Elaine Hamilton O'Neal has bunked in a variety of places in her lifetime. She owned a 42-room chateau in France before downsizing to one with just 18 rooms. She and her husband, William O'Neal, lived in a converted mill near Birmingham, Alabama; she's lived in apartments in Florence and New York, in a tent at the Mount Everest base camp, and was once put up by the Houston, Texas, Rotary Club in Mexico City. Now, nearly 90, Hamilton (who uses her maiden name professionally) lives in a house with a brick façade, Palladian windows, and a gravel drive in Granite. It's an eight-room house with noble proportions and high, stepped tray ceilings that she designed herself in the wide, one-story "Chartreuse" style common in southern France.
But of all these domiciles, Hamilton says, the one that most defines her is the platform tent where her family lived each summer when she was a child. For four or five months, the Hamilton family—Elaine and her parents and two brothers—would move to Patapsco State Park, a fashionable vacation spot for wealthy families at the time. They prepared meals on an outdoor stove, slept under a canvas shelter, and even played piano in the "living room" tent. At Patapsco, Hamilton says she learned to love nature, swim in a pool dug from a nearby stream, and "smell cucumber and know there's a copperhead snake somewhere nearby."
Hamilton went on to attend the Maryland Institute (now MICA) and the Art Students League in New York before traveling the world and exhibiting her paintings at such places as the Arts Council of Pakistan and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, as well as in shows at the Baltimore Museum of Art. She's always been audacious, but it's been tempered—she is quick to add—with a heavy dose of self-respect. "I hate it when they talk about women artists and all they can focus on is how much alcohol they drank and how many lovers they had," she says. "I don't go for all that stuff."
In her travels, Hamilton says, she always remembered who she was raised to be. "I can clean a chicken house, but I also know which fork to use," she says.
A tour of her three-year-old house is a testament to a lifetime of adventure. "It's filled with souvenirs," she says. "It's a vagabond's house." She emits a hearty laugh from her small frame, her eyes sparkling behind thick glasses.
Louis XV sofas (yes, they date to the 18th century) are adorned with hand-embroidered pillows from Pakistan. The Regency fireplace mantel—heavy marble carved in scrolls, which Hamilton shipped from France—displays a bronze cat by the sculptor Barye, antique toys from India, and a pair of cloisonné vases (exported from Tibet on the back of a yak). Her dining room furniture dates to the Renaissance, the table embellished with a pair of sturdy brass candlesticks from the same period, which she bought for $200 as an art student in Florence. "They are the real thing," she notes. "A lot of people have sat in front of those."
Everywhere, there are rugs, many of them brightly colored in traditional Tibetan motifs and thick knotted-wool patterns of dragons, tigers, and flowers. In addition to rugs, skins from leopards and tigers—with heads intact—are draped over seats along the wall and low tables in Hamilton's meditation room, a sanctuary off the library. The room is dominated by a gilded, wood altar, running from floor to ceiling, with nooks holding various representations of the Buddha. The walls are painted according to tradition: the deep earth red around the base, moving through horizontal bands of orange and gold representing various stages of clarity, and finally a blue ceiling, signifying nirvana. "I've had this identical room in every house I've owned for the last 40 years," Hamilton says. "Everything in Buddhism is symbolic and has definite meaning." She warns: "Don't use the word décor."
Whether or not they can be classified as décor, photographs seem to be a fundamental feature in Hamilton's effects. If the furniture, paintings, objets d'art—and even her sacred space—aren't enough evidence of her adventures, there are plenty of photos to round out the story. There is a shot of her mother, a 1920s beauty with a feather boa-trimmed neckline and thick hair piled on her head; a photo of Hamilton making her way up an icy ledge in Pakistan's Karakoram range; and a picture of a Tibetan friend who is now a nurse in Pennsylvania thanks in part to Hamilton's largesse.
And there's a photo of her late husband, William. They were married in 1942 after being introduced at a black-tie dinner at the Baltimore Country Club. O'Neal wasn't present for most of his wife's exploits, instead supporting her "morally and physically," from afar, she says, while he worked in the aerospace industry.
Hamilton rushes through each story, knowing that there are so many more to tell. Perhaps suspecting a visitor's disbelief—or in most cases, awe—she flutters her hands toward the library or her bedroom and says, "Oh, I have photos of all that," promising to provide proof that her wondrous tales really happened.
In the gallery, which she had constructed with high ceilings and recessed lighting to showcase her large canvases, Hamilton sifts through scrapbooks and locates a spread from the May 13, 1951 edition of The Baltimore Sun Magazine, its edges yellowed and brittle. Hamilton appears on the cover, swirling a voluminous cape with the headline, "Baltimore's Lady Bullfighter." She explains: "I saw the bullfights [in Mexico] and was traumatized. They gave me migraines." Her solution? "I had to find out what it was all about," so she trained to enter the ring.
