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Art exhibit has a heart of gold

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Art exhibit has a heart of gold photo courtesy of Kaitlyn Furge

Gold leaf composite, black pine pitch and seashells. They aren't on your typical artist's palette, but for Wendilee Heath O'Brien, they've become a familiar medium. O'Brien works in the Japanese technique of kinpakku or gold leaf painting. The artist from Winter Harbor says that she travelled to Japan study the uncommon technique. 

Thanks to a new exhibit in Bangor, visitors do not have to go globe-trotting to see the unique pieces created by gold leaf painting. O'Brien's exhibit, Gold Leaf Works, will be on display at the Sohn's Art Gallery through March 16. The art gallery is located in the Rock and Art Shop in Downtown Bangor. An artist's reception will be on Feb. 21 at 6:30 p.m. O'Brien will give an artist's talk at that time, and also have materials used to make the work for the public to examine. The cost is free. 

All of the pieces in the exhibit were created using gold-leaf technique. In O'Brien's pieces, the metallic backgrounds are met with subject matter from coastal Maine, from pine trees to fishing boats. 

'I used to live in a small fishing village in Japan, and now I live in Maine, so I think of them as a sort of wedding between my two cultures,' O'Brien says. 

O'Brien keeps her pieces as traditional as possible while still trying to keep them affordable. During the lengthy process, she uses seaweed glue to stretch wet paper onto a canvas. The paper is then water proofed before the gold leaf is added. The pigments are made by grinding rocks. Traditionally, the white pigments in a gold leaf piece are made by grinding pearls, but O'Brien says she keeps the paintings in budget by using seashells instead. She also uses a Chinese gold leaf composite made of zinc and copper on most of her pieces, making the astronomical affordable. 

'I believe that art should be affordable and accessible for everyone,' O'Brien says. 'It should be lived with and enjoyed.' 

O'Brien says that she came to art later in life. She jokes that it took her five years to learn how to draw, because she believed that the skill was so foundational to art. 

'I kept sketchbooks religiously,' she says. 

O'Brien originally worked in oil and pastels. Due to a seriously ill child, however, she had to get rid of her supplies. She turned to water colors, but said that they quickly became cliche. She started remembering some of the calligraphy strokes that she had learned when she lived in Japan. O'Brien says that she loved the freedom that it gave her, and she started looking into the gold leafing process. She says she spent some time at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts before traveling back to Japan. There, she visited one of the two gold leafing capitals. 

Today, O'Brien has a studio and gallery in Winter Harbor. She has college interns that study with her, and she's thankful that she can make a living from her art. 

'I've been blessed,' O'Brien says. 

To see some of O'Brien's work, visit


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