unaware that her 103-year-old rural Solway home was destroyed by fire on June 1.
O’Brien’s artwork is on display throughout the region. She was a member of Gallery North in downtown Bemidji, and her murals adorn buildings in many locations, including schools. Her paintings are hung in every guest room at Bemidji’s Hampton Inn & Suites, where a celebration of her life is planned for Friday. Aug. 13, from 3-7 p.m.
A GoFundMe account set up to help O’Brien’s family with medical and fire expenses has raised $30,000 as of Thursday.
Fellow Gallery North artist Jamie Lee remembers the first time she met O’Brien about five years ago.
“When I first joined the gallery she was like the queen of the gallery,” Lee said. “Not having ever met her, I was intimidated by her because she’s a real artist and I’m not. Then one day this woman came in and talked to me. We had this wonderful chat for about 45 minutes.”
Lee asked the woman her name. It was Maureen O’Brien.
“And we were friends ever since,” Lee said. “She was just so not an intimidating person. She really did a lot to give me confidence in what I was doing and exploring myself as an artist.”
O’Brien has been a vendor at Bemidji’s Art in the Park for many years. The art fair is sponsored by the Watermark Art Center, and Executive Director Lori Forshee-Donnay said Maureen was hopeful she could be back at the annual summertime event this year. It was canceled because of the pandemic in 2020 but will return this summer for its 53rd year on July 17-18 .
“She was really a generous artist with her talent and her time,” Forshee-Donnay said. “She was just a delight to work with. We have artists come and go, but losing an artist to that event and to the community as a whole is hard for everyone. We're fortunate to be able to have her work around the community.”
O’Brien’s daughter, Pam Mertz, said the family hopes to work with Gallery North to create a tour map of her mother’s paintings and murals around the region. Pam has been comforted by many shared memories the family has received since Maureen’s passing.
“She was such a kind and gentle soul,” Mertz said. “She paused with everyone and made them feel they were the only one important to her in the moment. She didn't appear hurried, ever. She was always very present, even with us kids.”
Mertz remembers how her mother noticed the beauty of creation.
“Even as kids,” Mertz said, “we would be driving in the winter and she would look off into the grayness of no trees, nothing, look at the hues of colors, the dogwood and the pines and the grasses. Even though they're dead they still have color. I'm just so much more keenly aware of color and texture, and just the beauty of creation. Those kinds of things she really instilled in all of us. Be present in creation, be present with others. That's how she communicated love.”