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Artist takes his work out into the fresh air

Sunday, October 31, 2004

(Photo)
Billyo O'Donnell
SIKESTON - Don't call Billyo O'Donnell a fair-weather artist. Rain or shine, in muggy heat or a frosty breeze, you can find him outside in the open air capturing the moment.

O'Donnell is a master of painting in "plein air," an innovative impressionist style that involves painting landscapes while outdoors instead of just sketching the scene and finishing the painting in the comfort of a studio.

"There's no fresher way of looking at art than through the eyes of a plein air painter," said Delilah Tayloe, curator of the Sikeston Depot. "Billyo is nationally famous for his landscape art and I'm very excited that he is coming to the Depot this month."

His work will be featured at the Sikeston Depot through the month of November. "This is the big one this year," said Janice Matthews, Depot board member.

Area art aficionados will also have a chance to meet O'Donnell during a reception scheduled from 1:30-3:30 p.m. Nov. 7 at the Depot.

"I'm really excited about coming down to Sikeston," O'Donnell said.

Everything from cotton fields and center pivot irrigation to swamplands appeals to his artist's eye, he said: "I love the way the land lays."

O'Donnell said it is "a real pleasure" to have Sikeston taking an interest in his work. "It seems like there's been a lot of interest in landscape painting here in Missouri," he said.

Born in Warrenton, O'Donnell is proud of his Missouri heritage. "I was raised out in the country," he said, "in an Irish family of nine kids in the middle of nowhere." He currently lives in a log cabin in Eureka that has been in his family for generations and has a studio in St. Charles.

Although it was an art gallery in California that put O'Donnell on the art world map, he is still very much a Missouri artist.

O'Donnell has spent the last several years traveling the state to capture unique sights in each of Missouri's 114 counties for a project he calls "Painting Missouri." A collaboration with writer Karen Glines, the project will culminate with a book in 2005 by the same name.

O'Donnell was the first artist to paint the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and recently finished an oil painting commemorating the 100th anniversary of Forest Park called "Twilight on the Grand Basin, Forest Park."

He has also painted scenes along the Lewis and Clark Trail in Missouri and spearheaded "Artists Along the Katy Trail" which brought artists together to paint scenes along the 227-mile Katy Trail which spans the entire state.

"You go out on location and you try to capture a moment," O'Donnell said of plein air. While O'Donnell uses oil, other mediums such as watercolor can be used.

"I try to capture that moment in time, on location," he explained, "to experience that light that happens on location and observe those conditions and relay them on the canvas."

O'Donnell said art is always about passing experiences through the eyes to the hand as well as "the great thing about the human condition - that emotion that comes through onto the canvas."

"I've always been deeply affected by nature," he added. He said being out in nature has elicited "some of the most powerful moments" in his life.

Additionally, "I've always been involved in challenging myself," O'Donnell said, "to see how I express myself in difficult situations. I actually enjoy going out on location and being part of nature. I get to experience things a lot of people that work indoors miss out on."

This is a unique period in art history, according to O'Donnell.

"For years and years I did it for myself," he said. Until recently, he explained, art galleries expressed "no interest at all" for landscape paintings.

"There's never been a time like this," O'Donnell said. Galleries have opened up and are displaying a variety of styles - modern, abstract, expressionist, landscapes - side by side. "You get to see everything," he said. "This is a unique time - there's never been a time like this. People have become so eclectic."

While he very much enjoys what he is doing now, to predict this is what he will continue to do "goes against grain of creativity," O'Donnell said. "Artists grow and they change."

The things O'Donnell has learned about light and atmospheric effects while doing plein air, however, "will have a definite impact" on his art no matter which direction he takes in the future.

"I feel so lucky sometimes to be out on location painting," O'Donnell said.

And while anyone can envy his calling on a sunny day with a cool breeze, there is more to plein air that just beautiful days.

"They don't see me on the days when its five below and really cold and miserable and the wind is blowing," O'Donnell said. But even on those days, "I have that same feeling of euphoria," he said. "Those days just make me feel more alive."

The Sikeston Depot is open from 10 a.m. till 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and from 1-4 p.m. on Sunday.