Painter Brendan O'Connell established his place in American art with reflections of our socioeconomic culture, via his now-famous Walmart paintings, but will also leave a legacy of community outreach through art education as his EveryArtist.me movement continues to grow.
Initially Brendan was drawn to the written word, not the canvas. "I always thought I'd do something creative, I didn't think it'd be art because I didn't know how to draw. I originally wanted to be a writer when I went to Paris in 1990. I went to write a novel about a group of painters, and one of the painters was a self-taught artist. I thought I'd teach myself how to draw in order to understand this character better. I decided I'd devote myself to painting."
That decision changed his life. He found work in the wintertime as the young caretaker of an old castle in the South of France, and Brendan spent his summers working as a street artist. Sketching caricatures in the street, it was three years before he started selling paintings. He estimates that he created over 10,000 portraits and caricatures. "In the beginning," he reflected, "my drawing for dollars was a form of survival. I had to produce to survive that day. To arrive in a town where you don't know anyone, with $10 in your pockets to survive to start-- the idea of selling paintings is not as frightening as that."
Brendan chuckles, remembering how another painter explained the nature of selling art to him: "To survive as a writer, you have to please thousands of people. To survive as a painter you only have to please one rich person a month."
As it turns out, that's exactly what he did."When it came to do my first show, I did it at home in Atlanta, where I am from. Some people believed in the process and bought my paintings. I got lucky early on, and some celebrities bought my paintings, like Alec Baldwin, one of the heirs to Xerox, Adidas, and more."
In fact, Baldwin also interviewed Brendan for NPR about his Walmart collection of paintings. "Artists have painted trees, landscapes, portraits. I think there is, arguably, something inevitable about an artist taking on the environment of Walmart as a subject matter. What is it that initially inspired you?" the actor asked him. Brendan replied, "Well I had done a series of photo-based paintings in black and white. They were figures at home, watching television, or reading or getting dressed, just doing ordinary everyday things. An artist friend suggested that I follow a model throughout the day, doing ordinary everyday things out in the world." (Read the full interview here.)
Through much of Walmart's expansion in the U.S., Brendan was still in Europe, where he says the post-impressionists in France painted the boulevards of commerce in Paris, "that became a sort of sandbox where I could explore ideas both sociological and aesthetic. I've always been interested in art that was accessible to people. There is something straightforward about the most visited place on earth, and so I decided to follow someone out into the world, doing their shopping at Walmart."
"The paintings are soft and luscious," Susan Orlean described his work in The New Yorker, "as if Pierre Bonnard had ventured into a Walmart with an easel. The images are presented without irony, but the idea of an artist painting scenes of the world’s largest and probably uncoolest retailer is bound to be confounding."
The corporation was surprisingly receptive to Brendan's art and extended some good old fashioned Southern hospitality to the artist. "When I was on NPR I made the comment that I'd been invited to leave more Walmarts than most New Yorkers had been in, and they called and invited me down to Arkansas." Through his EveryArtist.me organization, he has been collaborating with the corporation on the Wal-art project, reaching out to children in what the website calls" an example of Social Art Collaboration, and stems from the belief that Imagination is Collateral".
"The Wal-art project generates an event that is both real world and digital. A community explores unifying ideas by piecing together a mural through artist-designed kits. While individual effort and creativity are fostered it provides the community an opportunity to think and work creatively together on a project with the added value of using the event to raise funds traditionally and through new media." Their images will be scanned and uploaded to create a vast virtual mural.
Primarily, EveryArtist.me addresses the need to get creativity back in our schools and seeks to encourage children's creativity through the arts, strengthening the other academic pursuits and fostering innovation.
"The project generates a National Art Day event that is both real world and digital. A community explores unifying ideas by piecing together a mural through artist-designed kits. While individual effort and creativity are fostered it provides the community an opportunity to think and work creatively together on a project with the added value of using the event to raise funds traditionally and through new media." Their images will be scanned and uploaded to create a vast virtual mural. The purpose is to encourage and spark children's creativity through the arts. National Art Day is hoped to be an annual event to fuel the ongoing activities of Everyartist.me
"Our whole mission is to spark next generation art," Brendan said. "My kids that are seven and ten years old, the code hasn't been written for the world they're going to inhabit. creativity makes that happen, as parents teachers, good members of society we need to do all we can to spark that in the next generation."