By Bonnie Gangelhoff
Wyoming landscape painter Erin O’Connor says her family moved frequently when she was a child. In retrospect, it’s difficult to call any one place home. But she is sure about one key element in her formative years. “I always lived in places where I could climb trees and swim in lakes,” she says. “I had a free-range childhood.”
Her early experiences in nature allowed O’Connor to be comfortable in the wild, whether it’s in the forest or atop a mountain. Today she is likely to pack up her Toyota Tacoma truck with her camping equipment and painting gear and head out on the back roads that traverse the West. Earlier this year O’Connor was honored with the Artists’ Choice award for her body of landscape paintings at the annual Rocky Mountain Plein Air Painters National Paint-Out & Show held at Wild Spirit Gallery in Pagosa Springs, CO. (She shared the award with Colorado painter Teresa Vito.) As this story was going to press, paintings by O’Connor were on view in a group show at Galleries West in Jackson, WY, and she was the featured artist for the Grand Teton Association during the annual Fall Arts Festival in Jackson.
O’Connor finds inspiration for her plein-air paintings in everything from the chamisa of New Mexico to the vineyards of Northern California. “There is a raw strength to paintings done on location,” she says. “By being there, I’m able to pass along the experience with excitement and honesty. A successful painting has an energy that speaks well beyond itself.”
If you ask O’Connor about her favorite painting sites, she replies, “Highway 50 in Nevada, the loneliest highway in America.” The 400-mile ribbon of road that slices east to west through central Nevada is dotted with the vestiges of historic railroad and mining towns. And the flat landscape is also punctuated occasionally by some craggy mountains. O’Connor’s dream is to receive a grant to capture various scenes along Highway 50 and shed a painterly light on the intriguing stretch of American roadway. In 2009, she took part in a similar experience when she was an artist-in-residence at Joshua Tree National Park in California, where she painted the scenic terrain for three weeks and completed 30 paintings.
Like many painters, O’Connor drew constantly as a child. When it came time for college, her family encouraged her to pursue another, more practical area of interest. She chose to major in anthropology but eventually drifted back to her passion for art. Although she took a number of workshops at the Fechin Institute in Taos, NM, and the Scottsdale Artists’ School in Arizona, she credits her studies with Wyoming landscape painter Greg McHuron as a major influence on her career. “He believed in me and never let me quit,” O’Connor says. “He would tell me, ‘You need to be out on location painting every single day.’”
O’Connor now agrees wholeheartedly, explaining that being outside and being still in one place for hours at a time allows her to see the intensity of colors and the vibrancy of the light necessary to capture the feeling of the terrain, make sense of the geology, and bear witness to the subtle changes in the environment.
Although it may sound like a cliché, O’Connor says, what she is trying to accomplish in her works is to convey a sense of place to her viewers. “If a painting is successful, it says to people, ‘Stop, take a moment, and be here with me,’” she explains. “Viewers will be able to feel things like the air on their skin and have all their senses awakened.”
Galleries West, Jackson, WY; Wild Spirit Gallery, Pagosa Springs, CO; Wild Horse Gallery, Steamboat Springs, CO; www.oconnorscapes.com.
Featured in December 2011.