Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Michael O'Conner and How to Succeed in the Popular Arts

Popular Art was once called Mass Art, and before that Low Art, when art was divided into three categories, High Art, Low Art, and Fine Art. Most art that people experience today is Low Art; movies, television, comics, political cartoons, video games, photography, advertising, etc. High Art, the kind that Michelangelo and Rembrandt created with big themes located in prominent institutions isn’t produced very much, if at all today. Other than Popular Arts, Fine Art is produced regularly.

Fine Art is most often taught in universities and colleges across Canada with the belief that emotional and personal expression is the most appropriate focus for their students.

Unfortunately, what students of Fine Art discover very quickly after graduation is that unless they fully adhere to a system with its own language and method of showing in galleries, applying for grants, and teaching, there is very little chance of earning a living creating art.

In contrast, in the world of Low Art, if the artist is willing to work hard and self-promote, there are more than just opportunities to make a living. One can also travel extensively and meet all kinds of amazing artists from around the world. Yet, it is still hard work.

Mike O’Conner laughs when he talks about the coverage he’s received in this newspaper over the years, surprised that other artists don’t take advantage of publicity opportunities by simply calling a journalist. A few years ago he was riding a wave of success with commissions that took him across the United States and to Europe, where at times he was earning up to a thousand dollars a day. “I had a big ego then,” he comments with a smile. The Rainforest CafĂ© employed him for seven years as a mural artist for their themed environments. He was so successful at his job that he became buddies with the owner who would fly Mike in to meet with him, and in order to introduce him to others. “It was wild,” says Mike, grinning. Today, he leaves Thunder Bay once a month to work on a project for ten to fourteen days on average, usually in the U.S. as he has dual citizenship.

The companies that hire him pay for the flight, room and board, and often the materials he needs. As lead artist for World’s of Wow, he was flown to New Orleans where he headed up a team of six artists who came from across the United States.
Through World’s of Wow he has painted the walls of twenty different churches, and children’s churches, such as in Gateway, Texas; so huge it accommodates three theatres to entertain nearly a thousand kids. Mike shakes his head at the amount of money the American churches have to spend on entertainment and play areas for children.

He’s got enough of a reputation that he is trusted to do whatever he wants, normally painting themed environments of cartoon characters in dramatic landscapes with busy backgrounds. When he gets the chance, he loves doing faux textures, painting skies with lots of atmosphere, painting in perspective, and using bright fantastical colours. He names a few of his favourite locations, about fifteen cities in the states of Texas, California, Tennessee, Georgia, and Pennsylvania where he enjoyed running along the Appalachian Trail.

“Painting for the kids is fun,” he says. “But my favourite project was here, in Thunder Bay. I painted about ten rooms at the hospital [TBRH].” Mike likes the charitable aspect to the work. He considers the type of work he does to often be grunt work or blue collar, where he works simply for the money and not as a calling. “It’s painting that isn’t yours,” he says. “Snowshoeing is more fun than painting,” he laughs.

Yet, he is proud of his work, and despite what sounds like a big revelation, he isn’t being entirely truthful. His love of painting supersedes his need to earn a living, as he has taken on other jobs and could have stayed away from painting altogether, but never does. And he’s painting for his own enjoyment, combining his love of snowshoeing with his art when he goes on excursions taking dozens of photos in local areas, which he later turns into large acrylic landscape paintings. He heads down to Silver Bay in the states, and paints lots of local scenes like the Cascades, Kaministiquia, Sawdust Lake, Loch Lomond and the Shuniah Mines. He’s delighted by the trails and he goes out for two or three hours, taking more than thirty photos each time. He is working on a dozen more large acrylics for this winter but hasn’t yet figured out where he will have them displayed. The last batch of paintings he did sold before he had a chance to show them in a gallery.

Surprisingly, Mike has only ever shown his work once in a gallery for which he won a people’s choice award. He painted a large acrylic portrait of his son that hung in the Thunder Bay Art Gallery in a juried show for local artists.

Mike has taken on co-op students from Lakehead University and gives them experience and some knowledge of the industries in which he’s worked. His advice to young artists: “Never turn down a job. Think globally, way outside of Thunder Bay. You can find projects everywhere. There’s always a call for artists in the United States,” he says and then promptly talks about his next snowshoeing excursion, hoping to get a few good shots of the local landscape. You can see his work at

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