Whidbey Island artist sees life in color

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In the wee hours of the morning, long before even the birds awake, Oak Harbor artist Mike O’Connell has already had a cup of coffee, watched the news and is hard at work on one of his many paintings. The quiet of the hour engages his creativity.

“I love the ability to concentrate and have absolute, total focus,” said O’Connell, 67. “I use the term ‘Zen’ sometimes, but I’m not sure of what it means exactly, so I’m not sure that’s the right description.”

Whether O’Connell has found his Zen or not, he is most certainly in touch with his muse. Paintings clutter his small apartment. His studio is filled with works in various stages. Some he’ll finish in a few months, some he’s worked on for years.

Oak Harbor artist Mike O'Connell

Oak Harbor artist Mike O’Connell

“It’s not really a hobby, it’s what I do,” he said. “You can never be in a hurry when you paint.”

O’Connell settled permanently in Oak Harbor in 2008, but said because of his father’s three Navy tours here, he has always considered Whidbey Island home. Originally born in Whitefish, Mont., he moved around a lot during his childhood. As an adult, he worked for several years as a color-matcher for paint companies, winding up in the Seattle area for several years.

Drawing is something that has always appealed to him, but it wasn’t until the late 1990s that he picked up a brush and seriously began to paint. He stopped for several years, however, while he battled a deep depression. When he came out of it around 2007, he was able to paint again and moved to Whidbey Island.

Paintings line both sides of a hallway in O'Connell's apartment.

Paintings line both sides of a hallway in O’Connell’s apartment.

O’Connell said his paintings don’t really fit a particular category. When looking at his work there are obvious abstracts, but also some detailed and intricate paintings. One painting is actually a ghost story upon which small ghosts will appear in the dark. But even some of his abstract work contains small, detailed words and figures hidden among the more obvious.

“I’m always painting in my head,” said O’Connell. “I work on stuff that’s the most fun, but I don’t want to repeat myself.”

O'Connell's painting, "Helen's Ghost Story," is based on one of his favorite characters in history, Helen of Troy.

O’Connell’s painting, “Helen’s Ghost Story,” is based on one of his favorite characters in history, Helen of Troy.

A self-taught artist, O’Connell started working with oils, but now uses acrylics almost exclusively. He has been in different art groups over the years, taken some seminars and has watched other artists work. He won’t copy them, but he will try different techniques learned from them to keep his work fresh and interesting.

“I’ll never be rich and famous,” he said. “If I sell a painting, great.”

Any income O’Connell makes from his paintings is promptly reinvested in the materials he needs to keep up his work. Otherwise, he is retired and lives on Social Security. He said he has developed a “check yourself” routine that he uses regularly to keep himself in line if his ego gets too big, or if he gets too judgmental, for instance.

O'Connell reinvests the money he makes from selling his paintings into more supplies.

O’Connell reinvests the money he makes from selling his paintings into more supplies.

“I really am enjoying my ‘check yourself’ philosophy. It’s so easy to criticize, but I’m not really qualified to judge,” he said.

Other passions for O’Connell include writing – he’s written a lot of poetry and has also self-published two science fiction novels, with plans for a third, although he said his writing muse comes and goes. He also enjoys horror movies, which almost seems in conflict with his quiet nature, but rather suits the bold use of color in his work. As for science fiction, O’Connell said he likes it because it has no limits, another element evident in his art. And for now, that suits him just fine.

“I guess I have paint resin in my veins,” he said.

Some of O’Connell’s paintings are on display at the Terrace Wine Bar and Kaleafa in Oak Harbor and also at the Pacific Northwest Art School in Coupeville. To see more of his work, you can find O’Connell on Facebook.

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