Painting Memories: How Maura Whelan ’14 finds inspiration in nature and joy

Maura Whelan, wearing her Princeton Reunions jacket, standing in a windy field and smiling

Claire Burgeson Photography

When Maura Whelan ’14 paints, she thinks about the important people and places in her life and “puts together an onion of images that resemble the feelings I have about them.” That approach worked when Whelan was invited to design the cover for this year’s Reunions program. She immediately thought of memories of iconic Reunions attractions, from the P-rade to the fireworks to the giant tents.

“I painted people dancing in a Reunions tent because we haven’t seen that on the program’s cover before,” she said. “It’s been fun figuring out how to give it a sense of being crowded and joyous while also pulling out individual dancers.”

Inspired by the camping and canoeing trips she took while growing up in Minnesota, Whelan often blends mental images of deep wilderness with modern environments in her art. “I draw upon a lot of natural forms and imagery and sometimes my work is close to landscape painting and sometimes it’s more abstract,” she said. “I tend to oscillate between the two.”

Whelan never expected to become an artist or attend Princeton. But her father, Tim O’Brien ’81, encouraged her to apply and when the University said yes, the entire trajectory of her life changed. She intended to study English or psychology, but the first class that captured her attention was an introduction to drawing. “Something clicked,” she said. “Then, after I took a painting class, my teacher encouraged me to apply to the art program.” Given her interest in nature, Whelan also pursued a certificate in environmental studies and combined both in her thesis art project, which won the Environmental Studies Senior Thesis Prize.

Reunions 2024 program cover
Reunions 2024 program cover

While at Princeton, Whelan was also a member of Tower Club, where she met Mark Whelan ’14. But it wasn’t until they were on the verge of graduating that the two fell for each other. They were married by the time of their first major reunion in 2019. “We spent most of it waiting for news that one of our friends had safely delivered her baby,” she said. “She finally did, with her husband by her side in his P-rade outfit.”

After spending time in Chicago, where Whelan received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and New York City, where she earned her Master of Arts in art and art education from Teachers College at Columbia University, the couple settled down in Missoula, Montana. She’s a visual arts teacher at Loyola Sacred Heart High School, and he’s a software engineer. “I absolutely love the task of creating a curriculum that challenges my students and meets them where they are developmentally,” she said. “Teenage brains are so interesting; they make crazy decisions when it comes to art — I love seeing the stuff they come up with.”

In her role as a teacher, Whelan frequently thinks about how her Princeton professors pushed her to develop the skills she needed to create art and be successful. “The skills I found through making art have been invaluable, teaching me to visualize, problem solve, collaborate, make judgment calls and trust my own instincts,” she said. “Maybe this is the high school teacher in me coming out, but these are all valuable skills no matter what you do.”