Art of the Unexpected
Maupin painter achieves creative success with blend of color, composition and play
By Drew Myron
Thank goodness for Mrs. Smart, the art teacher.
“I’ve been painting since second grade,” Diana McElheran says, recalling the pivotal moment when frustration turned to inspiration. “I was painting a picture and I couldn’t get it right, and I got upset and put a big X through it. My art teacher, Mrs. Smart, said, ‘There’s no right or wrong in art,’ and took my picture and turned the X into a butterfly.”
Diana was hooked.
“I realized then the pure joy of making something that is unique, that expresses how you feel,” she says.
For more than 40 years, Diana has been expressing herself through art, and sharing her knowledge and enthusiasm with others.
She leads art classes in schools, libraries and art centers throughout the region, and serves on the Wasco Cultural Trust Coalition. She also is a juried member of the Watercolor Society of Oregon.
Diana is one of the most popular artists at The Dalles Art Center, where her work is frequently displayed, according to Lettie Young, Art Center assistant director.
“Diana is constantly challenging herself,” Lettie says. “She’s always exploring mediums and techniques, acrylic, pen and ink, collage. She weaves matboard and adds beads and sparkles, and I’ve even seen chalk streaks. She’ll throw in lots of mediums and color. She’s not afraid of a hot pink or a cerulean blue right out of the box. She keeps it fresh and has a love for fun in her work.”
Lettie says children really connect with her work.
“She’s really good at abstract and whimsy,” Lettie says. “The kids like to tell us what they see in her work, what it means to them.”
While playful and lively, Diana’s work is far from childish. Her colorful and often amusing subjects—pink cows, pierced pigs, purple trees—portray an effortlessness that is, in fact, earned from years of study and skill.
Diana holds a biology degree from University of South Florida, and studied art at Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan and Miami University in Ohio. She has worked under several notable artists, including Robert Burridge, Susan Ogilvie and Eric Wiegardt.
Combining science with art has created a powerful blend of intellect and playfulness.
“I don’t just paint pretty pictures,” Diana says.
Working primarily in acrylics, Diana layers color and textures, blending the abstract with actual for what she calls “loose realism.” It is this balance of cerebral and spontaneous that produces evocative, playful results.
From miniatures to large scale, her paintings reveal technical depth and emotional range.
“I really do push things as far as I can,” she says.
For example, “Barnyard Punks,” is a lighthearted series of animals with attitude featuring pink cows, pigs with tattoos, and blue mules in earrings. In contrast, “Leap of Faith,” an oil-and-wax painting displayed at Mid Columbia Medical Center, offers an abstracted suggestion of a spiritual pathway.
Diana has lived in Maupin since 1983. She and her husband, John, live on the farm that has been home to five generations of McElherans.
As in art, their farming has been unconventional. Along with wheat, they have grown mustard, camelina, sunflowers, soybeans, safflower and vetch. They rotated crops to reduce tilling, and were among the first to work with GPS machinery. In 2006, the couple earned the Conservation Farm Award from the Wasco County Soil and Conservation District.
Diana’s art is influenced by her rural setting and a love of gardening. But where a traditional landscape artist might depict a serene farm field, Diana will turn the field pink, or a river yellow.
“I’ve done the same scene 22 times, and they all looked different, just to see what I could do,” she says.
Diana is also drawn to the healing arts of reiki and reflexology.
“At a very young age, I felt that nature is my closest tie to unity,” she says. “We’re all connected. There are many paths to God, and all of them are right. The most important thing is love.”
There’s no lack of love when it comes to Diana’s artwork.
“I like her work because it has a lot of texture and I’m drawn to her color,” says Allison Bechtol, owner of Maupin Market, where Diana’s work is displayed. “Each piece is unique and different.”
For Diana, the preparation is as fulfilling as the actual painting. She works on sets of paintings with a collective theme. After months of research, information gathering and planning, she will carefully line up her canvases and work on many paintings at once.
“I plan like a tortoise and I paint like a rabbit,” she says. “You need structure, even with abstract art, and then you can go wild and fly.”
A Trio of Talent
Want to see more of Diana’s artwork? She is one of three Maupin artists featured at The Dalles Art Center in April.
People, Places & Critters features artwork by Judy White, Adah Iverson and Diana McElheran. Meet the artists at the opening reception Thursday, April 5, from 5 to 7 p.m. This is a free event, open to the public.
The art exhibit runs April 5-30 at The Dalles Art Center, 220 E 4th St. Call (541) 296-4759 or go to www. thedallesartcenter.org for more details.