Obituary: Larissa Geiss Osby / Abstract artist who flourished after escaping Ukraine
June 7, 1928 - Jan. 3, 2017
January 8, 2017 12:00 AM
Larissa Osby was an abstract painter and collage artist who was named artist of the year in 1983 by the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. This painting is "The Perfect Storm."
By Ed Blazina / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In her youth, Larissa Geiss Osby struggled to find freedom in her native Ukraine, but once she escaped from there at age 15 she used her freedom to express herself through art and antiques and inspired others to use their artistic talent.
Mrs. Osby, an abstract painter named artist of the year in 1983 by the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, died Wednesday at St. Barnabas Health System in Richland. She was 88.
Mrs. Osby was born in Artemowsk, Ukraine, to a German father and Russian mother. When World War II started, the family was persecuted to the point that the teenager had to place a brick a certain way outside their home to let her father know it was safe to return home after work, said her daughter, Karin O’Sullivan of Franklin Park.
Mrs. Osby used her German language skills to pose as a German citizen when she boarded a train out of Ukraine. Her parents joined her when the war ended and she moved to the United States under a sponsorship from the University of Pittsburgh to work in medical labs.
She used drawing skills she had learned in Ukraine to create medical sketches of daily lab work and began making abstract paintings during her off hours.
“In Germany, she discovered abstract art, which wasn’t allowed in Russia, where everything had to be realistic,” Mrs. O’Sullivan said. “It was breaking away from the very rigid form in Russia and she loved it.”
Once she married the late Howard Osby and had two children, she found floor space wherever the family lived to create a studio for her large paintings. She would spread unstretched canvases on the floor as large as 6 by 8 feet and often would use bricks and plywood to create bridges so she could navigate around her work as she painted.
Her husband was a skilled woodworker and created gold-leaf frames for her work.
In addition to oil paint, she used materials such as cardboard or netting to press onto the canvas or attach to it to create a collage. Before her sons and daughter were of school age, it wasn’t unusual for Mrs. Osby to set up easels for them to paint with her.
Much of her mother’s work was inspired by nature, Mrs. O’Sullivan said, and she regularly pulled out a sketch book during family driving vacations to capture a scene she would use for inspiration later. Over the years, she created thousands of paintings, her daughter said, many of which have been shown at exhibits in the U.S. and abroad, including the Carnegie International, Associated Artists of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, where colleagues voted her artist of the year in 1983.
“I never understood [her abstractions] at the level she did, but we knew they were beautiful,” Mrs. O’Sullivan said, adding that her mother switched to making natural stone jewelry when rheumatoid arthritis made it too difficult to paint on the floor. “She just had to produce something creative all the time.”
Her colleagues appreciated her talents.
“She was a very brilliant woman and an amazing artist,” said Gloria Karn of Ohio Township, who painted with her as a member of the Abstract Group. “She was very original. Everything she did had her special mark.”
Her Ukrainian roots led to more trauma in her life after she visited her home area in 1991. She returned and over two years created about two dozen paintings reflecting on her early experiences for a one-woman show, but they were severely damaged in a fire at a storage facility in Etna before the show.
As a result, for several years Mrs. Osby did little painting and when she returned she created smaller pieces because the family had moved and she didn’t have the floor space any more.
In addition to painting and making jewelry, Mrs. Osby was a self-taught classical pianist and a voracious reader, especially on topics involving history. She had an eye for antiques that eventually filled her house to the point where she had to have dealers buy from her supply to make more room.
In particular, she liked worn wood with warm colors and once followed a truck hauling trash for more than 15 minutes until she could pull the driver over so she could have a tattered Mail Pouch tobacco sign he was carrying.
“We had to have an agreement when we went antiquing that whoever saw an item first could buy it,” said Holly Van Dine, a potter from Squirrel Hill who admired her friend’s “positive, sharing energy.”
She shared that energy and talent as a drawing and painting teacher at Pittsburgh’s High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, where she would scrounge paint supplies, borrow taxidermy animals from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and give students her husband’s old T-shirts to use as smocks. She regularly kept student art in her studio.
“She was able to just open up possibilities for me and provide an environment that was great for learning,” said Chad Bartlett, a former Robinson resident who took two buses to get to CAPA when it was in Homewood in the early 1990s. He has degrees in art, photojournalism and film and works as a filmmaker for nonprofits in Washington, D.C.
Mrs. Osby also was known for her cooking, especially Russian borscht (soup with beets and vegetables) and ikra, an eggplant dish. But her daughter said she didn’t like baking because it required exact measurements and stifled her creativity.
“She didn’t like perfection in anything,” Mrs. O’Sullivan said.
Mrs. Osby also is survived by a son, Erik, of Howards Grove, Wis., four grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.
The family will hold a celebration of Mrs. Osby’s life next summer. They suggest donations to St. Barnabas Charities or the Rheumatoid Arthritis foundation.
Arrangements were handled by Schellhaas Funeral Home and Cremation Services, Richland.
Ed Blazina: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1470.
Correction (made Jan. 8, 8:44 a.m.): An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect image of Larissa Osby.
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