By Lannan M. O’Brien
Julia O’Malley-Keyes dedicates life and work to bringing others joy.
Step into the little gallery at 143 Maravista Avenue (chosen by the artist for its number, which represents the number of letters in each word of “I love you”) and you’ll be welcomed by Julia O’Malley-Keyes. She’ll offer you a brief tour of the space and answer any questions you have. Then she’ll leave you alone with her work while she tends to the garden. Julia will return only if you ring the bell, or if it’s a nice evening, to ask, “Would you like a glass of wine?”
It is, as she puts it, “the zero-pressure art gallery.” A firm believer in the golden rule, O’Malley-Keyes offers the privacy and space she’d appreciate as the art viewer. And only when she has left will you notice that the beautiful photographs you were admiring aren’t photographs at all—they’re oil paintings.
Perhaps it’s the relaxed atmosphere of her gallery space, her tendency to swear like a sailor or her down-to-earth disposition. But something about talking with O’Malley-Keyes feels like reuniting with an old friend. While she firmly denies any renown, it’s true that she’s an internationally recognized painter who has been trained by household names in the art world. While summering in Maine as a teen, O’Malley-Keyes honed her skills under the guidance of family friend Andrew Wyeth, one of the best known American artists of the 20th century. “He wouldn’t let me pick up a paintbrush until he thought my drawing was good enough,” she says. “That’s why my work is so detailed.”
With Wyeth’s help, she sold her first painting at age 16. She opened her first art gallery in Provincetown in her early twenties, which she operated for a decade. From 1996-2012, she ran her award-winning Day Hill Fine Art Gallery in Falmouth. In between, she has traveled the world and studied painting, until her journey led her back to the place she loves, Falmouth.
If you ask O’Malley-Keyes, everything she has accomplished is owed to someone else. She credits each of her skills to the artist who trained her in that particular area of expertise. Her gallery space is thanks to the former town zoning administrator, Sari Budrow, who advocated for her. It isn’t hard to imagine, then, that the motivation for her work is a selfless one: creating a positive feeling for other people. “My inspiration is always that feeling of looking at something and having it bring back a great memory, and in some way, comforting you,” she says. The artist is inspired by the beauty around her, in Falmouth and beyond, because as she says, “We’ve got tons of negativity in the world. Why would I want to add to that?”
Although much of O’Malley-Keyes’ childhood was spent in Greenwich, Connecticut, with summers in Maine and on the Cape, her family of eight children called many places home. Describing her father, Nial O’Malley-Keyes, as an eccentric world traveler. She recounts being uprooted to new homes throughout the country, and even to Mexico, over the years. Any traditional sense of stability was absent, but there was a common thread connecting each of the O’Malley-Keyes family’s homes. The ocean and sailing, leading to Julia’s appreciation for classic sailing yachts.
It was O’Malley-Keyes’ father, too, who inspired her to spend life traveling the world, experiencing other cultures and learning from the best artists in the field. He also helped spark her artistic journey early in life, requiring that each of his children pursue a creative path. Julia’s, of course, was painting.
O’Malley-Keyes’ work is an invitation. Whether the subject is a swan, a ballet dancer or a sailing regatta. It seems to invite the viewer in to be part of the experience. That’s exactly the goal. Each feather of the swan’s extended wings, intricate lace pattern on a dancer’s costume, and wrinkle of a crewman’s shirt is executed in lifelike detail, with hardly a brushstroke in sight. “With every single painting I create, the objective is that you can feel yourself in it,” says O’Malley-Keyes. “You’re there. When I do a painting of Wood Neck Beach. Julia wants you to feel the breeze and smell the scent of the flowers.”
It might seem like magic, but in reality, it’s the result of an Old Master technique of layering “hundreds and hundreds” of layers of transparent color. In this painstaking process, each layer needs to dry before applying the next, until, at last, the image visually reads a certain color. “You can only get that living, breathing luminosity by this technique,” O’Malley-Keyes says. “Sometimes when I take a step back and look at [the finished product], I’m really wowed.”
And that’s only the painting process. For her classic marine paintings, O’Malley-Keyes attends sailing regattas from Antigua to Cowes, England, and Saint-Tropez, France. She often leases a boat and hires a professional photographer to capture the action. But even with professional photos, she explains, “You can’t paint directly from photography and have it be believable.” She might do a quick sketch, but being on the water presents its challenges. So she takes notes about colors and other details on a voice-activated recorder.
The time and effort O’Malley-Keyes puts into her work isn’t about personal success, but rather a means to bring people joy. Her passion for giving extends beyond the canvas, too. For the past 50 years, the artist has regularly donated her work, including original oil paintings, to charities near and far. Cotuit Center for the Arts, Cape Cod Museum of Art, Figawi Charities and many more. Behind it all, she says, is a simple sentiment: “You get from life what you give to it.”
To view more of Julia’s fine art visit https://capecodartgallery.com/