The Documentary Still Life's of Mark O'Dea
By Steven Thomas
The term "Documentary Still Life" seems most apt in describing Mark O'Dea's paintings as they take as their subject matter authentic historical antiques from America's Colonial and Revolutionary periods arranged in traditional still life fashion. In the course of painting these works, O'Dea travelled extensively over the territory of the original thirteen colonies, researching, photographing and doing preliminary sketches of objects from over sixty museums and historical houses.
Mark O'Dea was something of a Renaissance man. He was born in a small Illinois town in 1886. In his early years as an advertising copywriter, he went first west to Montana and back to the Midwest with his wife and young daughter and finally to New York City in the late twenties where he soon established his own advertising firm. He wrote several books on advertising, one of which was translated into several languages. Later, in Vermont, he edited a feature page for the national advertising magazine, Printer's Ink. In 1939 he went to Washington, D.C. to work as Director of Public Relations for the Maritime Commission. While there he created the concept for the famous "Ships For Victory" badge that used the American eagle with its wings spread in the "V for Victory" sign made so famous by Winston Churchill. The badge caught the eye of President Roosevelt and was copied for the "Win The War" three cent stamp issued during World War II.
Following the war, O'Dea had successful shows of his flower paintings at the Ferargil Gallery in New York City. Shortly thereafter he moved to Vermont where he hoped to finally be able to devote himself to his flower paintings on a fulltime basis. When he found Vermont's harsh climate not conducive to such plans he turned instead to still life painting using antiques from his own and friends' collections.
One day a doctor and his wife from Ohio purchased one of his paintings and before leaving his studio they quizzed O'Dea about the antiques pictured and took copious notes. They explained that friends often inquired about subjects or scenes in their art collection and they wished to document them. From that time on O'Dea began to compose short descriptive notations for each of his still lifes. One day while arranging an old iron kettle for a painting he realized that his kettle had no particular "story".
"Out of the depth of my memory," he said, "I realized that Capt. Miles Standish brought a similar iron kettle on the Mayflower and it was in the museum in Plymouth." He rushed to Plymouth and in Pilgrim Hall found Miles Standish's iron kettle and other historical items brought on the Mayflower in 1620: John Alden's burl cup, William White's candlestick, Gov. Winslow's mortar and pestle, Deacon Brewster's christening cloth, the silver cup of Peregrine White, the first white child born there, and Josiah Winslow's spoons. Out of this group of items (and using the wall board's from John Alden's house as background) was born the first documentary still life painting.
His painting, "Patrick Henry," which depicted the patriot's flute, powder container, snuff box and Waterford crystal decanter and glasses, was unveiled on board the nuclear-powered submarine The USS Patrick Henry in New London, Connecticut in 1960. The work was hung in the officer's mess and it is believed to be the first time any submarine has installed a memorial painting.
His documentary still life's are also in the permanent collections of Dartmouth College, The Southern Vermont Art Center, and the Fleming Museum at the University of Vermont. During his lifetime his works were featured in McCall's, Spinning Wheel and Yankee magazines. He had many group and one-man shows including those at the Chaffee Gallery, Sheldon Museum, Fleming Museum, Southern Vermont Art Center, Carpenter Gallery, The Museum of Fine Arts, and the Toledo Museum.