Profiles Visual Arts

Vivian O’Shaughnessy: the subtlety of a polymorph artist

Homage to Simon Hantaï

Almost two decades ago, in the heart of Chelsea where I worked managing a gallery space, I crossed paths with Vivian O’Shaughnessy, a native Texan who had migrated to New York in the eighties. Having recently retired from the Academic world, she was not ready to retire from life itself. With no particular creative background experience other than a robust interest in the arts, Vivian decided to plunge into the art world by enrolling in drawing classes at the Art Student’s League.

With the humility and discretion that characterizes Vivian, coupled with assertiveness, she had come a few times to the gallery to casually strike-up conversations, like any other New York artist would have done in those days, in hope of advice, and ideally, representation. Intrigued by her character, I was immediately impressed by the energy that emanated from her, as well as her unwavering commitment to her newfound artistic pursuits. Vivian attended drawing sessions, all over town – sometimes late into the evening, in addition to her classes at the League.

Snowdonia, a project inspired by Karen Kukil upon a visit to Wales

Like many artists confronted by the intricate maze of the art world, Vivian started to realize that external help might be needed to navigate it. Our chats became more regular and friendly, and one day she caught me off guard, asking if I could work with her to help her promote her creations. I hesitated for a moment, taken aback by the unexpected proposal. Managing a gallery was already a demanding job, and representing an artist required a level of commitment I wasn’t sure I could afford. Yet, there was something about Vivian’s sincerity and passion that resonated with me.

After careful consideration, I agreed to take on the challenge. We started small, integrating some of her work into an incoming group show at the gallery, meanwhile submitting extensively the diverse range of Vivian’s oil crayons nude drawings and paintings she had produced.

Our routine was consistent. Every Sunday, we would meet at Vivian’s Manhattan apartment. We would start our work session with a casual bite and a drink, setting the stage for the tasks ahead. Vivian, always the meticulous planner, had prepared a detailed to-do list for the day. Our agenda variably included taking photographs of new artwork and engaging in discussions about potential venues worldwide that Vivian had spotted during her weeklong internet perusal. Regardless of the weather, scorching heat or snowstorm alike, we always dedicated ourselves to our work, often extending our sessions late into the evening.

Hand illustrated copy of Red Comet by Heather Clark in the Lily Collection

As Vivian’s confidence in her work grew, so did our collaboration. We began attending art fairs and gallery openings together, networking with other artists, including Louise Bourgeois’s renowned salons, and exploring different avenues to showcase her talent. The art world was a tough terrain, but Vivian faced it with the same determination she brought to her drawing sessions.

A pivotal moment arrived when a year into our collaboration, as I was going back to Paris for a personal show, I asked Vivian if she would come with me. Vivian’s late mother being French, we both intuitively felt that reconnecting with her roots could elevate her work to new heights, while simultaneously opening new doors.

Edwin Morgan Art Activity Handout

Vivian was instantly in her element the minute we arrived in France. She immediately got involved with “The Friends of Arthur Rimbaud” organization, forging a lasting friendship with Jean-Luc Steinmetz, Rimbaud’s official biographer and France’s Grand Prize of Poetry recipient. Trips to Verlaine’s museum and retracing Rimbaud’s footsteps led Vivian to connect with personalities in Paris’ intellectual and literary circles, and numerous artistic collaborations followed suit.

Vivian’s annual pilgrimages to the city of lights spanned almost a decade. She honed art techniques at the prestigious École des Beaux Arts of Paris, and her hand-made artist books were selected to be part of the collections of the Kandinsky Library at the Pompidou Center, the Bibliothèque Nationale François Mitterrand and the Institut du Monde Arabe.

Hand-illustrated book of Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom story by Sylvia Plath (Smith College Collection)

Over the years, our partnership deepened beyond a professional relationship. Vivian became more than just an artist I represented; she became a close friend. As Vivian’s reputation flourished, so did her artistic exploration. From intricate Matisse-like crayons drawings to illustrating poetry books and translating literary poetry into French and Spanish, Vivian fearlessly embraced diverse creative outlets. She taught herself Braille to create artist books for the visually impaired, she became a resident artist at a prominent New York art space, drawing live performances, and heavily invested in illustrating Sylvia Plath’s extensive anthology while collaborating with international authorities such as Karen Kukil at Smith College and James Underwood at the Ted Hughes Society.

While Vivian poured her heart into creating a collection that would showcase her evolution as an artist, she expressed a desire to give back to the artistic community that had supported her. Vivian created art activity workshops that we submitted to local museums and art venues, aiming to inspire other artists and younger generations to embrace their creative potential.

Together, Vivian and I explored the ever-evolving realm of the art world, nurturing friendships, inspiring creativity, and demonstrating the transformational power of art on the journey through life.

Many others have found inspiration in the Texan woman who started an artistic adventure in her later years. Vivian O’Shaughnessy, with the subtlety of a polymorph artist, showed us how experience can become an example of the strength of desire, perseverance, and the conviction that one can follow one’s aspirations at any stage of life. G&S IG: vivianoshaughnessy

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