As a young artist, there may be nothing more intimidating than spending a year in Italy studying the works of Renaissance masters.
Chandler O’Leary did that.
“All these masterpieces they created by the time they were 19,” O’Leary said with a small laugh. “And I was still working on my sketchbooks.”
O’Leary, 33, has made Tacoma her home since 2008 and may have been inspired to take on daunting projects because of those prolific Renaissance types. The more complex the idea, the more challenging.
“I’m from New England but went to college in the Midwest,” she said. “I vacationed here before my husband and I came to Tacoma and first saw Mt. Rainier. It looked like Mt. Fuji.”
That vacation observation prompted an inspiration.
“In the middle of the 19th century, a Japanese artist, Katsushika Hokusai, did a series of 36 prints featuring different views of Mt. Fuji,” O’Leary said. “It thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to make 100 images or so of Mt. Rainier — with Rainier not in half of them?”
O’Leary let the thought percolate until she and her husband, who is known in her blog only as “The Tailor,” moved to Tacoma.
Inspiration popped up again.
“I thought, ‘What if I made it interactive?’ ”
From there, O’Leary logged 8,000 miles viewing the mountain from every angle, sketching or photographing hundreds of images. The work she produced was limited to 30 editions of an “artist’s book,” a cube that unfolds, holding images and a viewing box.
Into that box, the artist can slide several layers of work and, as O’Leary says, “create millions of different possibilities.”
It’s a work that must be seen, and can be on Youtube (Chandler O’Leary talk).
“It was labor intensive, and you wouldn’t want to build a business on creating them,” O’Leary said. “It’s been in a lot of shows, and I did 15 cards from the 120 prints.
“It was a labor of love, and the story for every artist — your best work isn’t always the most lucrative.”
Still, it gave her exposure.
Three years ago, the owner of the Fulcrum Gallery in Tacoma wanted to do an exhibition and asked artists to produce a flag for the city of Tacoma.
O’Leary was one of those artists and, as is her nature, she flung herself into the project.
First, she began a study of flags, good and bad, finding plenty of both.
Examples of the bad? Poperinge, Belgium, has a flag that is half red, half yellow and dotted with five artichokes. The flag for Yaroslavl Oblast, Russia, is all yellow and features a bear on his hind legs, carrying an ax.
“I treated it as if I had been commissioned to create the flag. I did a ton of research,” O’Leary said. “A good flag tells a story. Indianapolis, Portland, they have great flags.”
For a Tacoma flag, she said: “I wanted to use the imagery here — the water, the mountain, city landmarks.”
“I asked myself, ‘What would a 2-year-old see?’”
O’Leary’s not only came up with the concept, she actually sewed the flag — the only artist to do so.
“Just like Betsy Ross,” O’Leary joked. “There’s a white triangle on a light blue field — Mt. Rainier against the sky — with a green stripe under the mountain, representing trees, hillsides and the continuum of our industry.
The stripe of blue along the bottom is the water of Puget Sound, and in the middle is a gold circle, which resembles a railroad stop.”
When the exhibit at the Fulcrum closed in 2012, O’Leary neatly folded her flag and put it in a drawer.
Then, in March, nationally known radio host Roman Mars gave a TED lecture in Vancouver, B.C., in which he talked about well designed and poorly designed city flags.
The Tacoma flag is among the worst in the nation, according to Mars, who displayed it during his talk. He doesn’t like any flag that relies largely on words and a copy of the city seal; he thinks flags should more creative and expressive than that and have impact when seen from a distance.
After the lecture, the alternate Tacoma flag O’Leary had designed was mentioned on Twitter and became a popular topic. O’Leary saw it and added an entry on the flag to her online blog.
“It was fun to see it have a little second life,” O’Leary said. “But it was never official in any way. It was never sent to the city. I have no idea what it would take to change a city flag.”
A city spokesman Friday would say only that there is no change to the city flag currently being discussed.
For O’Leary, that’s not a problem. She is off to work on other intimidating projects, including one in which she’s creating postcards for all 50 states.
“I’ve done eight western states, so far,” she said. “Including Washington.”