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Orin Carpenter

Pandemic Pivot: O'Hanlon Center's Commitment to Diversify

In the aftermath of Covid-19 shutdowns, the Marin-based O’Hanlon Center for the Arts, like so many other arts outlets, has had a unique set of challenges throughout the pandemic. With the subsequent murder of George…

In the aftermath of Covid-19 shutdowns, the Marin-based O’Hanlon Center for the Arts, like so many other arts outlets, has had a unique set of challenges throughout the pandemic. With the subsequent murder of George Floyd and rise of the Black Lives Matter movement last year, further adjustments were made, and in some instances, the Center thrived.

“After Floyd murder and the protests that followed, it (racism) became more prominent in our consciousness, especially in these non-diverse environments like Marin,” explains Erma Murphy, director of programming and outreach at the O’Hanlon Center for the Arts in Mill Valley. “We jumped right on that with our board president putting out a formal statement proclaiming the support of diversity. But right after we put out the statement, we wondered what we were going to do to make it happen. Whatever we were going to do, we wanted it to be sincere and consistent.”

After the O’Hanlon Center’s team posted their diversity commitment, they contacted the predominately Black artist community of Marin City Arts and Culture to collaborate and give them and other artists of color from the Bay Area more access to the O’Hanlon Center programs. As a result, they set up Zoom meetings between the two groups of artists, including a presentation from visual artist Orin Carpenter.

“I see the O’Hanlon’s commitment to inclusivity as positive steps for Marin artists and the broader arts community regionally and nationally,” the artist Orin Carpenter declares. “When we look back over time, there have been gradual moves for inclusion, but we know some steps seemed much, much slower in the transition than others. This is something that will take time to resolve. The art community is no different. However, the moves forward seem a little easier for people to change how they view art, artists, experts within the art community, etc. I truly believe this jolt forward will be difficult for us to move backward.”

Embedded deep in the wooded residential area of Mill Valley, the O’Hanlon Center for the Arts is physically somewhat hidden while being very much a presence in the local arts community of Marin County. It is a unique community-focused nonprofit art center with a rich history of 51 years. Created by married couple artists, Dick and Ann O’Hanlon, their project began modestly as Ann’s workshops but quickly became very popular. It was in its early days that Ann realized she no longer wanted to teach art. Instead, she aspired to help people learn how to look at and engage with art. Over the decades, the couple and their art center grew a loyal following, with a mission to help people explore their creativity

Although their studios did have to close, physically speaking, they have remained open virtually to support visual, performing, and literary artists members. They quickly began hosting artist talks and workshops, and implementing an additional layer of engagement to online curated works with introductions by a poet. They have been able to expand their reach thanks to Zoom and virtual experiences. O’Hanlon Center staff were concerned about whether or not leaning into technology would work.

Erma Murphy, O’Hanlon Center

“Until the pandemic, we were very active, able to host regular events on campus as well as numerous in-person workshops. We also had several artist studios that people were able to use during the day, along with salons, “Art Film Fridays, etc.” explains Erma Murphy, director of programming and outreach.

The O’Hanlon team built relationship with other organizations, such as the Canal Alliance, a Latino immigrant outreach organization in San Rafael and Latinx artists from the Bay Area in general. It was through this connection, and encouraging artists from the Latinx community to submit to be juried at O’Hanlon, that several new Latinx artists were selected. One such invite recipient is Oscar Lopez who studies and practices art in the South Bay. He and others participated in the round table discussions for the first time, bringing a much appreciated fresh perspective.

“It’s been beneficial for me to meet and communicate with creative individuals and a creative organization that I didn’t even know existed until last year. It’s a special experience to bring a different point of view to this community,” Lopez excitedly accentuates. “During the roundtable after my showing, attendees appreciated my honest discussion about how I perceive myself versus how others perceive me as a Mexican immigrant. Since then, we have established a good line of communication. I honor what they are doing as activism and long-term dedication.”

Lopez arrived in the U.S. from Mexico City 16 years ago at 20 years old with limited prior access to art. He had experience working on graffiti, while pursuing a career in computer engineering. Lopez went on to study art, and now values the new relationship with the O’Hanlon Center. Both he and Carpenter participated in the “Many Voices, Many Views” online exhibit hosted by the O’Hanlon Center. 

Oscar Lopez speaking during an O’Hanlon virtual presentation

As seemingly enthused and committed to diversity among visual artists, so too is the Center to expanding their literary arts program – literary writing practice session and poetry specifically- to the center overall and their now virtual platform. Cruwys Brown, O’Hanlon Center’s new streaming literary arts program manager and a former Marin Poet Laureate, lit up when described something called Ekphratic poetry, which are poems about a piece of art.

“One of the most famous examples of such poetry is John Keats’ ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn.’ Some of our members, myself included, combined our poetry with art and then present it to the group. Whether it’s Ekphratic poetry or some other kind, the key is that members can discuss their works, but the emphasis is on art, expression and to include a variety of people and voices.”

CB Follett

If I say to you chair.
Do you see your old desk chair
where you wrote tentative essays
on transcendentalism
while you wished you were skating
on the ice-hard pond at Tilley’s Corner?
What molecules race from ears to eyes:
your grandmother’s wing chair
where she sat by the fire, knitting?
What are those letters,
that they can carry wood and fiber?
Two vowels and a trio of consonants
and your mind insists that you see form,
will not allow the letters to float without substance.
You can only hang them on the shaped moments
of your past, always the past,
for as you say it, think it, form
the image, it is tempered even then
according to your one completing life.

The O’Hanlon Center is determined to walk the talk.  As the ever-increasing and newly diversifying membership honor its founders’ cultural legacy, they now, more than ever, also strive to give back in new and innovative ways to the artists, art lovers, writers, and performers who inspire them. Post-pandemic at the O’Hanlon Center will include outreach across the bridges to communities in the East Bay and San Francisco. They realize it’s something they have to be very conscious of now and will take some time, but believe this current deliberate push to diversify will someday be a natural, unconscious part of who they are as an organization. The real hope is that their commendable allegiance to change is mirrored in the world of art beyond Marin and the Bay Area and throughout the nation.

See more of Orin Carpenter’s work in the online exhibit “My American Experience” which opened March 8 at the O’Hanlon Center.

Paula Farmer is an author event host and moderator for Book Passage, and chairwoman of the new Diversity and Inclusion Committee for the CALIBA (California Independent Booksellers Association). She curates special panel events for Book Passage that focus on timely social and political issues. Her background is in print and broadcast journalism.