Dreams Along the Landscape: Annie O’Neill in Art & LifeMay 3, 2018
At the turn of the season, it’s impossible to miss the sound of birds in upstate New York’s mountains. Their songs start before dawn and wane with owl calls in the evening. For decades Annie O’Neill used imagery of men and birds side-by-side or wildlife alone not to honor this proximity, but muse over a profound, missing connection.
Annie’s creative drive has taken many shapes. Throughout her time at the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan and Sarah Lawrence College, she considered herself a painter. She took up wood carving in Cambridge, MA then, returning New York, set up a silver jewelry workbench and specialized in lost wax casting. At one time she even produced her own t-shirts.
Today, her art appears in the form of parrots, iguanas, tigers, and a menagerie influenced by her love of wilderness and folk art. A selection of animals stand frozen in her backyard: they are large, cut steel sculptures, a medium she mastered in the 1980s. In the past 20 years, the creatures have come to manifest nestled in the hollow of clay vessels.
“Isn’t it strange,” she asks, “that birds and fish and other animals are around us all of the time, and we almost never share a meaningful interaction?” Her style falls at a threshold of terrestrial yet dreamlike—a fantastical vision of combined worlds. However, Annie is not one to be caught up in daydreams. When you look around the Hudson Valley, her colorfully painted ceramics are a constant at events from WSW’s Annual Chili Bowl Fiesta to Unison Arts Center‘s craft fairs, where Annie herself is local fixture. In addition to showing her work, Annie is also in the crowd as a former board member, volunteer, or partnering artist.
Through her practice, Annie is deeply involved with the local cultural scene and supports institutions that share her values and enrich the Hudson Valley. After all, Annie has loved the Shawangunks since her family visited during her childhood. Taken by the freedom and beauty, belonging there seemed natural. At the age of eight or nine, she would hike along a summit and imagine her future on the trails. “I must have thought, ‘Maybe one day I’ll follow streams as a profession.'”
Born and raised in New York, NY, a search for a new space and community propelled Annie’s move upstate. She had an established sculpture practice and was curious about connections and classes available in the historically artistic region. The first time she walked into Women’s Studio Workshop, the organization had not yet moved from the corner of James and John Streets to its current home on Binnewater Lane. Annie hesitated for a moment—the studio being in someone’s basement surprised her—then gave into possibility.
The nearly-mythical figures that seem to dance across Annie’s pottery took time to find their way from paint to ware. After the Workshop relocated, Margaret Henkels began holding small ceramics classes outside. WSW had yet to acquire kilns or a clay studio, but the group found ways to grow their program with pit and raku firing. These pieces, carefully burnished with cloudy, smoldered surfaces, still sit in Annie’s living room. She was hooked: “Whenever I would dream about making art, it was always ceramics.”
The burgeoning clay department grew to be a movement Annie could join creatively and philanthropically. The Workshop was a grassroots movement driven by dedicated artists and, to their collective resolve, Annie brought her vibrancy. In scenes found in the WSW photographic archives, she’s installing sculptures and helping build a gazebo. Events where she could engage guests in creative conversations—Annie is a people person—were her favorite. She felt that the auctions and gala events were works of art themselves, with so many artists working together in concert.
At WSW, she could express her voice among like minds, and as a result she is driven to protect spaces that bring artists and audience together. Not only should there be safe and comfortable spaces for artists to bring ideas to fruition, but also support for bringing nontraditional art into the communal conversation. This responsibility is not a one-way road; for the arts to serve a community there must be a shared obligation to a collective longevity. This holistic mission exemplifies Annie’s commitment not only to artists, but to political and environmental causes as well.
Extending beyond her ties to WSW, Annie is a longtime friend of Unison Arts Center, serves as a writer and committee member of Gardiner Open Studio Tour, and was the editor of the Friends of the Shawangunks for 24 years. Watching these organizations succeed and grow has given her a few ideas. On the top of her list: how can these communities draw stronger connections between audiences, or collaborate on environmentally-focused art programs, or simply share resources? What support must be put in place to bring these diverse organizations closer?
When Gardiner Open Studio Tour rolls around, Annie laughs at how visitors have to peer into her tiny home studio from the hallway. In the small sunny room filled with underglazes, a bookcase of Annie’s work sits on one side, a chair and desk on the other. There’s no shortage of art to see in the house; she beautifully lays out her collection of work by local artists and potters. A centerpiece by WSW alumnae Britny Wainwright is the focal point of the kitchen, a recycled metal piece by Judy Hoyt hangs from wall, and her mug assortment is enviable.
A vast collection of art from her travels, mainly in Mexico, informs the painted figures and animals she creates with short brushstrokes and seals with a layer of glaze. It’s poised against brightly painted walls all throughout her house, interspersed with an abundance of small sculptures, plants, toys, textiles, and photographs. Looking at the colorful home she made, there is no question that her style develops from a deep appreciation of the visually compelling world around her. When art is, fundamentally, people “repeating the same themes, but adapting it to their own sensibility,” she unapologetically draws an aesthetic of abstracted characters and creatures against painterly polychrome designs.
Always ready to jump from adventure to adventure, growing her clay practice is an exercise in patience for her vivacious, extrovert energy. Through the Hudson Valley, Annie has sought out a wealth of experiences: she’s painted street art with mural and graffiti artists Lady Pink and SMITH, mastered rock climbing (the Shawangunks climb Annie OH! is named after her), and contributed to a largely activist community. She believes that it is incumbent for everyone to cultivate the area’s cultural and political landscape, and has been committed to safeguarding this prosperity.
The physical landscape, no matter how long she lives here, will always take her breath away. She calmly smiles, “I’m always happy when I come back from the city and see those cornfields, apple trees, and looming cliffs.”