Interview: We Completely Adore the Oil Pastel Work of Artist Brian O’Neill.
by Daniel Haim
Brian O’Neill is a Signature Member of The Pastel Society of America and is proficient in a variety of mediums including oil, pastel, acrylic and charcoal. His work has been showcased in galleries across The U.S Canada, Japan and England. O’Neill is most noted for his floral paintings and drawings and has been an avid gardener and nature enthusiast most of his life.
In the spring of 2009 O’Neill was accepted as an apprentice at the world renowned Ani Art Academy Waichulis under the guidance of acclaimed realism painter, Mr. Anthony Waichulis. O’Neill’s commitment to excellence proved to be a perfect fit for the high level of work produced by the studio and Brian’s paintings have received international praise and acquisition.
O’Neill’s creations are executed with a skilled hand that illustrates many years of passion as a painter and with each new piece he looks to find ways to express that in a current and thoughtful way.
Where are you from? Where did all of this begin?
I grew up on Long Island, NY in a typical suburban home, however, I did not grow up like many American children since my father was born and raised in Ireland and I am first generation here in the U.S. The benefit of this was that my brothers and I were exposed to how he grew up in rural Ireland with his deep love of nature, the earth, outdoors and the ocean. Many of those early experiences to natural beauty was where my creative journey got its initial inspiration.
When did you realize that art is what you were meant to do?
My earliest memories are of drawing, painting and creating with my hands and to do so came very natural to me. I recently found my kindergarten report card where the teacher’s comments included very kind words about my art that said, “Brian’s art work is most commendable and this should be strongly encouraged”. This continued throughout my elementary and high school education and I was known as ‘that kid who could draw really well’. To answer the question honestly, I must say that I did not truly come to the realization that my gifts as an artist could be a career until my mid twenties and that this was my life’s purpose and what I was meant to do. The distance between that realization and making the leap to full time professional artist was another six to seven years in my early thirties when I left a job that I was miserable in to start my own business in the decorative arts, which was very successful right from the beginning. Even though I was earning an income and running my own business I still wasn’t satisfied because on a deeper level I knew that there was more that I had yet to discover. That realization continues today because I believe that as an artist my first responsibility is to be open to all creative energy and when I do that I often get what I need as opposed to something external that I my ego tells me I want.
Who are your major influences, inspiration in life and in the art world?
My major influences in the art world are many and encompass a broad range of styles, mediums and time periods. As a child I was fascinated by the ornithological paintings of Audubon. I love the drama of Caravaggio, the story telling of Rockwell, the stunning portraits of Sargent and at the same time the simplicity and power of a Rothko. Additionally, the Pre-Raphaelite painters for the allegorical themes they worked with and the incredible beauty they depicted. Among living artist’s I would have to say that Anthony Waichulis has been my biggest influence and I feel blessed to have been able to study with him and gain insight into the mastery of representational painting from an artist that is so incredibly skilled in what he does. Many of my major influences and inspiration in life have come in and out while others have stayed. My high school art teachers were always very supportive of my talent and encouraged me to apply to the major art colleges. I wasn’t a very confident child or teenager and often felt embarrassed of my talent and this lack of self-esteem at the time held me back form perusing a traditional educational route. My parents certainly did what they could to encourage my gifts and my father’s talent as a craftsmen and carpenter was a big source of inspiration. My partner Jim has been and continues to be a great source of support. He is a very talented artist himself as a dancer and choreographer. More importantly it’s a gift to share my life with a person who creates with spatial relationships, form, movement, color, and texture through the human body, all of which is very similar to how I compose a painting. I think that ultimately people can inspire one another but the responsibility to use that towards ones own personal growth lies with the individual.
What are some essential tools that you consider a must have for every artist?
The essential tools that are a must have would be first more of a practice or habit rather then a thing or object and that is to keep a clean and organized workspace. I cannot think clearly in clutter and the idea of the messy scatter brained artist is not for me. This is a job not a hobby so I treat it as such and set myself up to succeed by working with efficiency and clarity and hopefully that is reflected in my work. As far as actual working tools it would be a good sturdy easel, proper lighting, a correctly prepared work surface whether that is a canvas or wood panel because it is the foundation on which you build and for God sakes clean your brushes thoroughly and treat them with care and respect because they are an extension of your primary tools which are your hands, your head and your heart.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am currently working on a collection of four pieces that will be shown in the spring of 2014 at the RW Norton Gallery in the Shreveport Museum of Art in Louisiana as part of an exhibition called The American Still Life.
