O'Neill finds artistic inspiration in Milwaukee
Anyone who drinks or dines out regularly has most likely seen Amy O'Neill's work.
Her signs, murals and paintings adorn the new Bel Air Cantina in Wauwatosa, as well as Trocadero, Cafe Benelux, Cafe Hollander, Burnhearts, Fink's, Lee's Luxury Lounge and more. Her work has also been at Hi-Hat Lounge and Palomino.
Plus, she brushed the big red bunny on the Comet, and recently, she restored the Nomad's building mural / sign.
"I love Milwaukee. People appreciate hand-made things here," she says.
O'Neill's professional and personal friendships with the owners of these establishments – particularly Scott Johnson and Leslie Montemurro of Mojofuco, Inc. and Mike Eitel of Lowlands Group – triggered the initial assignments, but undeniably it was O'Neill's vision and talent that has kept her locked into painting jobs for more than a decade now.
O'Neill also bartended at Eitel's Nomad World Pub on Brady Street from 1999-2006.
"My work ethic has gotten better with age – like most people – but they saw a spark in me early on," says O'Neill. "And now we just work really well together."
During her most recent painting job at Bel Air, O'Neill says Johnson gave her a few images for inspiration. It wasn't that he wanted her to repaint them, instead, he provided them to illustrate the vibe he was going for and trusted O'Neill to take it from there.
"I had full range to paint anything I wanted. And so (for one painting) I painted Frida Kahlo on a bike. And when I said to him, 'I put Frida Kahlo on a bike. Is that OK?' he said, 'Yes. Excellent,'" says O'Neill.
Her first paid painting job was in 1997 at Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop on Downer Avenue, now Boswell Book Co. O'Neill had just returned from Italy where she studied Venetian Renaissance painter Tintoretto and was eager to paint in public spaces.
"I just wanted to paint and for someone to pay me a little bit of money to do so," says O'Neill.
Schwartz offered her $100 per piece – she painted display tables, walls and a door – and O'Neill thought she hit the lottery.
"They offered me the money and I was like, "'NO WAY! YOU GUYS! I felt like a millionaire,'" she says. "And that's where it started."
O'Neill has a bachelors and a masters in art from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She has taught at UWM, MIAD, Fisher College in Boston and this fall, she will serve as Highland Community School's art teacher.
"I love kids," says O'Neill.
O'Neill also sings regularly with popular lounge band Five Card Studs under the name "Ms. Rocky Mountains."
But despite her rigorous performance schedule with the Studs and a fair share of high-profile work, O'Neill spends a lot of time alone in her home studio.
"Sometimes it's 10 p.m. and I realize I haven't talked to anyone all day," she says.
O'Neill has shown work all over the country, including Milwaukee, Chicago, Nashville and New York City. She has created many series of paintings from landscapes to chickens, but right now says she's been in a "two-year meandering" period.
"My philosophy is you work and work and work and sometimes, maybe once every three or four years, you hit on a nugget," she says. "But in between those times, you have to putter around and sometimes you make great stuff, but there are other times you make a bunch of stuff that you ditch."
The important part, she says, is to keep her hands moving around in the studio.
"If you're not in the studio when the lightning strikes, you're sh*t out of luck. You miss it. That's why you have to putter around," she says. "I'm in a meandering puttering phase that's very pleasurable."
Sometimes during her meandering phases O'Neill paints self portraits. She recently did a series of herself without wearing her glasses.
"My self portraits usually are me working through something," she says.
O'Neill says she treats her studio time like a job. She shows up even when she doesn't feel like it.
"Even if I am dry, if I have nothing, no creative juice, then I will cut wood for future painting or I'll work on some doodles or I'll oil my tools. When I have no desire to be in the studio, I am still in the studio," she says. "Hence my studio is very organized."
Although a Milwaukeean at heart and for most of her life, O'Neill lived in Boston from 2006 to 2012. She has family living there and her partner at the time was attending grad school.
Shortly after she relocated to Boston, O'Neill was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia. It was a rough road, but O'Neill has been cancer free for six years.
Part of the reason she moved back to Milwaukee was because Boston reminded her of being sick. She says she received excellent medical care and a lot of support from family during her stay in Boston, but when she got an "all clear" at her post-cancer five-year appointment she knew she had to return to Milwaukee.
"Milwaukee is where I became a person," she says. "And since this is where I became a person, this is where I need to live. It's not lost on me, nor will I ever take for granted that I can make a living singing and painting in this city. I feel very lucky."
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