Listening to Maire O’Donnell ’23 describe 19th-century still-life artworks is like listening to a parent gush over their children. She studies their every detail, knows things about them that others don’t, and regards them with a deep and abiding affection.
The art history/Spanish double major is curating an exhibition of four works by American and European painters at the Fitchburg Art Museum. The work has allowed her the opportunity select the paintings, design the exhibition layout, write all the labels and supporting text, and even turn herself into something of an expert on Philadelphia squirrels and decaying strawberries.
The exhibition, “Nuts and Berries,” is centered around the 1863 work “Still Life with Squirrel” by Philadelphia artist John J. Eyers, an evocation of an eastern gray squirrel preparing to feast on a walnut. The animal stands poised before a collection of lush fruit, a staple of still-lifes.
“Philadelphia was one of the first cities to introduce eastern gray squirrels to the landscape, and other cities on the Eastern Seaboard followed suit,” O’Donnell explains. “It’s an amazing painting that was purchased from Sotheby’s in honor of a former museum board member.”
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Once she determined that the Eyers painting would be the exhibition’s focal point, O’Donnell searched through the permanent collection to find other works that supported similar themes. One of those, “Study of Strawberries,” is a classic example of how a still life “warns against the brevity of earthly time and the vanity of earthly pleasures,” she notes. For instance, the beautiful strawberries depicted in the painting, when observed closely, reveal some browning on the leaves, a discoloration that was the result of a common fungus, O’Donnell says.
A native of Oak Park, Illinois, O’Donnell, who plays varsity field hockey at Clark, previously has interned at the Worcester Art Museum and the Springfield Museums, building a portfolio in the curatorial, collections management, and educational spheres of museum work. She is eyeing a museum-related career but hasn’t decided on a specialty.
O’Donnell secured her Fitchburg Art Museum internship through the Career Connections Center, which brought her into contact with the museum’s director, Clark alumnus Nick Capasso ’81. She assisted with the museum’s first-ever inventory of its permanent collection and, with Capasso’s encouragement, planned and executed the “Nuts and Berries” exhibition.
“Because the museum is a smaller institution, I’ve had the kind of hands-on experience that’s not very common,” O’Donnell says. “Nick Capasso gives the staff a lot of freedom to engage with artwork in a way that makes it relevant and important to the community.”
O’Donnell will be studying in Madrid next semester, which will give her the opportunity to research the art she loves, this time in a second language.
“Nuts and Berries” will be on display through January 22 at the Fitchburg Art Museum (185 Elm Street, Fitchburg, Mass.). However, O’Donnell notes that it may be extended beyond that date.
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