Connecticut Painter Finds Everyday Art in Walmart

What began with one artist trying to make a living has evolved into a national art initiative involving hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren.

“I went from being the guy who got thrown out of Wal-Mart for taking photos of cashiers to now I can actually set up in any Wal-Mart in anyplace in the world,” says Connecticut artist Brendan O’Connell.

O’Connell, born in New York City but raised in Tucker, Ga., paints the inner lives of Wal-Mart stores and their customers: shelves of Wonder Bread (“Wonderbread”), an Orthodox Jew contemplating the varieties of Utz potato chips (“Catskills 1”), a woman pondering hair care products (“Shampoo”).

He’s focused on Wal-Mart for a decade now, but publicity about his work has picked up in the last couple of years, particularly with a lengthy article by writer Susan Orlean in the Feb. 11, 2013, New Yorker and O’Connell’s appearance last summer on “The Colbert Report.”

Now O’Connell’s work hangs in Wal-Mart’s corporate headquarters in Bentonville. And he’s finding success with his “brand” paintings, with Tyson Foods of Springdale spending up to $40,000 (O’Connell declined to share the exact price) for a piece depicting Tyson’s products — chickens, Any’tizers — in their natural habitat, a supermarket freezer. Several other corporations are exploring commissioning O’Connell to create works for them.

The artist — married to a landscape artist and the father of two children — has advanced from painting portraits on the streets of Paris and selling them for whatever their subjects would pay to a comfortable “six-figure” income.

Then and Now

O’Connell enjoys painting “intimate things — people sitting around or brushing their teeth, doing ordinary things.” Think an American Pierre Bonnard.

Someone suggested that he follow somebody pursuing an “everyday activity.” That led to a shopping outing at Wal-Mart. “I bought her groceries and took pictures of her trying on flip-flops, buying candy, whatever.”

He painted his first Wal-Mart works in 2004. Response was positive from the start, though he did get thrown out of a fair number of Wal-Marts at the beginning. Interest, however, has certainly picked up in the last few years.

O’Connell thinks the most important thing to come out of this Wal-Mart “period” is his Everyartist Live! initiative. The artist perceives a “creativity crisis in our culture,” so he began a program to address the crisis.

In 2012, more than 8,500 schoolchildren in northwest Arkansas turned out for what was a pilot local event for what became a national event in 2013. In that 2012 event, the children filled a football field with their art.

In November, an estimated 300,000 schoolchildren from around the country participated in the event, part of a partnership between the Walmart Museum, Wal-Mart and Everyartist.me, the organization O’Connell started to encourage the creativity of children. The children explored the theme of gratitude through the creation of original artworks, and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville participated. O’Connell plans for it to be an annual event.

O’Connell said that none of the Waltons themselves have bought any of his paintings, nor, so far, has the Walton-founded Crystal Bridges, although he says, “I imagine something will happen someday.”