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‘A beautiful person who made beautiful paintings’: Galerie d’Orsay remembers life and work of artist Elizabeth DaCosta Ahern

Exhibit looks at the link between mentor and student — DaCosta Ahern was both.

Elizabeth DaCosta Ahern, “Santa Fe Series #4,” Acrylic on canvas, c. 1990-91, 57” x 42 ½”
Elizabeth DaCosta Ahern, “Santa Fe Series #4,” Acrylic on canvas, c. 1990-91, 57” x 42 ½”Courtesy Galerie d'Orsay

On Saturday evening, around 75 people gathered at Galerie d’Orsay to celebrate the life and art of Elizabeth DaCosta Ahern, who died at 81 from complications because of COVID-19. The show has been 18 months in the making.

In March 2020, Martha S. Folsom, the gallery’s co-director, and Ben Flythe, the fine art consultant, received an e-mail from DaCosta Ahern asking for the two to visit her studio in Framingham so she could reveal a new series of artwork. She made the acrylic color field paintings while under the wing of celebrated Abstract Expressionist Helen Frankenthaler during a residency in Santa Fe.

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But DaCosta Ahern died on April 19 last year, before the gallery was able to pay the studio a visit.

“She was just this quiet, but vivacious personality,” said Folsom.

“Even though she was quiet, she would always challenge you,” added Flythe, “challenge your beliefs and challenge the way you thought about things.”

Elizabeth DaCosta Ahern's “O Mar Salgado"
Elizabeth DaCosta Ahern's “O Mar Salgado" Handout/Courtesy Galerie d'Orsay

On Saturday’s showing of DaCosta Ahern’s work, Galerie d’Orsay presented a thread from mentor to mentee. “Jump In! Celebrating the thread between student + mentor” features a few of Frankenthaler’s works such as “Causeway” and “Aerie,” around 30 of DaCosta Ahern’s paintings, and then carries through to some of her students’ art. The works will be on view until the end of the year.

Several speakers remembered DaCosta Ahern’s influence. DaCosta Ahern’s husband, Thomas J. Ahern Jr., read aloud condolences sent to him by some of DaCosta Ahern’s students throughout the years. “I can tell you that she will be missed terribly … I will hear [her] in my head whenever I am painting, so I will still have her in my life,” one note read.

Originally from Providence, DaCosta Ahern taught at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lesley University, and Worcester Art Museum. A graduate student at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in the 1970s, she later made it her mission to mentor students.

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In a phone interview, her husband recalled a recent visit he made to the Concord Center for Visual Arts. Coincidentally, three of the faculty artists presenting work were former students of DaCosta Ahern.

“She had an imprint on many working artists and very successful artists,” Ahern Jr. said.

Along with some of her students, DaCosta Ahern was a participant in the Art in Embassies program, exploring and presenting her work in Portugal and Angola. Frankenthaler encouraged her to partake in her workshops, resulting in six trips to Sante Fe, according to Ahern Jr.

“Every trip produced something,” he said. “She was a beautiful person who made beautiful paintings.”

Elizabeth DaCosta Ahern's “Luanda Sunset"
Elizabeth DaCosta Ahern's “Luanda Sunset"Handout/Courtesy Galerie d'Orsay

Many of DaCosta Ahern’s friends and students were in attendance at the exhibit. Laura Lester said she felt both honored and grateful to be able to share her art with her mentor.

“[Elizabeth] would stand back with you and look at your work and not talk until she was ready to say something that was meaningful,” Lester said in an interview. “I will always miss her, and when I paint, I talk to her, and I hope she’s talking to me.”

After 59 years of marriage, “I feel enhanced,” Ahern Jr. said, noting that he couldn’t help but feel her presence at the gallery. “I feel grateful, except for the quantum of sadness and so forth, and the unavoidable remembrances looking at all her work.”

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According to those who knew her, DaCosta Ahern always knew when her paintings were finished.

“I think it was innate in her,” Folsom said. “I wouldn’t say that about everyone.”

“Jump In! Celebrating the thread between student + mentor” is an ongoing exhibit until the end of the year at the Galerie d’Orsay on 33 Newbury St.



Ramsey Khalifeh can be reached at ramsey.khalifeh@globe.com.