At first, she explains, bullfighters swing the cape in wide circles, but "then begin to bring the bull closer and closer," shortening the span of the red cloth. She describes the contest as a mythic challenge between strength and intellect that "equalizes life and death." Hamilton notes that she did not actually kill the bull, but she did emerge from the encounter sore and covered with bruises. "You don't even realize you're getting grazed at the time," she says, "but you come out all black and blue."
Returning to her scrapbook, she points out a program from a 1951 solo show at the Baltimore Museum of Art, and a magazine photo of her standing on scaffolding in Mexico City, working on a 47-foot mural she painted at the art institute in San Miguel de Allende, after assisting the muralist Diego Rivera.
Most of the paintings on display in her lower level gallery are later works: bright and energetic splashes of color with swirls, drips, and slashes of paint on canvases measuring six feet long and four or five feet high. A few of the canvases are round. Hamilton says she wanted to challenge herself and "get out of the square thing." In some, color bursts from the center like a supernova against a dark background. In others, the fury of colorful strokes completely covers the canvas. Her work has been described as abstract expressionism and "action painting," but Hamilton says the Buddhist monks she knew in Tibet described it best: "It's meditation in action," she says. "That's not a contradiction. When you meditate, it doesn't mean empty. It's making space for things to come in."
Her earlier paintings are not on the walls, but stacked against them. She began as a realistic painter and won the portrait prize at the Maryland Institute upon graduation in 1945. One painting shows a man with massive hands folded on his knees. Others, in a transitional stage of her work, are broken into planes, cubist-style. A painting from Mexico, which she says is the dead child of her maid, is a shadowy face, surrounded by leaves and swirls in deep shades of crimson.
Hamilton dismisses any comparisons to her contemporaries or artists who worked in the first half of the 20th century. She wasn't interested in Picasso, she says, and while she admired the work of José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera, she mainly wanted to learn the techniques required for outdoor murals.
By the time Hamilton went to Mexico in 1949, she'd been married for seven years. She jokes that she didn't use her husband's name there. "They were throwing bricks through the windows and painting hammers and sickles on the walls," she says. "He didn't want his name anywhere near it." After Mexico, Elaine went to Italy on a Fulbright Scholarship in 1952, and seven years later—after exhibiting in Rome, Milan, and at the Venice Bienniale—found herself drawn to the Himalayas. "I wanted to see where the earth and the sky touched," she says.
Over the years, she made nine different trips to different mountains of the Himalayas. She visited the former kingdom of Sikkim as a guest of the royal family, where she was introduced to Buddhism, and returned every year for 30 years.
Hamilton moved to France in the early 1960s. In the meantime, William O'Neal "was working to put the first man on the moon," says Hamilton. He was initially based in Baltimore, employed by the Glenn L. Martin Company (now Lockheed Martin), though he traveled frequently and finally ended up in Birmingham.
Throughout their marriage, the O'Neals mostly lived apart, and they had no children. "We discussed these things before we were married," says Hamilton. "We laid out our lives. We understood each other. Neither one of us wanted to be 50 percent in our work and 50 percent parents. We wanted to be 100 percent of whatever we were."
Despite the geographic distance, Hamilton says they were close. Hamilton lived in her chateaux in France for 40 years, dropping everything, she says, "when my husband and his cronies would fly over for a French holiday. I'd cook and entertain them, and then they'd fly back."
In turn, Hamilton would fly to Birmingham, where her husband had settled to work at Hayes Aircraft as vice president of engineering. They owned the "Old Mill," a 1926 structure on the edge of a stream. There, Hamilton would act as hostess, entertaining some of most prominent scientists in early aerospace engineering.
In 2002, on the day after their 60th wedding anniversary, as the couple prepared to move to Maryland, where they would live together after so many years, Bill "went in to the doctor to have his ears checked," says Hamilton, "and the next thing you know, he's in an ambulance." He died of heart failure that day, she says.
Hamilton came to Maryland, as planned, to live close to her family. She describes her brothers as wonderful friends, and she has strong bonds with her nieces and nephews. "I had always told them that if they ever wanted to run away, they could run to me," says the aunt. "I was far away, and safe." She also had space for guests—"sometimes too much space," she laughs.
These days, Elaine Hamilton O'Neal has just one guest room, decorated in shades of green: painted twin beds with tasseled silk spreads she had made in France, olive green Tibetan rugs on the hardwood floors. On the wall are relief rubbings from tombs in Pakistan. Her travels are in the past. But evidence of a remarkable life is all around.