Down to a fine art
At home with Brian O'Neill
My first encounter with Brian O’Neill was roughly seven years ago while he was planning an art fundraiser for a local nonprofit where I was working at the time. Not only was his art impressive, but his enthusiasm, work ethic, and organizational skills were as inspiring then as they are today. O’Neill occupies a spacious studio in the Hungerford, and if you are his guest, he insists you’ll have the “best latte in town” as he prepares it with the same care and craftsmanship he gives his paintings.
It was apparent that O’Neill had natural talent back in kindergarten when his teacher made a note that “art should be encouraged” on his report card. He got his first set of oil paints at age eight. Growing up on Long Island, he inherited a strong work ethic from his father, an Irish immigrant. “I was a fishmonger at age ten, selling my dad’s fish around the neighborhood,” he says. O’Neill wound up doing a variety of jobs such as retail, modeling, and working as a professional dog groomer to make ends meet. At one point, while wandering through a Barnes and Noble, he picked up a John Singer Sargent book and felt a vibration. “Hey, if you’re gonna pick up an art book, at least make it Sargent,” he jokes, but the sensation told him he had to do something.
He was also influenced by another book—Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. One particular quote, “Leap and the net will appear” really stuck with him. “I’ve been given a gift, and it’s my responsibility to use it, do it, and be supported. Nothing was going to stop me.” O’Neill began painting home murals and interiors. He took catering gigs to support himself while he built a successful decorative art business on Long Island. “This was pre-smartphone,” he continues. “I did it through networking, cold calls, and being professional. You have to be early, be prepared, and be willing to give it all you’ve got. I’ve found that if you present professionally and give people respect, people will talk to you.”
However, when he relocated to Rochester to be with his now husband, James Hansen, things really exploded for him. The first show he participated in was the Memorial Art Gallery’s Clothesline Festival in 2005. A representative from Nan Miller Gallery saw his work, sparking a relationship that lasted for several years. “My time at Nan’s gallery was very important. I learned what it meant to be a professional when dealing with commissions and interior designers,” says O’Neill. It also strengthened a connection with gallerist Kristen Campo, who helped him land the floral mural project at Highland Hospital, Highland Park in Bloom. More recently, he showed his work at the Contemporary Art Fair of Rochester that Campo hosted at the Strathallan in November.
O’Neill has produced several solo shows over the past few years. Since Hansen was a professional dancer and heads the undergraduate program of dance at SUNY College at Brockport, two shows were in collaboration with the Rochester City Ballet (MUSE and MUSE 2.0). The figurative realism paintings juxtaposed dancers with local landmarks such as City Hall and Corbett’s Glen. The shows were not only stunning and successful, but this work recently garnered him international representation at Hazelton Gallery in Toronto. He enjoys working with other people in their chosen art form and says, “You meet them where they are and it’s collaborative. There’s a lack of ego and what they bring to the table makes the work so much better. Collaboration is so important. Artists often share the same patrons and enthusiasts.”
His most recent solo show, Fusion, was in partnership with Junior Achievement and hosted at Rochester Picture Framing. The show displayed his wide range of expertise in abstract work as well as realistic seascapes and landscapes. O’Neill enjoys working in both styles and says, “Early on, people told me I had to choose one or the other, and, initially, I believed it. The inspiration for these comes from the same place, but the end result is different. How do you paint the wind? What is the feeling in relationship to the ocean? There are subtleties of seeing sand rolling in the surf with the texture.” His realistic work is primarily painted in oil. Abstract work is typically acrylic with lightweight molding paste and other acrylic mediums added for texture. The lightness of the paste allows him to remove the canvas from the stretchers and roll it easily for shipment without damaging the piece.
O’Neill has a loyal collector base in Rochester and enjoys doing commissions. After Fusion, he was approached by a client with an idea to create a pentaptych (a five-piece painting) that morphed from realism into abstraction. “I was immediately enthused by the concept.” He continues, “the collector led me to a spiral stairway and said, ‘We have been waiting for years for the perfect something to hang here and we want you to create it.’ I love how much my collectors trust me to bring a vision to life. This was more collaboration than a task. Since all of my abstract work is inspired by nature, the space spoke to me immediately—a winter landscape moving into increased texture, color, abstraction, and metal leaf.”
When working on commissions, meeting in the home—or the space where the piece will be installed—is vital for O’Neill. Clients often have anxiety about a major artwork purchase, and his goal is to put them at ease. “One-of-a-kind, commissioned work shouldn’t just be okay, it should be perfect and exceed my client’s expectations on every level,” he says. “I often ask them what they want to feel when they look at it and intuitively translate color, texture, and scale. I listen more than I talk, and I’m good at reading people. It’s a gift, and I work hard to maintain it.”
O’Neill’s knack for creating the perfect piece for a space translates into his own beautiful home. He and Hansen relocated to the Corn Hill neighborhood a few years ago after living in the Park Avenue area for many years. “The transition from a big home to 1,600 square feet meant making a lot of changes,” he says. “What’s really important? What do we edit?” Thankfully, they found a person who bought their old house fully furnished so they could start with a clean slate. “We pared back anything unnecessary. I don’t have stuff—you’re not going to find a tchotchke,” he says.
When designing the new space and picking out elements, O’Neill asked himself a similar question that he asks of his clients, “How do we want to feel in this space?” The answer was light and uncomplicated. The space has clean lines with many windows allowing for plenty of natural light, but they’ve also ensured proper lighting during the evening hours. “The only thing that separates us from other animals is our ability to control lighting,” O’Neill laughs. “Light creates mood and spaces within a space—especially for artwork. You’ll want that displayed at a different temperature.” O’Neill loves how the asymmetry in his home cuts through rectangular spaces so every vantage point is interesting. His favorite spot is a chair where he can see all the way to the back of the house. “There are so many layers and textures—I like to pause and look at something interesting.” Most of the furniture is midcentury modern with the most treasured being six Danish teak dining room chairs that surround a tulip table. One of O’Neill’s abstracts creates the perfect backdrop. They were also fortunate enough to buy back an antique Persian rug from the owner of their previous home. “There are layers of texture and history where something contemporary can sit on top,” says O’Neill. A lover of nature, it was also important for him to have a garden. “I have to plant things and see things grow,” he says. The garden is also an ideal place for their English springer spaniel, Eleanor, to strike a pose. O’Neill is also an accomplished home cook and baker, and his kitchen creations are an art form in and of themselves. He and Hansen love to entertain and share their space with others.
O’Neill’s studio functions as a “second home” of sorts—he now hosts six full-time students once a week and four part-time students once every other week. O’Neill advanced his skills by attending the Ani Art Academy Waichulis in Pennsylvania with trompe l’oeil painter Anthony Waichulis. He was one of the first long-distance apprentices at the school, and the program took three-and-a-half years. While he did travel to Pennsylvania once a month, he was able to do his three hours of exercises in the morning before his regular painting schedule. “Accolades don’t happen when you don’t put in the work,” he says. He attributes his teaching style, or at least the techniques, to his mentor. Regarding his teaching, he says, “I love it. It helps me to be a better artist and to better articulate technique and process. It’s incredibly rewarding.”
Find Brian O’Neill on Instagram at @brianoneillartist, Twitter at @brianoneillart, Facebook at the Brian O’Neill Studio, and at brianoneillstudio.com.
Stacey Rowe is a freelance writer and artist living in Rochester. She can be found on Instagram and Twitter @thestaceyrowe and staceyrowe.com.