For Hannah O’Leary the city Florence, Italy is depicted by her hundreds of photographs. Capturing steaming cups of freshly brewed coffee from her favorite bakery “Mama’s,” city lights reflecting off the still Arno, a carousel in the Piazza della Repubblica, and her American tradition of apple pie for Thanksgiving, each one of her pictures tells a story and encompasses her experience studying and living in Italy. For her, it was an artistic opportunity of a lifetime.
It was also one of exploration. O’Leary, currently a senior double majoring in horticulture and fine arts, had always had the intention of studying abroad. “My high school had a foreign exchange dorm when I was growing, up so about a third of my high school was international students. It’s always been something that appealed to me,” O’Leary says. “It was something that was on my college bucket list.”
Although it was a passion for horticulture that brought O’Leary to Oregon State, she wanted to take advantage the opportunity to study art – O’Leary, who is from Paisley, a town of 250 in southeastern Oregon, had cultivated her love of the arts from a young age, when her grandmother taught her how to paint watercolors. But opportunities to study art there weren’t abundant.
“Because I came from such a small school there wasn’t really the opportunity to take art classes in high school” O’Leary says. “I thought that it might be something that I would regret not taking so I picked it up.”
Oregon State offered her that opportunity, and made the dual pursuit with horticulture a possibility. Throughout her experiences here, she’s even managed to blend the two seemingly independent interests.
To get to Florence, though, O’Leary became an exchange student with Student Art Centers International (SACI) through the Study Abroad Office at Oregon State. She chose that program because of the heavy studio focus and the opportunities it would give her to work in different media.
“I wanted a program that focused on studio arts. A lot of programs focus more on art history. Italy had more class choices and opportunities than some of the other options,” O’Leary says.
While in Italy, O’Leary took classes in fresco and oil painting, Renaissance history, and Italian. Part of the curriculum was traveling and seeing iconic works like Michelangelo’s David and Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.
“There are certain paintings and pieces that still are amazing. It doesn’t matter that they were made 500 years ago. They are just that good” O’Leary says.
The structure of her program and the accessibility of the studio allowed O’Leary plenty of time to work on her frescoes and other paintings. O’Leary and her classmates often went to the Boboli Gardens near Florence, grounds that house sculptures from as early as the 16th century – there, they’d do watercolor studies of the landscape, and later return to the studio to oil versions of what they’d seen.
“We only had one critique at the end, and we just worked on all of the paintings continuously,” O’Leary says. “We would just get to work on paintings for three hours and go to class. It was very peaceful. It was easy to want to come in and paint on the weekends, and want to paint extra hours.”
O’Leary’s art history class took her to Ravenna and Rome, and the Medici Village. She went to the Perugia chocolate festival, and went to Venice. But some of what O’Leary loved most about Italy was day-to-day life. She loved the chalk artists who would sketch replicas of Renaissance works on the sidewalks. She joined a gym, and loved how Italian friends there would get pumped to Barry White, instead of the fast-paced music she was used to hearing in the U.S. She spent a great deal of time at a couple Italian coffee shops – just like she does in the U.S., and noticed how much smaller the Italian serving sizes were compared to the ones she’s used to serving up in Oregon.
Most importantly, though, she made friends. “Florence was really awesome but what made my experience even better was the opportunity to spend time with some really great people” says O’Leary.
Upon return, it was back to focusing on her other interest, horticulture. “When I studied abroad I took only art classes. So it was kind of a shock to my system to come back to all the sciences,” O’Leary jokes.
Although it seems like these two interests would be mutually exclusive, O’Leary has found that they can complement each other.
She was even able to find an internship on campus that combined her two distinct passions. It was working for the Oak Creek Center for Urban Horticulture (OCCUH) as the Artist in Residence. In this position, O’Leary divided her time working with plants for annual trials, and working on photography and metal art projects.
One of O’Leary’s responsibilities was spreading awareness of OCCUH. She used photography to do that.
“Photos are a really great way to get people curious about what’s going on and a transferable way to tell a story,” says O’Leary.
O’Leary helped get people to the garden by helping to host a photography workshop, during which she helped the participants learn about the different elements of photography by taking pictures in the gardens and then discussing technique.
In the future, O’Leary will welcome more opportunities to combine her passions. For now, she’s still exploring. “[The future] is a big mystery for me. The longer I am in school the more I am not really sure of what I want to do.” O’Leary says with a smile.