The story of a rejected artist finally making it big time is as familiar as the tales our grandparents like to tell us: “I walked 17 miles, barefoot, through three feet of snow; I dog-walked in New York through rejection letter after rejection letter …” The similarities are noticeable, and the struggles equally ruthless. And while there's a good chance that your aging grandpa has taken to spicing up his retirement with total B.S., the stories of struggling artists are mostly true, and there are only a few that come out of the fight still holding a paintbrush.
Casey O'Connell is one artist who has prospered, and even though she is finally content in her position as one of the West Coast's most fawned over new artists, she's too fresh off the track to have forgotten how she got there. Several cities, plenty of dog walks, and even more broken hearts paved the way for this young painter. But, we couldn't be happier that she's arrived.
Joshspear.com: Tell us about your life before winding up as a San Francisco-based artist"¦
Casey O'Connell: I was born and raised in Gainesville, Florida, where it rains every day during the summer, so I spent my afternoons coloring and making things. I started painting when I was around 8 or 9, and painting soon became my favorite thing. I absolutely loved to paint, and getting a BFA seemed like a pretty good idea. But after art school I was a little discouraged and for the next three years I traveled as much as I could, working odd seasonal jobs.
I started out in Hawaii teaching surf lessons. Then I worked as a deckhand in Alaska followed by a dude ranch in Colorado where I fell in love with winter and an extraordinary boy. Together we decided to follow winter and headed to New Zealand where I worked as a liftie during the day and rediscovered my love for painting at night. It was there that I decided to put everything I had into living my dream, so I made my way to New York where I got paid to walk dogs and play in the park. Every spare moment I was painting and submitting my work to galleries. I received dozens and dozens of rejections — and saved them all! The very first yes was an invitation from John Doffing’s Start Soma gallery to paint a room at the Art Hotel in San Francisco. Four days later I packed all my belongings and drove cross-country to San Francisco. I moved into the Hotel des Arts, and for the next month I painted room 405. A photograph of my completed room appeared on the front page of the New York Times, which resulted in a lot of opportunities. Three years later I’m still in San Francisco!
JS: You’ve only been in San Francisco for three years, but it seems like your move to that city really played a role in propelling your career forward. How has that city’s energy affected your development as an artist?
CO: Through the painted rooms project at the Art Hotel, I met artists like David Choe and Kinsey who had inspired me for years. I saw firsthand how hard they worked, and how willing they were to help other artists. The competitiveness I felt in New York was replaced with a ton of support. Everyone seemed to really believe it was more fun when all of us were living our dreams and making art.
After painting a room at the art hotel, I moved into the Start Soma studio and lived there in a tent for a few weeks until I found my own place. I shared studio space with Vulcan, a street art legend. I met artists from around the world who stayed at Start Soma or the Hotel des Arts when they came through San Francisco — artists like Seak from Germany and Pure Evil from England and Above from France and Brian Ermanski from New York. It was amazing and inspiring and I was so happy to be working alongside so many talented artists from around the world.
Start Soma continued to introduce me to other artists and galleries and projects, and my work was featured in a lot of different contexts. I had a show with Blk/Mrkt in Los Angeles, a bunch of group shows (San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Paris, Melbourne), solo shows in San Francisco, a solo show that just opened in Las Vegas, and I have an upcoming solo show in Europe. I painted a bust for Keep-A-Breast and did a series of paintings for the SurfRider Foundation and for ReefCheck. Etnies contacted me to do some clothing and sneakers, I worked with Billabong on their Design for Humanity project, and I have a solo show opening on the Google Campus in Silicon Valley next month. I am also working on a children’s book, digital art wallpapers for the iPhone, and my first series of prints. And in August, I leave for a one-month residency at the Art Monestary in Calvi dell’Umbria, Italy.
I don’t think that this could have happened anywhere but San Francisco — the city is incredibly conducive to creating art, and at the same time seems to be at the center of a truly international emerging arts movement.
