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As a cofounder of St. Louis’s beloved Forsyth Gallery, John O’Hara knows a thing or two about contemporary art and design. A must-visit space for everything from Mid-century pieces to natural hides alike, Forsyth has long been known for its curation of every element of an interior, expertly weaving chic furniture with paintings, sculpture, and richly textured rugs. But it wasn’t until the gallery’s showing at the AD Design Show in 2018 that O’Hara found himself recast in an entirely new role: as a contemporary artist himself.

Just a few years later, O’Hara’s large-scale works are highly sought after by collectors and designers alike. Three of his Tar paintings were selected by Michael Kors for his London flagship, while his Brands on Yellow hangs in the lounge of New Orleans’s chic Maison de Luz hotel. Read on to learn more about how O’Hara got his big (and unexpected) break, and why bigger is always better when it comes to paintings. And be sure to shop a collection of his pieces, exclusive to Chairish, for a limited time only.

SHOP JOHN O’HARA’S CHAIRISH EXCLUSIVES NOW>>>

John O’Hara. Photo: Ashley Gieseking.

On His Art…

You’re a self-taught artist from St. Louis and officially started your art career in 2018. Can you tell us a bit about your journey until then and how you made the transition?

I’ve done some crazy things over my career and most everything has revolved around marketing and design. I’ve always had a passion for art and I’ve painted for fun for 35 years. I have a number of my early paintings hanging in my home. 

The spark that ignited the fire was the AD Design Show a couple years ago. As co-founder of Forsyth, the team and I were getting ready for the trade show with our vintage, restored furniture. We were designing a vignette for our booth and needed art on the walls for prop and interest. At the show, the art was fawned over more than our furniture. It was nuts.

When the team suggested I offer my work for sale, I was quite nervous in the beginning. On the launch weekend, eight out of ten of my paintings sold to buyers across the country and to a buyer in Australia. It was obviously a life-changing moment for me.  

You’re known for your large-scale abstract works and your medium is encaustic. What’s the backstory behind those choices?

While shopping for art supplies, I picked up a block of encaustic paint and asked one of the shop assistants about it. “It’s beeswax, and you melt it and apply it to a special board; it’s pretty expensive,” she told me. So I bought a couple colors, a board, and a brush. I melted the wax on a pancake griddle back in my makeshift studio and brushed it on the board. It was love at first brush. I am influenced by interior design and I paint works that I think would look great in a room. I paint works that I would buy for my interior spaces and it seems my audience views it the same way. And I can’t do small paintings. The bigger, the better. 

Works by John O’Hara at Forsyth, including Romance in Durango (left) and This Must Be the Place, from the Vinyl series (right). Photo: Ashley Gieseking.

You have many works from your various series for sale on Chairish.  How do you come up with the themes and the names you give them (Tar, Vinyl, etc)?

I am very lucky that my early work sold quickly and that I received commissions to create similar works. This is how all of my series started. When I name a piece, I look at it and something usually bounces into my head. The names are as simple as that.

Has your style changed over time, and if so, how?

I’m only two years into this; I love making impressionistic work, portraits, and landscapes, but the market tells me where to go and what to paint. At the end of the day, the goal is to offer something that I am proud of and will sell, so I try to stick with proven styles… but I always sneak something new in to test the water.

Does your Vinyl series reflect a love of music? How do you choose your titles? Is it safe to assume you’re a fan of the Talking Heads?

Who isn’t a fan of the Talking Heads?! The Vinyl series is pretty cool in the fact that it is multi-emotional. The image is contemporary and shows well in a room, and the music adds that secondary emotional response that only music can do. It’s powerful. 

A piece from John O’Hara’s Tar series at the Michael Kors Collection Store, London, designed by Pamela Meech. Photo Courtesy of Michael Kors.

On Vintage Shopping…

Are there any dream vintage/antique “gets” you wish you could have? 

I love good sculptural bronzes. I’m a believer in height on a table and bronzes give height and interest. I wish to one day own a Chésade or Bertoia sculpture – I have to stop dreaming and just do it. 

What do you find most compelling about Chairish?

As an artist, it puts my work in front of a lot of people that are interested in great design and art.

What are three of your favorite pieces on Chairish now?

How about four?

More works by John O’Hara at Forsyth, including Square Dance, 3 (center) and The Red Coat (right). Photo: Ashley Gieseking.

On Design…

Favorite way to create a statement-making moment in a room:

Great art! And I’m not just saying that because I’m an artist. Art makes a room.  

Favorite iconic piece of vintage design: 

The gateway arch in Saint Louis

Favorite decorating cheap thrill: 

Fresh cut flowers — even week-old ones.

Favorite paint color: 

For my art, my go-to base color that I blend is called Newsprint, and I love Warm Rose, another encaustic color I often use.

Favorite decor piece in your home:

A large painting by Birger Sandzén.

Favorite designer/artist from the past you most often turn to for inspiration: 

Keith Haring

Design destination every decor lover should visit at least once: 

Toronto

Best piece of career advice you’ve ever received

Raindrops make rivers.

More works by John O’Hara at Forsyth, including Four Corners, 1. Photo: Ashley Gieseking.

On Culture…

Favorite vacation destination (next time you travel becomes an option): 

Montana

Favorite podcast: 

“How I Built This”

Favorite Instagram accounts to follow: 

@forsythart  @sothebys  @ad_magazine

Favorite hostess (or thank you) gift: 

A handwritten note with a quick drawing

Favorite style icon: 

Ralph Lauren and Carolina Herrera

Favorite flower: 

Daisies — simple, beautiful.

Lead image of John O’Hara by Ashley Gieseking

September 14, 2020

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