Continuing my blog series on introducing readers to the behind-the-scenes talents I’ve been fortunate enough to work with, I’d like to welcome all of you to read this interview with Kelly O’Neill, the Artist of Life.
A few years ago, a good friend of mine who knew I had once upon a time studied art told me of this amazing artist whose work he and his wife had seen at a county fair art show. The piece, entitled Eternal Song, was absolutely stunning and the talents of this young artist were beyond obvious. Not only were her portraits memorable, but, she had diversified herself across multiple styles of art and design.
When I began my own publishing label in 2009, I sought Kelly out to design the logo for my company, Dream Big Productions. A graphic design genius, she was both patient and generous and created a design that exceeded my own expectations. From there, she went on to create both the layout for my web site, business cards and two backgrounds for my Twitter account.
In the short time of our acquaintance, it has been amazing to watch the blessings she has enjoyed. The short list might include: appearing on The Today Show, being featured as a design artist while helping rebuild Nashville on Extreme Home Makeover (while pregnant, one might add) and, of course, the true art of being a working mom & wife. With all the hats she has worn and all the demands on her day, I’m grateful that she still made the time to sit down for this mini-interview.
JG: Kelly, when did you first decide that you wanted to be a professional artist and have you ever second-guessed the decision?
KO: I actually loved art from a very early age. I say “art,” but really anything creative, including making bird houses from Popsicle sticks. Only a proud Mom would call that art, but I loved that sort of thing. In art school, one of the required courses before continuing on with a specific focus was Drawing 2. It was strictly portraiture, and I was terrified. Not one to enjoy failure, and having never tried a portrait before, I imagined getting the first ‘C’ I’d ever received… or worse. But as it turned out, portrait work was sort of my “thing.”
The summer after that freshman year in college, I was bored one day on the front porch, and decided to draw my sister as a baby with some new charcoal pencils I’d been given by my Dad. (Until this point, I had only drawn portraits with vine charcoal and newsprint paper). This new, more controlled way of drawing really excited me, and after I finished, my Dad said that people would pay me to do these of their kids. I was skeptical, but intrigued. I decided to give it a shot. I was eighteen at the time.
Thirteen years later, I’m still doing it, and working in oil as well. I never wavered in my determination to make art my livelihood after I began… even when I first graduated from college and was pinching pennies. It’s paid off, and I wake up now doing what I love for a living! I should mention that one of my passions now is to actively encourage young artists to really go for their dreams and not listen to the naysayers (there were many in my case). Yes, you can be “practical” and get a real job, etc., but you may find yourself dreading Mondays. I don’t recommend it.
JG: Now that you’re doing what you love each and every day, is there a goal you’ve set for yourself for what lies ahead in your career?
KO: One of my favorite living artists is watercolor artist Mitchell Tolle. He lives and works in Berea, KY, and I’ve visited his studio and gallery a number of times. This man’s life almost mirrors what I’ve envisioned for my own someday. He paints what he wants and only what he wants. He works on beautiful property in a stunning plantation- style southern home with columns.
The lower level is his gallery, filled with his best work, coffee table books, and prints that are for sale. His wife greets visitors at the door and his son manages the framing and shipping. Mitchell paints in his studio just upstairs and comes down to talk with those perusing his gallery. I was one of those visitors once, and his humility and willingness to take time to talk to a budding artist is still so impressed upon my mind.
During peak season, he ships out two UPS trucks a day from his gallery, yet still makes time to lead choir at his church. Ahhhh… this is a beautiful life. I love my own, and all things come with time, but when I say I’m shooting for something, this would be it.
JG: Do you feel your artwork is, in some ways, a ministry?
KO: It may be a stretch to call my commissioned work a ministry, though I suppose it could be argued. However, my “God Paintings” as I like to call them are just that: ministry paintings. I know that the visions that God has given me for pieces like Unblemished, Redeemed, Mine For a Moment, and The Hour I First Believed are ones that He’s given me to paint so that His children may learn or appreciate something about Him that they needed to. I am continually humbled that God would use my hand and set of creative abilities to affect change in someone else’s life. It’s more than I could ever have hoped for when I set out on this journey.
JG: Final question, is there a piece of advice you could give artists that you wish someone had given you when you were starting out?
KO: I sort of touched on this before, but I’d say this: It CAN be done. If you have the work ethic and desire to make art your living, stick with it and sacrifice if you must to make it work. Don’t listen to naysayers or pessimists. They may very well be stuck in a job that they despise, and can’t see another way. Learn from others. Spend time with artists who are doing what you want to do. And believe in yourself.
For the second part of this blog, I asked Kelly if she would include a bit of insight for some of her favorite pieces. Please continue reading and enjoy the beautiful creations.
KO: This was my first large scale painting. It was also my first masterpiece, and it continues to get much of the attention when it’s among some of my other pieces. I love the subject matter – a masterful violinist. There is a mood evoked by this piece that can’t be ignored. I spent 65 hours making it exactly as I wanted it, and have never spent that long on a painting since, though I’ve come close! The challenge with this one was, by far, his long beard and very wispy hair on the top of his head. I’d never come across hair like that in a painting, and it just about did me in to try to get it perfect.
KO: This one represents God in the moments before He gave up His son for our sins. From conception to finish (a two year stretch), this painting was purposed by Him. You must read the story behind it if you’re fond of getting chill bumps. J I completed the painting in just under two weeks, and when it was finished, I stood back and looked at it and it felt as though someone else had painted it. I literally didn’t remember a single brush stroke. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true. It’s the one that may just be closest to my heart, and it’s brought grown men and women to tears when they see it. Unblemished was my first “God Painting,” and it ignited in me the desire to fill my life doing more of these for His purposes.
“The Hour I First Believed”
KO: This painting is one of my favorites, partly because I just completed it and I’m always pretty attached to them at this point. But really, I love that it has no faces in it. Being a portrait artist, I sort of laughed when God gave me the vision for it. It’s all arms and hands! (Things that most artists loath painting.) What I learned from this one is that God rewards obedience, even when you drag your feet to be obedient. I didn’t paint this one right away. In fact, it was three years after I saw it in my mind that I actually got it onto canvas. But within a week of its completion, God showed me numerous times how He was going to use it for His glory in people’s lives. It was in a show a couple of weeks ago, and the emails and phone calls regarding it haven’t stopped. It’s about salvation and freedom from sin. It depicts a man at the moment of his release from bondage, and it is triggering for many people a gratitude for what Christ did for us. Wow! I’m so excited to see what will come of this one. It’s truly out of my hands, and I’m thankful for that.
As Kelly mentioned earlier in her interview, one piece she created is the oil painting entitled ‘Mine for a Moment’ (see below). This piece has become a signature painting from Kelly and has been used to help those grieving from the loss of a child or other loved one.
“Mine for a Moment” (learn more)
My thanks go out to Kelly and to those of you who’ve read this blog entry on her work. I hope you will take a moment to visit her web site to see more of her work and to learn the stories behind many of her creations.