September 2021
Inspired by Nature
The Many Colors of Mary Kaye O’Neill

The creator of the Laughin’ Giraffe, “the Provocateur of a prettier and more gentle world,” lives in a beautiful retreat-like setting on a hill alongside Thumb Butte. Her garden is full of colorful and native plants surrounded by an artfully crafted and stunningly rusted steel fence. I was given the opportunity to tour Mary Kaye’s studio and pass some time with her. After touring her home, full of art and color, and her studios, we sat on the porch in the garden and discussed her history, her inspiration, and her love of color. We were joined by the sound of the water sculpture, the buzz of hummingbirds and the smiling female Buddha who presides over the garden.

On seeing a piece of Mary Kaye’s art, one might imagine larger-than-life personality creating it. But the woman behind it is demure and gracious, with an intensely intelligent sparkle in her eyes. Asked to describe her art, Mary Kaye smiles shyly at first, and thoughtfully replies, “Color inspired by nature, with a touch of whimsy.” She is still modest about the title ‘artist’ even after many years of success making jewelry and beautifully colored painted silk.

The prevailing thought for many is that artists begin early, needing to express themselves, but this talented artist began at age 40. She is the middle child from a traditional family and attended parochial schools. There were no art programs in her education, and conformity was prized as a virtue. Always the nature lover, she assures me that her nonconformist side remained alive and well through it. Her Masters in elementary education is from George Mason University, and as she talks you instantly wish she had been one of your teachers.

It was not until years later, as a career counselor at Yavapai College, that she started to take various art classes to explore her creative side. Under the direction of Bill Ford and Dick Marcusen she learned the jeweler’s craft and began showing and selling her work. In 1996she began working with the Jerome Artists Cooperative and later Arts Prescott. She has shown and sold her work in galleries across the region for 25 years.

Over the past decade she has turned her creative energy to a softer medium, color on silk. Her home is a feast for the eye, the walls a palette for a collection of color. Her personal collection includes metal sculptures, watercolors, oils, ceramics, and paintings on silk. Her studio is a magical place full of colorful bottles and large floor frames to hold the silks she is working on. She has been a lifelong seamstress, and adjacent to the studio is a sewing room. On one wall the large, wide-eyed watercolor Laughing Giraffe oversees production.

Wearable pieces include silk scarves, tunics and wraps. She recently began artistically upcycling clothing as well. While walking the studio Mary Kaye explains that each piece starts out completely white. The silk is first stretched on a form and she draws her design with a resist. Once her design is in place, she applies the colors. Although the color-on-silk process is the same, the time involved varies based on the size of the piece and its purpose. When asked what inspires her drawing and color choices, she cites nature and music. The genre depends on her mood.

Much to my surprise, it is a common misconception that silk is delicate. Mary Kaye says it is a strong fiber that’s easy to care for. The silk wearables can be washed with a gentle shampoo, hung to dry and ironed using a silk setting when needed. That certainly makes ‘wearable art’ more wearable to me.

Mary Kaye is a long-time member of an international group of silk painters called Silk Painters International (aka Spin, Her group within the organization is called the Cyber Silkies, which was born at an international conference in Santa Fe ten years ago. Every other yearthe group comes together in Santa Fe, and in between they exchange ideas and support each other’s creativity online. Among the many interesting projects that she is involved in this year is a show that honors the 100th year of the women’s suffrage movement, rescheduled for this fall from last year. She will be showing her series of female nudes on silk in September in her home state, Ohio.

Meeting Mary Kaye is an inspiring and delightful experience, and luckily you can do that as well. She will be at the ‘Tis Gallery on Cortez St. for October’s Fourth Friday Art Walk reception on October 22, 5-7pm.She and four other women artists have created “a fun, outrageous look at fashion and decorative art/design” called Let’s Give Ordinary the Day Off!!! (Yes, with three exclamation points.)

Mary Kaye O’Neill is currently featured at Kriegers Gallery in St.Michaels Alley as well as ‘Tis Gallery. For more information about her work and to see her art, visit

Laine Murphy is a local writer covering the arts in Prescott.

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