An artist’s unlikely inspiration: Walmart

Brendan O’Connell has a single subject and a singular mission

Brendan O’Connell is painting bananas. Not particularly impressive specimens, either. They sit bunched and bruised beside his twelve-by-sixteen-inch canvas, which is balanced on a shopping cart at the front of a Walmart store in Tucker. Forty-five years old, a little scruffy, and wearing tattered jeans, O’Connell could be mistaken for a giddy house painter who, having inhaled a fume too many, wandered in by accident with his kid’s art supplies. But he’s here now, very intentionally doing what has made him rather famous—for a painter, anyway—over the past few years: turning Walmart’s brightly lit, multicolored, bargain-basement aisles into a source of high-art inspiration. He chats and laughs about life’s unpredictability while he paints, keeping an eye out for anyone who might know him; he grew up right around the corner.

O’Connell attended St. Pius X high school but didn’t get into art until after graduating from Emory. He was living in Paris then and, by his own admission, failing as a writer. Twenty years after cutting his teeth doing hasty portraits along the Seine, he has a painting on display at Walmart headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, and one in its museum—making him the closest thing the largest retailer in the world has to a company artist. He’s been to hundreds of the stores over the past decade and set up his canvas or camera—often he paints using photographs—all over them.

He gestures around this one, which is 134,000 square feet and seven years old: “Check out those Duck Dynasty throw towels! You know we’re in the South.”

Behind him, a woman watches, whispering: “Is he . . . supposed to be here?”

This month he’ll be an artist-in-residence at his alma mater, Emory, capping off a string of 2013 successes that included a profile in the New Yorker and a spot on The Colbert Report. (“He went easy on me,” says O’Connell.) He’s certainly come a long way from getting booted out of Walmarts. When he started a decade ago, a sales associate would find him taking reference photos of Elmer’s Glue, Utz potato chips, or Wonder Bread, often with a model posing nearby. O’Connell would try to explain, but eventually he accepted the company policy: no cameras and no art without permission. One day he did an interview on NPR in which he mentioned being “thrown out of more Walmarts than most New Yorkers have ever visited.” Within the hour, a Walmart official called. They realized that O’Connell was one of the only cool things happening in their stores and gave him free rein.

“Every artist wants to be the Andy Warhol of their generation,” he says now, smiling. “But I’m the Bob Ross of mine.” The impressionistic bananas, which took perhaps an hour to paint, as shoppers filled their carts, will likely sell for two thousand bucks.

O’Connell has leveraged his acclaim and collector appeal to start the nonprofit, an arts education program that has staged massive collaborative art projects—a fusion of mass marketing and creativity that no doubt would appeal to both Sam Walton and Andy Warhol.

Bonus: Read the original, extended version of this article here.

This article originally appeared in our February 2014 issue under the headline “Big-box art.”