Although O'Hara's murals and building designs are his most publically recognizable contributions to Mount Shasta, he was involved in the town's artistic scene on a much deeper level.
One cannot drive through Mount Shasta without noticing the mark artist Tom O’Hara made on the town. From the playful murals on Berryvale Grocery to the tribute to early Mt. Shasta poets John Muir and Joaquin Miller on the north side of Ramshaw’s Ace Hardware, O’Hara’s work creates a pleasant and recognizable aesthetic to the town he loved for more than 40 years.
O’Hara died at age 76 on Jan. 16 at his home after an 18 month battle with glioblastoma, which included two surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, and alternative treatments. “He had a strong will to live as he felt he still had a lot of work to do,” said his wife, Julie Bennett.
Although O’Hara’s murals and building designs are his most publically recognizable contributions to Mount Shasta, he was involved in the town’s artistic scene on a much deeper level. In the early 2000s, O’Hara and Bennett remodeled an old, ugly bar on Mt. Shasta Boulevard to open The Stage Door Coffeehouse and Cabaret, which provided a family-oriented venue for live music.
His flip of a dark and run down building to a beautiful and classy environment led O’Hara to one of his favorite sayings in life: “I killed me a bar in my old age.” The building included many special details, including embossed ceilings and clinker bricks, as well as a fake door near the counter area in the cafe – a feature that O’Hara was fond of.
O’Hara, who played the upright bass, would perform with his gypsy jazz band Kazango at what was fondly referred to as
“The Door.” The venue also hosted professional musicians traveling the Interstate 5 corridor, as well as other local musicians and student events.
O’Hara would often show his art at the cabaret. His work has also been represented in many private collections internationally, in addition to numerous museums such as the William F. Cody Museum, Oakland Museum, San Jose Museum, California Railroad Museum, and Walt Whitman Museum.
O’Hara was a master in watercolors, oils, gouache, printmaking and sculpture. His muses included a variety of artistic topics, including landscapes, musicians, figurative nudes, horses and even children’s stories. Most recently, O’Hara took up scratchboard, a technique that uses a stylus to engrave into a thin layer of white clay that’s coated with dark ink – basically, it’s working opposite of pen and ink.
His love of American history inspired many of his works, including his paintings of the American West and other Americana subjects.
In 2010, O’Hara and Bennett authored a children’s book, “Rex Reads,” about a retired movie star t-rex who is bored before discovering a love of reading, thanks to the help of a magical librarian.
O’Hara’s playful sense of humor and ability to “fake people out” may have come from his time working for Disney England, said Bennett. Assisting with Disney animation was one of his finest life accomplishments, Bennett said, since Walt Disney was one of his heroes.
Raised in upstate New York in the Adirondack Mountains, O’Hara moved to Mount Shasta in the early 1970s, bought property and lived in a teepee while building his own house in the Shasta Brown Ranch area. During this time, he played folk and original music with Jack and Jan Darrow while also painting signs to earn a living.
In the 1980s, O’Hara learned he was eligible for an Irish passport through his father, who was a first generation Irish immigrant, and decided to move to England. It was there that O’Hara attended the Royal Academy of Art in London for four years and garnered the attention of Disney England.
O’Hara planned to make England his permanent home, but he returned to the United States when he learned his mother had cancer, said Bennett. He lived and worked in Oakland at the Vulcan Foundry, an old factory remodeled into living spaces and art studios.
After the death of his mother, O’Hara moved back to Mount Shasta where he continued to make his living as a fine artist, sign painter and building designer.
O’Hara was determined to return the town to its early California architecture as opposed to the Solvang Alpine theme, which was popular in the 50s and 60s. To accomplish this, O’Hara often donated his work for various benefits in the community and he helped organizations like the Sisson Museum by providing his skills for free or at a greatly reduced price.
The Berryvale project, which includes the vast exterior mural and interior false storefronts in the cafe section, uses humor in its store names and includes other special touches, like incorporating actual windows into its fake-out charm.
Other O’Hara murals include “After the Gold Rush” – a montage of happenings from the late 1800s on the side of the Yreka Community Center – and a gigantic trout on the side of the old Brown Trout building in Dunsmuir.
He painted the murals despite some reservations, Bennett explained, because of the need to constantly refresh them over the years. For this reason, O’Hara preferred to improve a storefront’s design – something he did at the real estate building on Alma Street that is now Enso Wealth Management.
“Tom always wanted to do positive things for the community,” said Bennett, whether it was through the creation of a business, showing his art, helping make the town more inviting, or celebrating the history of California. “He loved music and he loved Mount Shasta.”