Abby Wasserman: The O’Hanlon Center for the Arts


Ann and Dick O’Hanlon bought the Mill Valley property from Antonio and Marie Freitas, converted an old farmstead into a creative hotbed, and attracted artists of all stripes with workshops, salons and an informal open-door culture. The O’Hanlon Center’s 50th anniversary open house celebration is June 8. We spoke with Mill Valley native and O’Hanlon teacher and board member Abby Wasserman about the center’s legacy.

What is your role at the O’Hanlon Center?

I teach creative writing. I’m a four-term board member and two-term board president and a member of the 50th-anniversary committee. The place is like a second home to me. I knew the O’Hanlons when I was a girl. My parents were friends with them.

How long have you been with the center?

I became involved in 2002 when it was still called Sight & Insight Art Center.

The center attracted some well-known artists.

The O’Hanlons lived there and they created a studio space out of the barn and lived in the house that the Freitases had lived in. There were outbuildings that were made into Dick’s sculpture studio; the barn was Ann’s studio. In 1958, when Ann and Dick were on an extended world tour, Wendell Berry and his wife Tanya were living on property. Berry wrote the first draft of his first novel (Nathan Coulter, 1960) there. Clement Hurd, illustrator of Goodnight Moon (1947), had his studio on the property after he and his wife moved from Vermont. The center was a magnet because of its informal, hang out, eat, drink culture. It is old Mill Valley. That sense of Mill Valley as a place where artists gathered is still with us.

What are some important points in the development of the center since its founding as the Sight & Insight Art Center in 1969?

The nonprofit was founded in 1969. Dick died in 1985. After Ann died in 1998, there was a period of great uncertainty. We lost the charismatic leader who had drawn people to the property. We hired an administrator. In 2000, the house burned down and in 2004, the name was changed to O’Hanlon Center for the Arts. That same year, an acre of the property, up toward Lovell, was sold and the proceeds were invested. We are very concerned with being fiscally responsible so that the center can continue.

For people who do not know about the O’Hanlon Center, what would you like them to know?

That everyone is welcome and can create a difference. We always wanted the center to be a place where an individual could elicit discovery of their own creativity. The process of how to see and how to see within, this idea of perception, it evolves slowly. We are not going to be able to leap into something that attracted tons of people — we don’t have the parking. What people have to do is experience it for themselves. Then they would understand the beauty of this place.

What else should we know about Dick and Ann O’Hanlon and their impact on Marin?

Dick apprenticed with Diego Rivera for one fresco, which is at the San Francisco Art Institute now. Ann founded the art department at Dominican.

The sculpture outside the Mill Valley Library was also made by Dick O’Hanlon, right?

Yes, in 1967, when the library was remodeled. He loved working in granite and loved natural forms. The library’s architect, Donn Emmons, lived on Throckmorton and was in the O’Hanlon circle. The sculpture is three pieces and has a feeling of the outdoors and nature, which both Dick and Ann loved.

What should guests at the 50th-anniversary celebration expect?

Cupcakes. For the 50th, we are planning a moving feast. We will have people stationed around the property to answer questions. Studios will be open and there will be hands-on activities in the old barn (now known as the Loft). An exhibit of Ann and Dick’s work will be in the gallery, and we have some special guests, like Tanya Berry, who will speak to what the place was like in the 1950s. And, of course, refreshments. Come make art.