A Shot of Paint: Grants Pass Artist Kristen O’Neill Turns Photos into Treasures
Artist Kristen O’Neill remembers playing with childhood friends in the wild landscape of the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. The natural beauty and freedom formed the pathway for the visionary and budding activist that she is today.
“Everybody knew everybody, for generations back,” O’Neill recalls of her hometown, Redwood City. After the wildland she and her friends explored was purchased and poorly logged, the community pooled together and made it a restoration project.
“They left a lot of debris in the creek and we had to clean it up because it was a water source for the town,” O’Neill explains. “One of my neighbors had dug up a lot of the native plants and kept them at his property until after the logging was complete. Then we had a field trip with our school to go replant them so the forest could heal faster.”
That day, October 17, 1989, became historic for O’Neill in two ways. It was the day the Loma Prieta earthquake struck.
“The earth came up in four-foot waves and sat back down again,” she recalls. “The epicenter was five miles from where I was standing, so that was a really emotional day within me.
Years later she realized the impact from those two events.
“The earth is fragile, we have to take steps to be careful and be good stewards of our land,” she says. “And at the same time, it was like, the earth is not going to put up with this, like it’s angry.”
It was during her college years O’Neill witnessed a disconnection between humans and nature as she sketched in Yosemite Park.
“I’d be drawing a mountain and watch people walk up, put the camera to their face, take a picture and walk away and I’d think, did they even see it?” she recalls. “We go through life so quickly, not sitting and taking things in. If we connect with nature we’re more apt to help preserve it, but I also think it helps preserve us.”
O’Neill wants to communicate her awareness through her art.
“When people look at my paintings I want them to pause and absorb,” she says. “A lot of my pieces are up-close moments, like you can have in nature, communicating directly with the earth at that very instant.”
Calling her style “looser,” O’Neill says she skips much of the details she sees as distracting and edits down to what she feels is really the impact of the scene. Raising two young daughters has lessened her time for hiking to paint, so she paints from photographs.
“A friend invited me to hike the coast with him but I couldn’t at the time,” she shares. “So he hatched this plan that he would send me photos and I would paint from the photos.”
The endeavor concluded with 51 pieces of artwork, some becoming her Oregon Coast series. Today she is working on a new, still-under-wraps idea for a series of paintings she hopes will fire up conversation around the topic of woodland stewardship.
“Let’s really talk about something serious, because when I do paintings of places that we’ve already preserved, like national parks and trails, people say, ‘Oh I’ve been there, that’s so pretty’,” she explains. “I’d like to take this a step further and maybe challenge people with the question, is the forest beautiful after it burns?”
A new on-demand painting course she’s created is set to launch in February, taking students step-by-step through the photo-to-painting process for just $36.
The Grants Pass Museum of Art is hosting a solo exhibit of her Oregon Coast series through the end of March.
Oregon Coast Trail Exhibit
Grants Pass Museum of Art
229 S.W. G Street