Brendan O’Connell paints everyday America at this moment of transition. He does so by painting retail while focusing on interior architecture, people and brands. Brendan has been profiled in the New Yorker, Sunday morning CBS and featured in Time magazine. He was also a guest on the Colbert Report TV show. Brendan’s work is in the permanent collection of the High Museum in Atlanta and the Georgia Museum of Art, Athens. Boonji founder Brendan Murphy credits him as a real source of inspiration and a major reason he pursued the creative path. Brendan O’Connell is also the founder of EveryArtist - a social venture with a mission to democratise art and engage children to be creative.
Could you tell us about your childhood. What kind of environment did you grow up in? Would you say you were a creative kid?
Spent a fair amount of time alone, building sandcastles at the beach and wandering in the woods in GA, but then I did all the normal things like sports and video games, but I always had an active observer space in my head. I thought everyone did, but it later became clear they didn’t.
The realization that you are a creative and you want to pursue painting as a career came to you when you lived in Paris. Can you tell us more about that period in your life.
I went to Paris to write a novel. I didn’t realize that ten thousand people arrived in Paris the same day I did with the same intention. What was different is that I was writing a novel about painters and one of the characters was a self taught painter. So I decided to teach myself to draw. In a very real way I became one of the characters in the book.
You’re famous for painting Walmart and its customers. What is it about ordinary people, everyday objects and activities that draws you in and inspires you to depict them?
The eastern idea that any ordinary moment can be enlightening or the western catholic idea that any moment can be a sacrament. What if we seek and find beauty in the moments most people are just trying to get through.
Could you talk about your creative process, what part of it do you enjoy the most?
I do what I feel like most days, some brands, some abstract, now this Airbnb series.
You and Brendan Murphy (Boonji founder) have known each other for a long time. In fact, Brendan credits you as a major reason he pursued the creative path. You are both self-taught. In your opinion, what are the advantages and disadvantages of not being formally trained?
The advantages are the people you mimic or steal from is a conscious path to find your own voice. In school there’s an unconscious component in the selection based on teachers peers, classes etc.
You have a real mastery of painting. When did you feel like you reached a certain level in which you can execute your ideas? Was is the old 10.000 hours, 10 years formula for example? Did you always have it and just improved, and also did you have a mentor?
I got pretty good at caricatures after a few thousand but it’s like stand up comedy, if you’re not doing it it’s hard to do it off the cuff... I’ve had many mentors, some of them were not imaginary.
How do you treat the unknown? When you first decided to pursue the arts you had to be terrified, how did you process those doubts and fears and how do you do it now? Is it just part of the deal of being a creative?
Sometimes when you are working the unknown is way bigger than you suspect. Do you want to communicate something? Are you into self expression? You after fame or money or sex? Do you feel like you have to do this? There are only a few reasons people do this.
The current theme you are exploring is painting your Airbnb hosts. Can you share with us how you were inspired to start this new series?
Originally I keep meeting people painting Walmarts in thinking God I’d rather paint them in their environment and I said maybe I should meet someone in the produce section and follow them home. And Walmart said please don’t do that. Then Airbnb came along and made it very easy for me to get in anyone’s living room.
What role do you think an artist plays in society?
Always use the metaphor of the navigator.
Your social venture EveryArtist, which is about democratising art and engaging children to be creative, is really inspiring! Is it important to you because you believe that ‘creativity is the most important human resource’?
Do you think the importance of art and creativity is going to be even more significant in the years to come due to the rise of artificial intelligence and people losing jobs? The predictions are that many ordinary people will feel displaced and will have to find new meaning in life? Could creativity be the answer?
When people don’t exercise their creativity they either become self-destructive or simply destructive.
The spirit of Boonji is to support and protect the creative. Boonji actually stands for - positive energy derived from creativity. Do you plan to continue championing creativity through EveryArtist and maybe other ventures?
What would you say to a young painter/artist/creative who wants to become a professional artist. Any tips or guidance?
Do what you do.
What are you currently working on?
All of the above.