An artist finds inspiration in Walmart’s aisles
QUINCY — The artist, in paint-stained jeans and a T-shirt, loaded a shopping cart with brushes and particle board and rolled into the Quincy Walmart on Tuesday morning.
Brendan O’Connell shook hands with Mike, the security guy at Store 2341, grabbed a bag of salted almonds, and headed to Aisle 29. There the “Warhol of Walmart” went to work, swirling the reds, whites, and yellows that will go into his painting of a stack of Life cereal boxes.
“He’s good,” said Jameel Thigpen, a worker pushing a broom nearby.
“Are those for sale?” asked a customer, not waiting to hear that O’Connell’s series of Walmart paintings is going for thousands of dollars.
The paintings are a departure from the work you find in many art galleries. O’Connell paints an important, often-overlooked slice of America — scenes of ordinary life shown through shoppers at box stores or even through the products themselves, lined neatly for mass consumption. In this universe, checkout lines become Parisian boulevards and rows of Wonder Bread flutter like Monet water lilies.
For a decade, O’Connell painted in relative anonymity. Now that’s over. In February, he was profiled in The New Yorker, then appeared on “The Colbert Report” and “CBS Sunday Morning.”
And this week, O’Connell, who normally doesn’t work in front of the media, allowed a glimpse into his process as part of a big-city tour to draw attention to Everyartist.me, an organization he helped found that is aimed at sparking creativity in children. In November, it plans to recruit more than a million elementary school children to create a piece of art inspired by the word “gratitude.”
Last April, Walmart contributed to Everyartist.me’s first effort, in which more than 8,000 students filled a football field in Bentonville, Ark., — home to the company’s headquarters — with their art.
In Quincy, Leo DeSousa, a Walmart manager, said he was surprised when he got the call from the headquarters in Arkansas clearing O’Connell’s way. “It was certainly something new,” he said.
Not for O’Connell. He started sneaking into Walmarts in 2003, snapping photos and returning to his studio to paint. Sometimes he paid blondes in skimpy clothes to pose as shoppers. Other times, he merely took photos of potato chips lining a shelf.
“The idea of shopping is so connected to our daily experience, and Walmart has the advantage of being the largest of these big-box environments,” said O’Connell. “They set up the ugly necessities of life in a relatively pristine way. . . . Like toilet paper.”
O’Connell learned his art informally on the streets of Paris, where he lived for several years after graduating from Emory University in 1990. Today, he and his wife, the accomplished landscape painter Emily Buchanan, live in Connecticut with their two children, Isabel, 11, and Matthew, 8.
But his life is far from ordinary. As he drove to Walmart Tuesday, he got a text from his most famous supporter. Actor Alec Baldwin let O’Connell know that he had just plugged him on “The Howard Stern Show.”
A few minutes later, as O’Connell began to paint, Baldwin called to talk about the artist. The famously left-leaning actor said he understood why O’Connell does not seem interested in addressing criticism the company has faced including, for example, how much it pays workers.
“This is not really not about Walmart’s politics,” said Baldwin. “It’s the fact that we all end up entering those places and even falling under the spell of them.”
As far as O’Connell’s painting, Baldwin said he is drawn to the colors and the figures in his work. Four of the five paintings he owns feature a woman shopping, her face concealed.
“It’s like you’re in a store and you pause and you want that woman to turn around and to see what she looks like,” said Baldwin. “Brendan captures that moment.”
A few minutes later, O’Connell tried to coax Kylie McDonald, a 5-year-old girl from Quincy wearing a pink tutu and a matching ribbon in her hair, to stand in front of the stacks of cereal so he can snap a photo.
Barbara Lynch, the girl’s grandmother, urged her to pose, tugging at her elbow.
“Do you like Life cereal?” O’Connell asked.
The girl walked away.
Erica Disbrow, a 17-year-old visiting from Florida, stopped and smiled as she spotted O’Connell.
“Mom, look at this,” she said. “This is cool.”
“It reminds me of Andy Warhol with the soup cans,” said Julie Disbrow.
O’Connell continued to paint. For a while, his only company was the sound of rain pounding on the Walmart roof and pretzel bags crinkling as they were stocked in the next aisle.
Over a veggie-patty sub for lunch at the Walmart Subway, O’Connell talked of where his Walmart work may lead. Since The New Yorker piece, he’s sold more than 100 paintings, ranging from $1,200 for 1-by-1 foot panels to a larger work that went for $40,000.
It was a 2010 story in the Boston Globe that led the company to grant him permission to paint in the aisles. “He actually had a very interesting take on Walmart, a much more intellectual approach, seeing it as a microcosm for communities,” said Alan Dranow, a senior director of marketing at Walmart.
At one point, O’Connell suggested that Walmart rent him an 18-wheeler and a driver so he could travel between stores as a rolling studio. That, Dranow told him, would be too expensive.
But Walmart remains a supporter, and O’Connell is interested in the “Amish Walmart” in Ohio, where customers can tie up their horses and buggies to rails.
“Or maybe this next iteration is me going to some podunk town in North Dakota where they don’t have a museum or gallery,” said O’Connell. “Or maybe I end up following folks to their house to do a kind of Alice Neel meets William Eggleston. I feel like the possibilities are endless.”