Fun with Words and Pictures

Glissando, tremolo, accelerando, adagio, diminuendo, appasionato — these musical terms are the titles for Tasha O’Neill’s latest series of photographs on view at Gallery 14 in Hopewell.

The show itself is titled Etudes. Ms. O’Neill gives the definition:
“A short musical composition, typically for one instrument, designed as an exercise, to improve the technique or demonstrate the skill of the player.”

Photographing trees — first in New Jersey, then in Maine, where she summers, and the California Redwoods — Tasha O’Neill began to compose her own etudes.  Light surrounding specific trees or groves literally called to the photographer.  Shifting her camera, under varying exposures, she transformed everyday realities into total abstraction. 

Wielding her camera like a paintbrush, Ms. O’Neill dips her camera into variables of both time and light, as though they were spread upon a limitless palette, according to promotional materials.  Patterns and texture emerge.  Some trees seem to melt, others to ignite.  Sky is pulled down into foliage like shooting stars or fireworks. Majestic redwoods turn fluid.  Fog enhances certain scenes with a theatrical backdrop.

The photographer describes the moment of connection as “heart-stopping.”  Shapes altered by time and light reveal rhythm itself. With the camera as instrument, she composes visual music, in which color itself becomes a coloratura.

Here’s what I wrote about Ms. O’Neill a year ago:

Frank Gehry’s architecture inspires everyone from poets to photographers. Tasha O’Neill first discovered how their mediums could feed off each other while completing images for an exhibit on the intimacy of flowers. She noticed the similarity in curves in Gehry’s Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles. “Gehry’s use of the sleek and the gleaming, although industrial materials, partner effectively with Nature,” Ms. O’Neill writes in her artist statement for A Glimmer of Gehry.

Ms. O’Neill, a licensed pilot who picked up a camera in 1992 after her first husband died, was inspired by the U.S. Air Force song lyrics to title her works in this exhibit: In “Into the Wild Blue Yonder” a purple glass wall reflects the tower of Seattle’s Space Needle. “Dreaming of Skies” offers curves of soft silvery metal shingles next to a pink undulating glass wall. Poet and nature activist Carolyn Foote Edelmann worked with Ms. O’Neill on developing the titles.

“I’m looking for portraits in everything,” says Ms. O’Neill, who just celebrated her sixth decade with her mother in Schwinfurt, Germany. She came to this country in 1973 to work as an au pair for the Gallup family and has remained in Princeton ever since, spending summers at her home on Mt. Desert Island in Maine. “Maine was critical in my recovery after my husband died,” she says. She picked up the camera at first because she had to become the family photographer to chronicle life for her son, then 12. In Maine she was inspired by her garden and the butterflies it attracted, and began making notecards from these.

“I had an epiphany on the D&R Canal,” she recollects. “Ice had formed into big beautiful fronds of ice flowers. I took two pictures and was impressed with myself, so I signed up for a correspondence course at the New York Institute of Photography.” By 1998, she was showing her flowers and butterflies at the Nassau Club in Princeton. She went on to exhibit at Phillips’ Mill in Pennsylvania and in Maine, and her work is in private collections around the world.

Although her first “live” experience with Gehry was Walt Disney Hall, and then the Experience Music Project in Seattle, the infatuation began when she saw pictures of the Guggenheim in The New York Times. She says his structures are imposing but fit in.

She went to Disney Hall for a “look-see,” took her camera, walked around the building and went back later in the day for different light, shooting everything in less than two hours. She does most of the cropping in the camera and a minimal amount of editing, printing the 12-by-18-inch images in her own digital darkroom. A colleague prints the larger 16-by-24-inch works.

When she first saw the EMP building in Seattle, “I wasn’t impressed; I thought it was ugly. But when you dissect it into its components, you find shapes and concentrate on the juxtapositions.”

Although constricted by the placement of the construction fence, she has made some images of the Lewis Science Library and is considering a “Gehry East and West” project. “The concept that we have a Gehry building on campus is something to be proud of,” she says. “I need to make friends when it’s finished and approachable.”

Traveling the world for reflections in windows – one of her favorite subjects – Ms. O’Neill has found some of the best in her home town, from autumn leaves in a leaded glass window on University Place to the iron grate on the doorway to E.Y. Staats Hair Salon on Moore Street. She has even found beauty in her garbage disposal.

“Rator’s Last Meal” (titled for the letters of the disposal manufacturer’s name that are visible here) is a colorful composition of red onion skins, green fennel, red pepper and the yellow seed pod of a pepper, reflecting their last light before being sucked down the drain.

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3 Responses to Fun with Words and Pictures

  1. Valerie Chaucer-Levine says:

    What a wonderful description of a fascinating body of work. I can’t wait to see the exhibit!

  2. Thanks a million, Ilene.

  3. Dear Ilene,

    You have really captured Tasha in this post. How delightful to re-read what you wrote for her Gehry exhibition!

    Tonight’s opening at Gallery 14 should be a triumph. I see these light-paintings of Tasha’s as a genre unto themselves.

    Her flashes of insight and creativity are on a par with her first husband, Jerry O’Neill’s breakthroughs in physics and space colonization.

    Tasha’s been a pilot, as has Alan McIlroy, her delightful husband of today — and as was Jerry. This seems more than coincidence to me. So long as I’ve known Tasha, she’s been into flight – up, up and away!; off we go, into the wild blue yonder and all that. Deprived of the pilot’s seat, she’s taken up the camera.

    And we are all the richer for this transition!

    Thank you for your lively evocations, Ilene. Of course, you, too, are an artist!



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