QUINCY (CBS) – The next time you’re at Walmart or another big-box store, take a moment to notice the colors and patterns of the merchandise.
It’s not something most of us do on a regular basis. And even if we did, we probably wouldn’t see it in an artistic way.
But that’s part of what makes Connecticut artist, Brendan O’Connell’s work so lively, original and well-received. O’Connell taught himself to paint, years ago, in Paris.
And he says there are similarities between the street scenes he painted in the City of Light and the aisles that inspire his Walmart paintings.
O’Connell just finished up two paintings at the Walmart in Quincy. One depicts short stacks of Hellmann’s mayonnaise. The other brings to life rows of Life cereal.
Customers sometimes need an explanation.
“What’s your motivation to come to Walmart and paint boxes of Life cereal?” asked shopper, Antoinette Barros.
O’Connell, paintbrush in hand, explained, “It’s just part of everyday life. What if we could see this — from our everyday life — in a different way? A more artful way? A more colorful way?”
Barros watched for a moment and declared, “Impressive!”
O’Connell wasn’t always welcome at Walmart stores. When he started painting scenes from the big-box retailer, he took photos inside the stores and painted the scenes at his studio.
He got in trouble, more than a few times, taking pictures inside the stores. But after getting some positive attention for his paintings in Boston, Walmart extended an invitation for O’Connell to paint “in store.”
Since then, he’s been featured in The New Yorker magazine and on the top-rated “CBS Sunday Morning.” His smallest paintings sell for about $1200, and prices go up considerably from there.
Part of what makes Walmart such a rich creative environment, he says, is that everything in the store is “curated for a reason and everything is man-made.”
O’Connell says he decides which product or scene he’ll paint based on his intuition.
When something strikes him as interesting, he paints it. He was drawn to the rows of Life cereal, for example, because of the primary-colored “life” on the box and the simplicity of the lower-case letters.
He was asked if there’s anything he wouldn’t paint, either on principle or because it’s just ugly. O’Connell paused.
“That’s…the spiritual exercise. Trying to make beauty out of anything—the ordinary thing,” he answered.
O’Connell believes his paintings resonate with people because of the emotional connection we have to brands. Some make us nostalgic. Others simply make us happy. But we connect with them on different levels.
“Humans want to connect. They want to connect with ideas. They want to connect with things. They want to connect with each other,” he said.
And at a time when so many of us buy items online, O’Connell points out, it’s the experience inside the store that brings people together.
“The big-box environment that people were so afraid of,” he said, “might be the last physical space where people go to get stuff.”
Typically, O’Connell paints near his home in Connecticut. But he’s taking his talents on the road to promote a creative project for kids. Everyartist.me aims to inspire kids (ages 6-12) to participate in an online “gallery.”
Children are encouraged to create a piece inspired by the word “gratitude.”
Those pieces will go online a week before Thanksgiving.
The goal, he says, is to get a million kids (including thousands in Boston) to join the effort.
For more information, go to everyartist.me.