Madeleine Weber O’Connell’s oil paintings vibrate with joyful color and dynamic patterns. She also creates jewelry, textiles, decorative arts and soaps in the Denver Highlands studio she shares with her husband, Kevin O’Connell.
She’s a maximalist. He’s a minimalist whose fine art landscape photography is included in the permanent collection of the Denver Art Museum and represented by Robischon Gallery, one of the top art dealers in the Mile High City.
The artistic couple built a modern house next door to their circa 1890 Victorian home in North Denver. Outside their studio, a Zen garden’s gravel is raked into tidy spirals beneath towering pine trees.
Inside, the ground floor is filled with Madeleine O’Connell’s paintings, fabrics and gifts—dinner napkins and plates, cutting boards, scarves, pouches, coasters, and pillows—imprinted with her art.
Upstairs, a treasure trove of jewelry-making materials sparkle and shine. O’Connell’s necklaces and earrings dangle on display, and a dressmaker’s form encrusted in costume jewelry holds court on an end table.
“My husband and I built this studio, and we work here and filled it with our work. It’s sacred space,” said O’Connell. “And we fight over space.”
On the afternoon of the interview, the artist’s short dark hair is partially tinted turquoise. She’s wearing a patterned shirt and, surrounded by her three small rescue dogs, O’Connell could well be one of the women she’s known for painting.
“Interestingly enough, I start with the eyes every single time and the personality comes out,” she says of her portraits.
Mismatched eye shadow is her hallmark on more than 50 canvases of flamboyant women.
“I paint asymmetrical faces, crooked features or breasts at different heights,” she says. “And one thing about my women that people don’t always pick up on is they’re always looking at you. There’s a dialog that happens with the eyes gazing at you. It’s not my thing to paint a pensive women looking down. My portraits confront you with strength. That’s a definite theme.”
The artist grew up with strong female role models. Her grandmother was an artist who attended the Art Institute of Chicago in the late 1920s. Her mother had a master’s degree in calligraphy, a subject she taught at Iowa State University. O’Connell’s father taught physics at ISU. The family spent summers in Aspen, where he attended the Aspen Center for Physics, which is how O’Connell found Colorado.
For the O’Connells’ wedding in 1999, the bride-to-be collected frames and fruits and grew topiaries for an arrangement on a banquet table. The groom-to-be, who works in black-and-white photography, insisted upon a black tablecloth, not white.
“The black set off the color and vibrancy of the objects,” she says, “and as the night went by they looked like they were just floating there in the candlelight.”
Consequently, she began painting on black gesso rather than the typical white primer used by most painters.
“Black gesso is much richer for me,” she says. “If you use a white canvas, it reflects light back through the paint and is not as saturated.”
In addition to women, O’Connell paints joyful still life works often bursting with flowers.
“I go through phases of subjects dependent on what’s going on in life. When my father was in assisted living, he wanted to go eat sushi, so I was painting set-ups with Asian bowls and platters of sushi,” she says. “And dogs I love at all times.”
Her spring trip to floriferous Holland inspired her most recent paintings.
“It put me on the flower kick. Flowers I will put in a painting as an object to bring more color and pattern,” she says. “I might use two tablecloths as vehicles for color and pattern, too, but flowers bring me joy —almost painful joy—because of their beauty.”
The quirky, colorful cheerfulness presents a vision slightly off-kilter.
“I think it’s more interesting than presenting realism,” says O’Connell, whose real-life struggles have included the death of both of her parents following Alzheimer’s disease, as well as her husband’s cancer battle. She did not paint for a year, but she’s back to her brushes and palette stronger, still joyful.
“It is so not always easy,” says O’Connell. “I’ve been a shy, bashful person all my life, but I’m putting that aside. One Christmas, I Googled my mother’s name and found these audio interviews she’d done. This was at a time when her Alzheimer’s was so bad she couldn’t talk anymore. But in the interview, in her voice, one of her pieces of advice was ‘Don’t be afraid.’ And that’s one of the best gifts my mother could have given me.”
Whether painting or making jewelry, designing textiles or making soap, O’Connell creates fearlessly.
“What I enjoy is the making. This is how I’m happy. This is fulfilling, a drive I have: the making of things and seeing possibilities and being inspired by fabrics or flowers or combinations of colors. Anything,” she says.
“When I’m working, I’m coming from a joyful place. When I’m painting, if I’m in a bad mood, I might paint differently. My emotions do come out,” she says. “But usually I’m invoking joy. The joy I feel when I paint the work is visible if it’s a still life or a nude. That’s what people respond to: They feel the joy I felt when painting, and the cycle is complete.”
Madeleine O’Connell Art
Studio (by appointment)
3273 Osceola St.
Denver, CO 80210
To listen to interview segments featuring Gretchen Weber, the mother of Madeleine O’Connell, speaking about calligraphy and the artistic life, link to lucidplanet.com/iwa/rtistPages/weberg.php
Colleen Smith reports on the arts for The Denver Post, Fine Books and Collections, Art+Object.com and other publications. She is a recipient of a writer’s grant from the Haven Foundation for Freelance Artists. Follow her on Facebook: Friday Jones Publishing.
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