JS: Your work has been described as “autobiographical dialogues that capture both her inner 12-year-old and a woman who should know better.” Can you tell us a little bit more about what that kind of situation might look like?
CO: I was toying with the idea of applying to a certain MFA program and an art critic friend told me that I would be rejected because my work wasn’t ironic enough. At first this bothered me immensely, but then I realized that I could only paint what I knew , which was simply my own daily struggles between my head and my heart. I feel things super intensely, which can lead to a roller coaster existence. The greatest highs and the lowest lows take a toll and I’m trying to become a little more even keeled "“- but at the same time, I don’t believe for a second that I could do what I do without feeling such extremes. The art itself is the result of the internal conversations and negotiations I have when I am swept away in the moment.
JS: Your work is very romantic — sometimes from an innocent perspective, sometimes from a not-so-innocent one. What is it about love (or lust, or infatuation) as subject matter that gives you so much inspiration?
CO: I try to paint what I am living, without filters or irony. I fall in love easily and get hurt a lot. In fact, I think that this is going to be my new artist statement!
JS: Do you pull inspiration for these paintings from your own personal experiences, or from a more universal pool?
CO: They are all personal. The amazing thing about all of this is that this is the first time I feel like I am able to truly connect with people. Most of my life I felt like such an outsider that I just presumed I was the only one who felt such things — everyone else seemed so composed and cool. The greatest gift my work has given me has been opening a door for others to be vulnerable and honest with me and for that I will always be grateful.
JS: Your style is unique: abstract without coming across as harsh, and emotional without seeming overly sappy. That’s a lot of extremes to skirt. Do you intentionally try to maintain that balance?
CO: I don’t think I avoid any of it, I actually think that the extremes just cancel each other out. I mean, there are so many layers where I am super sappy and others where I’m so angry I can come off as preachy … and others where I am completely lost in color. They are all in there. I think that this is why the layers are so important to me. My process forces me to recognize and admit to all of it.
JS: Are you picky about how, when and where you paint (music, ideal time and weather"¦ anything)?
CO: I am super picky about music — it is by far the most important element when I am working on a new painting. The wrong CD or mix can almost immediately shut me down. The magic with music is that it has the innate ability to immediately take you back, or in some cases, forward. It is very important that I create a soundtrack for my paintings, which are my stories. Music helps me get to that place in my head or heart, depending on the song. I love Why? for thinking and Broken Social Scene for feeling. As for everything else I’m pretty flexible. I moved studios so many times during my first year in San Francisco that I have learned to work with what I have.
JS: Tell us about your room at Hotel Des Arts!
CO: Painting that room was one of the best times in my life. For a month I just lived and breathed the story I was trying to tell. I envisioned my painting as a perfect circle that essentially told the story of its own creation. The painting also told a bigger story, a story about the difficulty of leaving one thing behind, moving on to something new, growing stronger and moving on to the next challenge, and on and on and on. The whole room revolves around the pink ceiling, which for me was a cherry blossom tree in Gainesville. These are the roots that tie the whole piece together. I loved the idea of creating this immersive environment that would remain a constant installation in the hotel, with a new person checking in and living with my art for a moment and then moving on. I probably painted over a twenty versions of the final room — which is why it took me a month!
JS: What are the very best and very worst lessons you learned in art school?
CO: The worst lesson I learned in art school was to constantly compare my art to others’. The best lesson came a little bit later, when I discovered that it ultimately doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.
JS: You have a bunch of art shows coming up soon, right? Can you tell us about them?
CO: I just had a solo show open in Las Vegas, and next month I have a solo show opening at the Google headquarters in Silicon Valley. I also have a solo show in Venice following my residency at the Art Monastery. Plus, Start Soma is releasing a series of limited edition prints of some of my new work, and Start Mobile is releasing a series of my paintings as ‘art wallpapers’ for the iPhone. There will also be a gallery tour in conjunction with the children’s book I am illustrating.