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Amy on Amy

Amy O’Neill is bigger than life. So’s her dog. Have you seen them strolling the sidewalks in Riverwest? Q. Judith Ann Moriarty (JM) Has any of your work been censored, ah, removed from an exhibit because of content? A. I’ve had to be selective about choosing certain works for various shows, but on the whole, no, my content has never been censored. Except in high school when the principal threatened me with expulsion if I hung my senior thesis show which included a nude self portrait, a painting which he felt was so “realistic” it could not be shown. I was stunned! It was unjust to be censored for doing school work. In the painting’s stead I hung copies of art historical paintings depicting the nude, which in their time were considered scandalous. My situation caused a momentary stir, but nevertheless I was disappointed. (Note: The principal was dismissed the following year.) Q. Describe your most bodacious painting. A. Two years ago I did a series titled “Eight Things You Should Know About Me.” Each painting was of me in the buff, save for a corset. They were oils, as are all of my paintings, and measured 30″ x 40″. In the piece titled “Oh You Like It Dirty Me Too,” I depicted my stomach wrapped in twine (replacing the corset), with a pig nose on my face. The hands are big, plump and fleshy. Another from that series, a favorite of mine, was “You Like Jokes I Got Jokes.” In that one I painted a blood-red clown nose on my face. Q. I saw some of your work at the Charles Allis Art Museum recently. You’re concentrating more on your face these days. Right? A. Well, my most recent series is of large-scale self portraits that only include my head. At six feet tall they nearly choked the picture plane. The emotions I felt while executing them actually became as much a part of the subject matter as did my face. Q. Wow. Aren’t you getting bored by all this self-portraiture? A. It is a bit tricky to avoid becoming familiar with a subject that remains constant. What I do is drastically alter the scale. It opens new avenues of exploration and painting styles. By restricting the composition,I’ve found a way to feel a little freer in my work. At age 29, I most certainly have time to get to all of the parts. Just not all in one painting. Q. I know you live in Riverwest, but where is your studio? A. Until recently, it was in Walker’s Point, but due to intolerably greedy and clueless landlords, my studio mates and I are being forced out…hopefully we’re moving into a Catholic grade school in Bay View. Q. When did you sell your first painting? A. Not until 1997, after drawing for as long as I can remember, and painting for two decades. Currently I’m teaching basic drawing classes at UW-Milwaukee and MIAD. Q. Most artists stand near their work at exhibits. What have you overheard about your paintings? A. Oh, once I heard some viewers wonder out loud “if they thought I’m pretty.” That was before they realized I was standing close by. Others wonder aloud why my work receives so much attention. They comment after meeting me that “I’m much nicer than they imagined.” Q. Your paintings are “heroic.” Which artists do you most closely identify with? A. Seurat and Tintoretto. Q. As you mature, is painting big and bodacious still important? A. When I was younger it was great to get so much attention. And it was humorous to get press when I was actually making the least work. I don’t care if I’m the big thing in Milwaukee. Really, who cares? There’s something interesting about almost everyone. I no longer yearn to be popular. I prefer being known for doing good work. Q. Recently I saw you walking your dog in Riverwest. Your dog reminds me of your painting. i.e., in-your-face. A. She’s becoming more well-known than me. When we’re walking, I hear people yell “Hey Gracie!” from their cars. Yeah, she’s big and memorable and slightly overbearing. I have yet to execute an opus of Great Dane portrait paintings. Next year, perhaps. Q. Any sage advice for your students? A. Art is impossible to define; the best we can do is discuss what it is similar to, so I find I’m teaching more and more through metaphor. I equate drawing with learning a foreign language. It’s one’s level of fluency that matters. A former professor told me that “art is big, and art is difficult.” A wise thought. Remembering that is one way to avoid making crappy or forgettable art. Q. How would you portray Laura Bush and George? Kerry and his spouse? A. Oh the Bushes would be best represented in a folksy, outsider-art yard sculpture. Entirely too big and garish. Kerry? Perhaps intaglio prints. Heinz-Kerry? Maybe up the alley of my painting style. Q. You say that in a perfect world you would live life as a socialist. This isn’t a perfect world, so who’s your choice for President? A. John Kerry. And Gwen Moore for Congress.