Q&A with Award Winner Susan O’Neill

Q&A with Award Winner Susan O’Neill

For our third and final interview with the award-winning artists in May’s juried group exhibit, we turn to Susan O’Neill, whose oil painting Thomas’s Gift was awarded second place. (The juror, contemporary art curator Lauren Dickens, awarded best-in-show and third place to two other still life paintings — those interviews are here (with Leigh Culver) and here (with Paul Zapatka.)

Susan O’Neill was also recognized last spring for a collage in our “Earth” exhibit (you can read our earlier interview here), and last fall, her proposal for an exhibit of work on the human figure was selected by a panel of jurors for a 2014 solo show at The Art League.

Susan told us more about that exhibit, her influences, and the gift that spawned the still life — it’s all in our Q&A, below.

Thomas's Gift by Susan O'Neill.
Thomas’s Gift by Susan O’Neill. (Click for full size.)

How did Thomas’s Gift start?
Susan O’Neill: This particular still life was inspired by my seven-year-old son, who brought me some daffodils that he picked in our garden. I was so touched that I told him that I would paint them. I could not let him down and wanted to keep my promise, so I had to quickly capture them in paint before they lost their vitality and sparkle. He put them into a vase and I wanted to paint them just as he arranged them, without any alteration.

What’s your goal with a still life, and with this one in particular?
My goal with still life is to capture the essence of the subject, what makes it unique. I look for the predominant movement and pulse of the line then weave this with the color and composition that I observe. I strive to carefully study the form, value, and color of my subject or an object while staying somewhat loose in my presentation. I feel this allows the viewer to feel the energy and character of the subject, while their eye dances over the surface of the painting, even finishing some areas with their own eye.

In Thomas’s Gift I wanted the painting of the daffodils to reflect the integrity of the flowers and his gift, exactly as he arranged them. I enjoy the challenge of creating a strong composition with whatever view is in front of me with minimal deliberation. This is how I prefer to begin a work of art and exploration of the subject. I find this spontaneous approach captures the energy and character of the subject.

What’s your artistic process like? Is it as spontaneous to paint as it is to collage? 
I work in a very spontaneous way by quickly responding to my subject and the space in which it occurs. I feel that the initial inspiration is what gives the piece its excitement and life. Without that inspiration the piece can become forced and lacking in energy or rhythm. Simultaneously I work to establish a strong composition to support the subject. Whether I’m painting from life or creating an abstract work with collage, my initial inspiration is what propels the process. Of course I rely on my knowledge of color, form, value, and composition to unify the work of art. I apply these ideas when I approach a painting in the studio or in plein air painting.

Why oil? How is oil paint an integral part of your artwork?
I worked in watercolor for many years. Right now, however, oil has become quite exciting to me with the vast possibilities to achieve different effects from subtle to bold.  Oil paint is an integral part of my artwork because it allows me to create work that can support spontaneity or careful study, each with different but strong results.

Detail from Thomas's Gift.
Detail from Thomas’s Gift.

In our last Q&A, you talked about a Japanese influence in your collage work. Does that influence also go into a more traditional, Western painting like this one? Who or what are your other major influences?
My influences are diverse: from classical artists such as Caravaggio, Michelangelo, and Fra Angelico to more contemporary and abstract artists such as Sargent, Sorolla, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Morandi, and Diebenkorn. I feel that all life experiences influence the eye and hand. I’ve talked before about living in Japan and my inspirations from that experience. Artwork can be influenced in abstract ways. In that, I’m certain that my work reflects influences from Japan and from artists like Hiroshige.

If you weren’t a painter, what other medium would you want to work in?
If my primary medium was not painting and drawing, as it is currently, I would like to sculpt the human figure. I did this years ago for a short time. I feel this has helped me to better understand form. Since I have been intensely studying the human form in recent years I feel that sculpting the figure would bring me to yet another level of understanding. The tactile experience of sculpting the form that I know so well from drawing and painting is quite appealing.

How is your solo exhibit coming along? What sort of exhibit do you hope to create, and why did you choose to focus on the human figure?
Work for my exhibit is coming along nicely. I am excited about the direction my work is taking. I have long been inspired by the human figure, depicting it with dynamic energy and structure. It provides endless opportunities for exploration. I hope to show a body of work that invigorates the viewer in a new way not only through the composition and figure itself but through the surface of the work. I would like each piece to draw in the viewer to discover form, line, and composition in an fresh and exciting way.

Reclining Figure by Susan O'Neill. Charcoal on paper, 24" x 38". This was one of the drawings submitted to the solo exhibit jurors.
Reclining Figure by Susan O’Neill. Charcoal on paper, 24″ x 38″. This was one of the drawings submitted to the solo exhibit jurors for Susan’s 2014 exhibit.

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