Spend just a little time with the illustrations of Tacoma artist and author Chandler O’Leary, and two strong qualities immediately emerge from the page: curiosity and care.
Those are evident in the tenderness of her renderings — there’s no strictness or harshness in her lines, and even brick walls and steel hulls look a little fluid — as well as the intense attention to details, even when most people might never see them.
O’Leary, 41, died unexpectedly on April 2 from a sudden, acute case of pneumonia.
Behind the inside flaps of her most recent book, “On Island Time: A Traveler’s Atlas” (excerpted in the Feb. 5 issue of Pacific NW magazine in The Seattle Times), O’Leary included small, notable road signs and mailboxes she’d seen on her travels around Vashon, Orcas, Salt Spring and other islands in the Salish Sea.
“She would’ve sketched everything she ever saw every day of her life if she’d had time,” said her husband, Donald Sidman. “She had an eye for the unique, the bizarre and all that was beautiful.”
Jessica Spring, a Tacoma letterpress printer, was O’Leary’s longtime neighbor, collaborator and friend. “I can’t even describe how this city is grieving,” she said. O’Leary, Spring explained, “moved in so many circles” — not only as an illustrator, but in public art, textiles, hand-lettered sign painting for small businesses and more.
“You can see her influence all over,” Spring said. “During studio-tour days in Tacoma each year, people would wait on the street to get in. She was beloved.”
That quality of care also translated into holding — and acting on — strong convictions.
A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, O’Leary moved to Tacoma with Sidman in 2008 and met Spring shortly thereafter. During the 2008 presidential campaign, with Barack Obama and Joe Biden running against John McCain and Sarah Palin, the two artists were staunch Obama supporters but were struck by how relentlessly commentators focused on Palin’s appearance: her clothes, her lipstick, her glasses.
Spring had found a quote from 19th-century writer and activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton (“Come, come, my conservative friend, wipe the dew off your spectacles and see the world is moving”) and asked O’Leary if she could draw Palin’s glasses to go with it, for a print.
“Well, she drew the whole damn quote!” Spring said. “I was like, ‘Wow, dude, that’ll work!’” Hand-lettering, it turned out, was an O’Leary specialty.
The pair printed 44 broadsides of the quote — for the election of the 44th president — in Spring’s shop. People snapped them up almost immediately.
They were onto something: The Dead Feminists project was born. From 2008 to 2022, the pair printed 33 broadsides, each in response to some problem or event (gun violence, persistent racism, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill) featuring a quote from a historic feminist (Emma Goldman, Ida B. Wells, Sarojini Naidu).
Besides their exquisite illustrations, coloring and lettering, the broadsides included deeply researched details, some encoded visually: The lettering, for example, would be inspired by lettering and typefaces popular at the time the given feminist was alive. Spring and O’Leary donated a portion of the proceeds from each broadside to a related nonprofit or campaign.
The name “Dead Feminists” was a private joke between the two of them for years, until O’Leary insisted on making it official. “It’s a little hard to be left with that,” Spring said. “Because now she is a dead feminist — and it hurts.”
The broadside series led to a co-authored book with Seattle publisher Sasquatch Books, which led to two travel books O’Leary wrote and illustrated on her own: “The Best Coast: A Road Trip Atlas” (tracing coastal routes in Washington, Oregon and California) and “On Island Time,” which has become a regional bestseller.
“It’s so tragic Chandler is not here to see its continued success,” said Hannah Elnan, O’Leary’s editor at Sasquatch. “She was really a lovely person in addition to being an incredibly talented artist — it’s definitely a shock.”
Born at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, O’Leary had a peripatetic military childhood and finished high school in Fargo, N.D., before attending RISD. Besides illustrating, she worked in graphic design, embroidery and weaving and had been following a new interest in patterns for textiles and wallpaper. “She was curious about everything,” her husband said. “I find that even people who knew her well are astonished when they see the range of things she did and designed.”
University of Puget Sound will host “Drawn to Tacoma,” an exhibition of O’Leary’s work, at the Collins Memorial Library from May 10-24, with a reception on Friday, May 12, from 4-6 p.m. Friends have set up a GoFundMe campaign in O’Leary’s memory to support her family.
O’Leary is survived by her husband, Sidman; their son; her brother Adrian O’Leary; extended family; and, Sidman said, “many close friends.”
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