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Stephen O'Donnell


Editor's Note: In addition to kindly allowing us to use Infanta as our Fall Edition graphic, featured artist Stephen O'Donnell also agreed to an interview with Menacing Hedge. You can click the images to get a larger view, and see more of his work at


An Interview with Stephen O'Donnell

Menacing Hedge: When is the earliest time you remember painting/illustrating/drawing and what did you paint/illustrate/draw?

La Légèreté délicieuse de la grandeur

Stephen O'Donnell: I don't remember doing it, but in my mind I can clearly see the images of crayon scrawls on white plastered walls. Just red and blue and green short, squiggly lines, so I must have been very young; it seems I was an Abstract Expressionist at the age of three or four.


MH: Please describe the room/space you work in and the objects or emptiness that surrounds you.

SO: I work in what - should - be the dining room of our apartment in a lovely 1912 building. Beautiful room, good light, way too small - and too full of things that aren't related to art making. Art and objects and furniture that I love, and love to see in my home, but that are only in my studio because, right now, there's no other place to put them. (We need to move.) I dream of a large studio with lots of wall space, so that I can hang in-progress or finished paintings, while I assemble a body of work. Good light, plenty of elbowroom, and blank wall space is what I really need right now.


MH: Who or what is your muse, if you have one, or what are your greatest influences?

SO: ALL of art history. (Well, up to about about 1870, anyway. Then, very selectively until about 1940. Almost nothing after.) Too many artists to name, but I often like forgotten or even not very good artists as much or more than "the Greats".

And film. So many different genres of films. (And if I'm going to very specific about film as well, it's film - before - about 1980; after that, there's very little that appeals to me.) Busby Berkeley; Film Noir; Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; Max Ophuls; Howard Hawks; Garbo and Crawford and Dietrich; De Sica and Fellini and Visconti - Visconti's Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) has influenced my art and imagination profoundly.

And so much music. Orchestral and opera, vintage recordings for the Twenties and Thirties. Mahler; Callas; Bessie Smith; Reynaldo Hahn; Sondheim. Rachmaninov is a god to me; like Visconti's Il Gattopardo, Rachmaninov's second symphony means more to me, has had more of an impact on me creatively than almost anything.


MH: How is your work inspired by history?

The Judgment of Paris - Athena

SO: History and art history inform my work more than anything else. Really, I taught myself to make art through what I saw in books; portraits in history books and reproductions of old paintings in art books are what first inspired me, as a very young child, to make images. I expect history and old paintings will always be my primary inspirations.


MH: How is your work informed by the natural world?

SO: I love being out in nature, and I'm constantly amazed at the - miracle - of the natural world. But my work isn't really influenced at all by the natural world; I paint the world of paintings. When there are plants or trees or skies in my work, I make no attempt to record nature, I go more for the stylization one finds in old paintings. My skies are never sky-color, and I'll often just make up plants to suit my design needs; "only God can make a tree", but I seem quite able to create new species of flowers.


MH: Can you speak of the gender play in your paintings?

SO: Oddly, it isn't something I give much thought to - though everyone else sure does! There is a lot of the female in my gender orientation - that would be quite an understatement - and I let all aspects of my self come out pretty purely in my work; I let my paintings represent my interior self. And there you have a very simple answer to what most assume is a very complex matter!


MH: What jobs have you done other than being an artist?

Judith et Holopherne

SO: Of the non-dreary day-job variety, I've sung in cabarets in San Francisco, designed costumes for Shakespeare in the Park in the same city, and was the private chef for a wealthy couple. I've also worked at Powell's Books for almost twenty years, now only a couple of hours a week; I started at Powell's the same month I had my first art show.


MH: What do you think about when you are alone in your car?

SO: About how badly other people drive! Pay attention, people - and use your turn signal!


MH: What, if any, does the monkey symbolize in your "Infanta" painting? Is it a substitution for a child? Is it an extension of the subject of the portrait?

SO: Naw, none of that - monkeys are just really, really cool!


MH: If you have pets, describe them, and tell us something about their personalities.

SO: You want me to talk about our dog? I'll never stop! We have a Chihuahua, Nicholas, who we got from a rescue group a few years ago. He's about four or five, very UN-temperamental, not at all small-dog-dainty. Very well-behaved but, outside, he is extremely disdainful of squirrels. When my wife and I first started living together, nine years ago, we both had pets that were about sixteen - I, a cat, and Gigi, another Chihuahua. Over the next few years they both passed on, and then we waited a few years - until we couldn't stand it any longer. We are - terrifically - bonded to little Nicholas. And now I - must - go on to the next question!


MH: Do you keep a notebook or do you just store ideas in your head?

Les Lunettes

SO: I just jot them down - rather roughly - when they come to me, so that I don't forget them. Little felt-tip sketches on three by five pads is all there is. I go through them and find which ones are the most compelling and start a painting.


MH: What's more challenging for you, the execution or the idea?

SO: By far, the execution. Ideas are easy. Frankly, a lot of the time doing my work isn't much fun - often plain drudgery - at least until I get down to the last bits, when the painting starts to really look beautiful. Then, only then, do I really - love - the activity of painting.


MH: Is the artistic life lonely? What do you do to counteract it?

SO: Yeah, rather lonely. Boring. Mostly distancing; it's so time-consuming and there's always something I'd rather be doing, feel like I'm missing. I struggle with being resistant to doing my work. When I'm really feeling stuck, Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park With George" always gets me going, gives me perspective. The song "Finishing the Hat" totally validates what I feel as an artist, the feelings of a particular kind of separation/loss - what you are, where you are, what you miss - when you're at work making art.


MH: What do you dislike about the art world?

SO: The focus on what is "hot", cutting edge, new - in other words, fashionable - is way out of hand in the Fine Arts. Craft isn't really appreciated enough, it's all about flashiness and being edgy. I really wish it was more like what I see in the writing field, where there are so many different styles that are appreciated and respected. It doesn't really seem to matter what you write or how you write it, as long as it's true to itself and well done.


MH: What is your dream project?

Les Perruches

SO: Not so much a dream project, but a dream of my artistic lifestyle: where I do whatever work I want, without regard to working toward a particular exhibition, and there are clients out there just waiting for whatever I produce. You know, like that! It - does - happen; I've heard of artists who are in that position. OK, not a terribly likely eventuality, but, hey, that's my dream!


MH: What memorable responses have you had to your work?

SO: At the opening to my very first show, I overheard someone talking about a piece of mine - a very small, Kahlo-esque ink drawing of me as a child; rather overwrought, actually, and very specifically personal - and they expressed how much they could relate to the piece, how clearly they found their own story in it. I was completely floored by that response and I've never forgotten it. It's informed my attitude to art-making ever since. The paradoxical idea that if I make work that is completely genuine to who I am, that is completely personal, it will somehow become universal. I can't - completely - understand that intellectually, but I know it's true nonetheless.


MH: What are your upcoming projects?

SO: I'm working on a body of work for my next show here in Portland, next May at Froelick Gallery. May of 2015 will the twentieth anniversary of my debut as a professional artist, so I'm planning on completing twenty paintings. Some will be smaller/simpler than most of my current work, but this still is a huge endeavor - about twice as many paintings as I usually produce for a single show.


MH: What is the best piece of art advice you can give?

SO: Keep pushing yourself to make the best work you can; there should never be a "good enough". But also always try to maintain a balance between your technical abilities and your ambition. There's always so much striving, so much encouragement to "push the envelope", but I've always found that the difference between successful and unsuccessful work lies in finding that balance.

➥ Stephen O'Donnell Bio