Mattie Lou O´Kelley


O´Kelley was a memory painter born into a farming family in rural Banks County, Georgia. She spent the first seven decades of her life there. When her father died in 1930, shestayed on to care for her mother long after her siblings left home to raise families of their own. After her mother died in 1955, she continued to support herself, as shehad throughout her adult life, working as a housekeeper and in a school cafeteria.In the 1960s, looking for a more agreeable means of earning an income, O’Kelley began to paint. Shortly thereafter, she began offering her paintings for sale at localart shows in Maysville (in Banks County). In 1975, seeking a wider audience for her art, she went to Atlanta and showed some of her paintings to Gudmund Vigtel,then director of The High Museum of Art. He arranged for her to sell her work through the museum gift shop, and introduced her to a dealer who began representingher work.Robert Bishop saw her paintings on a visit to Atlanta in the late 1970s. When he became director of New York’s American Folk Art Museum, he championed her work. Within a few years of her retirement in 1968 (from her last job, in a Maysville mop yarn plant), O’Kelley was earning a livable wage through sales of her paintings.O’Kelley primarily painted scenes she recalled from her childhood, youth, and early adulthood on and around the farm where she grew up—images that place her work firmly in the memory painting genre. Painting at a time when small farms were noticeably struggling and declining in number, O’Kelley vividly expressed her nostalgic feelings for the rural, agrarian lifestyle she knew. Her landscapes are highly stylized, and make liberal use of pointillist brushstrokes, in which she uses smalldots of paint that form shapes and tones of color when viewed from a distance. The trees in her paintings are so uniformly shaped that they appear to have beencreated by a topiary artist. O’Kelley’s paintings are idyllic panoramas that convey a sense of the family farm as a self-sufficient utopia, a place suffused with peace andcontentment.In 1977, O’Kelley left Banks County and, over the next three years, lived in New York City and Palm Beach, Florida, before settling in Decatur, Georgia, whereshe spent the rest of her life.