Bemidji artist Maureen O'Brien was the kind of person who would go above and beyond for her community. When commissioned to paint a mural at the former M Health Fairview children's wing, where children would go for chemotherapy, she painted all kinds of animals — bears, raccoons, ducks, loons and butterflies. But even after the mural was finished, O'Brien would go to the hospital periodically and add new animals so the children who were there long-term would have something new to find.
O'Brien died June 12 following a three-month battle with COVID-19 and other complications. She was 78.
O'Brien was known for her wildlife and landscape paintings and murals, which can be found across Minnesota. She wanted her work to give people a moment of feeling like they are going into the woods for a rest, said her daughter Pamela Mertz.
"She wanted her art to communicate peace and serenity and joy and all the things that tend to get stolen from us in everyday life and when hard things happen," Mertz said.
As a child, O'Brien would get in trouble for scribbling drawings all over the walls. Born in St. Paul, O'Brien was self-taught and started with drawing caricatures of children. Her professional career as an artist really began to take off when she was pregnant, Mertz said. She took Mertz on many visits to art shows.
"For the longest time, I thought every family went to art shows all summer long, because that's what we did. We would hang out with potters and other painters, and people that were woodcarvers and musicians," Mertz said. "It was such a great way to immerse us in the appreciation of art."
O'Brien taught classes from her Evergreen Farm Studio, worked with the artist associations in the area, and encouraged creativity in her community. Friends, family and neighbors wanted to know how she could paint so much wildlife with just four brushes, Mertz said.
Her niece, St. Paul movement artist Lara Hanson, continues to be inspired by her aunt's visual art and love for community, she said. O'Brien always encouraged Hanson's creative endeavors but never pushed.
"I feel like she's influenced me without me even really knowing, even more so than just the art … with a love for animals and nature, caring for others," Hanson said.
Several Bemidji area schools have O'Brien's murals, which she worked on with the help of students after teaching them a technique. She painted another large mural at the North American Bear Center in Ely. "She's left her mark on lots of places," Mertz said.
Since her mother's death, Mertz said she's felt a spark of creativity in herself.
"There's a little stirring within me. … What did I retain that she taught me? And can I still drag a brush and make a branch? I do want to explore that a little bit," Mertz said.
The family is preparing to set up an art scholarship in O'Brien's name, Mertz said.
Besides Mertz, O'Brien is survived by four other children: Suzie Takle, Andrew Takle, Daniel O'Brien, and Katie Leopard, as well as her siblings Todd Fetsch, Keith Moldenhauer, Cindy Johannessohn, Becky Alton, Claudia Cohn, Teri Welch, Wendy Harrington, Tammy Fetsch and Bill Fetsch; seven grandsons and one granddaughter.
A celebration of life is set for 3 to 7 p.m. Aug. 13 at Hampton Inn in Bemidji.
Zoë Jackson • firstname.lastname@example.org