by Judy McLeod
Harrison O’Connor came to painting amidst a dark period of life. Isolated on his Montana cattle ranch after three significant deaths—first his best friend and confidant, followed shortly by his wife of 32 years, and finally his father—O’Connor fell into painting as salvation from despair.
“The whole genesis of it was when I was alone here on the ranch for years,” he says. “It was an absolute lunar experience on the ranch, no connection with the community. The dread of the evening was enormous. It would build and build and be just terrible. And then, if I started painting, it would take me out of that terrifying space. It was remarkable that I was able to get through it. I’d picked the perfect place to be stranded. The ranch was an island. Painting was the only thing that brought relief.”
Years earlier as an undergrad, O’Connor drifted through the University of Virginia, first dabbling as an art major then retreating because, he says, “Those artists were too serious.”
Though yearning for the outdoors, with an aptitude for writing and the guidance of writer Peter Taylor at UVA, O’Connor managed to fulfill a degree in English followed by two decades of writing for magazines based in Upperville, Virginia.
An avid fisherman, O’Connor received from outdoor writer Joe Brooks a list of the best rivers to fish in the West. This led O’Connor to buy a ranch in Montana, which, he says, “was a shocking thing to do when you are in your 40’s and you don’t know what you are doing.”
Process and Desire
By the dull glow of the computer screen, Harrison O’Connor paints into the night.
“I chose watercolors because I would not have to invest in all the paraphernalia that oil painting involves,” he says. “I have never had any conceptual idea about how to paint, what to do. It’s quite alarming. Honestly, I look at a piece of paper and I have not a clue what to do with it.”
Lynne, O’Connor’s current wife and sometimes-muse, served as the curator of Folk Art at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. It was Lynne who led her husband to the technique of memory painting. The abstraction of painting from memories appealed to O’Connor as a way to begin. His first painting, during his late-life dark years, resurrected and represented from memory a boyhood trauma from an earlier time in Thailand.
O’Connor’s painting is, as he describes it, a slap-dash operation, a guaranteed six-to-eight hours of emersion. “Often I will do four or five hours at night and then, excited to finish, will complete the painting right away in the morning.”
O’Connor describes his painting experience: “So something jumps to your mind and that’s enough of an impulse to bring to the paper, a sort of atmospheric desire to invest yourself in something and you get going. It’s like mowing a hayfield: start at one side of the painting and mow your way right to left. And it’s becoming more tense all the time, because I avoid all the difficult things like people’s faces until the end. So it becomes ever more problematic, and then finally I hit the other side of the page.”
In the morning, sharing the paintings with Lynne, O’Connor says, “We laugh in surprise at the colors. In the night there was no objective besides the disappearance of self. The next morning it is so comfortable to just stare at the painting and to be inside whatever the boundaries of the painting are.”
Painter without a Clue
Harrison O’Connor describes himself as a lifelong contrarian who has navigated life as a someone who says ‘no’ to everything. “Painting is a positive thing for me. I wish I’d pursued this business of painting when I was 20 but I didn’t. I laugh at the notion of the “teachable moment.” It probably took me 69 years to have a “teachable moment.”
“I once said, ‘When I paint 50 paintings I will have an idea of how to paint.’ Well, that was incredible hubris, because I have painted about 100, and I have not the slightest idea of how to paint. Mostly painting is just some worm-hole of inexperience where I get to disappear.”
Now semi-retired at age 69 as a cattle rancher, O’Connor enjoys painting freely without worrying about having to make a living at it.
“As an old man I have something I can do,” he says. “I look forward to the idea that, if the bird dogs run too fast for me, or if I can’t get back on a horse, well, I can paint.”
“Once you start, paintings stay in front of you everywhere you walk. Your eyes are just completely enthralled by this magical corridor, that arrangement of things. Everyone should experience that. It’s not whimsical; it’s so useful and real.”
Harrison O’Connor has looked to other painters for visual inspiration and guidance, including American landscape painter Winslow Homer, Folk artist memory painter Linda Anderson, and Naturalist painters Mary Newcomb and Winifred Nicholson.
O’Connor has shared many of his images with Dr. Danny Becker, founding editor of Hospital Drive, which has published most of these artists, including two in this edition.