A large portion of our audience are artists, like yourself. If you could give them one piece of advice – what would it be?
The one piece of advice I would give to other artists whether they are just starting out in their early endeavors or later in life and want to try to paint because they always wanted to would be to never ever give up. You are going to make mistakes, you are going to create awful things that look nothing like what you indented them to and you should be grateful for those things because they teach you what you don’t want and if you are open you will find aspects within them that you love and found fulfilling and then you can pull them out and expand upon them. Additionally, I would say don’t be afraid to ask for help and seek out the people that have what you want which is why at 38 years old and had never been formally trained as an artist even though I had a successful career, I found Anthony and began to unlock my full potential.
What is the best advice you’ve ever been given & by whom?
The best piece of advice I was ever given was by my father when he said, “Use the right tool for the right job”. I have already mentioned that he was a very talented carpenter so he knew what he was talking about. As a painter I must also know what each tool is capable of and work with its strengths. This advice also works in other aspects of my life thinking of the word tool metaphorically when I catch myself trying to force that square peg into a round hole to get something I think I want I remember this and step back, readjust my thinking and pick up the right tool to accomplish what I feel is the next right thing.
What has been your most rewarding achievement as an artist?
The most rewarding achievement to date as an artist was to have been chosen from an international pool of thousands of artist’s as a Juror’s choice award winner in the Blossom 2: Art of Flowers Competition. The premier opening was held at The Naples Museum of Art in Naples, Florida and was my first museum show. The museum itself is really beautiful and has some very significant pieces in its permanent collection so to have a painting that I created showcased in such a venue was truly an honor. To top that off the addition of being given a special award and inclusion in the 3 year traveling museum show of Blossom was a thrill.
Could you share with us your favorite quote?
My favorite quote is “Leap and the net will appear”. I found this quote in the book The Artist’s Way and when I took that leap from a job I was unhappy in to a career as an artist I had it written out on a huge piece of paper and taped it up to the wall of my apartment so that I could see it everyday and remind myself that I can take a risk and even if I feel fear I can do it anyway. If it didn’t work out I have had the experience of trying and then I don’t have to have the ‘what if’s’ because I’ll know I gave it my best.
When you first started, what was your biggest dream? And have you accomplished that?
When I first started to take my talent seriously my biggest dream was to simply be happy and use the skills that I had ignored for so many years in my late teens through a good part of my twenties or as I have called it “the creative desert”. I can say I have achieved that goal a thousand times over, however, the goals changes and gets bigger and deeper in meaning as I change and grow. I would also add that having gallery representation in New York City was a very early dream growing up in the shadow of the big city on Long Island and now being part of Rehs Galleries I can add that to the dreams and goals that have come true.
What are your hopes for 2013, and where do you see yourself in 5, 10 years?
My hopes for 2013 have already begun to come true. After completing the Ani Art Academies apprenticeship program in the fall of 2012 I knew that I wanted to begin teaching what I had learned in the four years it took to accomplish that. Earlier in 2012 I introduced myself to the creative director of The Memorial Art Gallery Creative Workshop in my current hometown of Rochester, NY. The Creative Workshop is affiliated with The University of Rochester and offers a wide range of artistic study to children and adults. I proposed a curriculum of study in painting and drawing adapted from the Ani approach and will be teaching both in the 2013 spring/summer sessions. I am hopeful that as a teacher I will learn as much as each student does and that I can help bring out each artist’s personal best. It is difficult to say where I see myself in 5 to 10 years since some of what I assumed would happen in life turned out in a differently but was ultimately for the best. If I had to map it out I would say I see myself traveling the world with my art in exhibition opportunities as well as teaching. I tend to dream big and that’s a good thing but I also am careful to be open to all possibilities and have found if I list things I want and stay restricted to that list I miss out on things that are right in front of me that could lay the groundwork for something happening down the road. I’ve always wanted to live in southern California so that would certainly be high up there since I miss being by the ocean and love the sun and warmth. Lastly, I would say that I see myself continuing to explore the full potential of what it means to be an artist as I define that to be and merge both the representational paintings and my more organic abstract paintings together in the same piece. I have already begun to do that and have been happy with the results and since both seemingly opposite aesthetics already exist within myself there is certainly no reason why they can’t exist in harmony in the very same painting.