O'Neill forges a strong link in local art scene's chain
Amy O'Neill doesn't dabble.
"Whatever it is that I'm doing I take very seriously," says O'Neill, a professional artist and painter who lives in Riverwest.
Although her work graces private collections around the country, it's her murals and large-scale pieces that have garnered her much-deserved notoriety in Milwaukee.
O'Neill's paintings spring from the walls of Beauty, Hi-Hat, Schwartz Bookshops, La Perla, Trocadero -- she created their sign with the French poster-inspired woman on a bicycle -- and the infamous eight-foot crock pot originally brushed for a Milwaukee Art Museum show that now hangs inside Adambomb Tattoo.
"I painted a crock pot because it was funny, first of all, but also I liked the idea of making an eight-foot painting of an object that is supposed to represent convenience," says O'Neill. "An eight foot-painting may be a lot of things, but convenient is certainly not one of them."
Interestingly, the 29-year-old artist is ambidextrous and paints with both hands. She claims it's because her left-handed mother tried to spare her daughter the inconvenience of being a lefty in a right-handed world by switching crayons from her left to her right hand.
O'Neill also occasionally sings with the Five Card Studs, using the stage name "Rocky Mountains" and performs surprise solo shows where she belts out blues renditions of Madonna tunes.
Although O'Neill grew up in Whitefish Bay, she spent a lot of time on the East Side, primarily because her father Kevin was the manager of the Oriental Theatre for 25 years.
"I saw every movie -- most of them foreign or independent films -- and sometimes wonder how growing up in the dark has affected my artistic sensibilities," says O'Neill. "I learned to walk in the lobby of the Oriental. I had my 12th birthday party at the Oriental ... My dad put my name in huge letters on the marquee. He told me that my present from him was that he would get any movie I wanted to play at my party. I chose 'Harold and Maude.' All the girls there thought it was the dumbest movie ever. I thought it was heavenly."
Through exposure to creative films and people, and her natural drive to draw, O'Neill honed her talents at a young age.
"I grew up with the understanding that art can be a representation of a thing or a feeling or an idea or an opinion (and) I knew I wanted to communicate in that language," she says. "What inspires me today is this sentiment, only now I'm smarter and more opinionated."
O'Neill received a BFA from UWM in 1998 and her MFA last spring. She currently teaches drawing at UWM and MIAD.
"Milwaukee is a good place to be an artist if you can figure out how to be an artist here," she says. "You have to supply your own drive and ambition."
According to O'Neill, places like New York or Los Angeles might provide more opportunity or momentum, but are fueled by the high cost of living and cutthroat competition. In Milwaukee, however, artists can afford studio space and reasonable apartments and have more of a tendency to support one another.
All the same, she says, Milwaukee artists need to stay in their game by reading art magazines, making connections with galleries and managers in other cities and being wary of the city's temptations.
"The caveat that comes with being a Milwaukee-based artist is the way this city invites you to slack off. Turn around and throw a penny over your shoulder and you hit a bar. And since everyone knows everyone in this city, one or more of your friends is likely to be in that bar," she says. "We are a city of leisure and that's great; learning to work within this culture takes some doing."
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