Erin Elizabeth O'Neill (b. 1983, St. Louis, Missouri) lives and works in Chicago. She received her BFA from the Kansas City Art Institute in 2008, majoring in Painting and Drawing. Her work reflects a deep love of figurative symbolist art.“Painting and drawing with watercolor and ballpoint pen, I depict images of my inner child using my daughter as a reference in my art. These drawings are created in tandem with my own mental health journey, as I confront generational trauma and grief. Accessing my inner child had a profound impact on my ability to heal emotional scars I had been bearing for decades. I began to recognize the power of engaging my inner child as a spiritual guide. I believe our role in human suffering could be shifted through seeking out our inner child, which has the elasticity to hold many truths about who we are, even when they are contradictory, without judgment. Meditating on these spaces in my own psyche is a necessary part of my artistic process.
Your work deeply intertwines with your personal journey and mental health. How has using your daughter as a reference helped you connect more deeply with your inner child?
When I began painting my daughter, I didn't set out with a specific intention of painting my inner child. The inner child as a conduit to self-healing has only been something I've begun examining in therapy in the last few years. For me, painting my daughter was just a natural progression in my practice because she and I were always around each other. At first, I was just using what I had as a reference, which was a phone full of photos of just her experiencing the world. But raising a human has ways of extracting parts of yourself you didn't know were inside. At times it feels like I'm being reintroduced to who I was as a child. Learning to mother my daughter has also been a journey in learning to mother myself and creating safe spaces for expression.
The mediums of watercolor and ballpoint pen are unique choices. What drew you to these particular mediums for your figurative symbolist art?
I love how informal and approachable these mediums can be. The less preparation I need to dive into an idea, the more likely I am to actually start on it and both mediums require so little setup or cleanup. They travel well, which is great because I never know where I’m going to be making art next. I also become completely entranced with ink and watercolor as it dries and moves on the surface. There is a dance that has to occur as the paint dries and you must be willing to release your expectations of what it will look like. You can't be heavy-handed or constantly rework these mediums because it degrades the final presentation. Watercolor and ink force me to work around the unexpected moments in the image, and I think those are the moments that are the most exciting.
You discuss confronting generational trauma and grief in your art. Can you share a specific piece where you felt this confrontation was particularly palpable?
"Assessing the Damage" was a painting that spoke directly to the experience of losing my father unexpectedly in 2021. In the painting, a young girl approaches a freshly fallen limb of a tree. The scene is violent but serene. Whatever storm occurred has passed and the girl seems to be cautiously approaching the wreckage. The damaged trunk divides the figure from a blank part of the canvas. To me, this represents all that is unwritten when we experience trauma. There is an absence of what you once knew. Grief can feel like a vacuum in that regard."Assessing the Damage" takes me to the day after my dad died in the hospital. His home was full of signs that he had no idea this was his last day in his body. The table was set for dinner, and a pot of boiled potatoes was still sitting on the stovetop. The TV was on, his jacket tossed over the back of his couch. And yet he was utterly absent. It felt very much as if my life had been struck by lightning and it had taken out a vital part of our family tree. It was calm, but it felt violent. When I reflect on my life, there is a recurring theme of my entire world changing in an instant. Not always negatively, but it’s always transformative. I’m engaging more with those tipping points in my art.
In recognizing your inner child as a spiritual guide, how has this perspective influenced or shifted the themes and symbols you use in your work?
My images have become far less static. There is a lot more energy charged into the figures as they interact with one another. I'm playing with abstraction rather than chasing an exactness or finality that I felt was so important in my earlier artwork. As a result, I’m struggling to finish paintings and drawings because the conversation is getting murkier. I no longer know where the edges are. I’ve even begun playing with animating my drawings in simple loops and trying larger, fuller compositions. I’m very much in the midst of reworking my process, and I’m working on having patience with the art. Letting it take the lead is humbling, but it needs to be done.
As you meditate on spaces within your own psyche, are there specific rituals or processes you follow to help immerse yourself into the flow?
I do my best work when I am making time in my week to daydream. I do my best daydreaming at night after my daughter is in bed and I can turn the lights off and take a silent shower. As a child, I had a wildly vivid imagination and I could completely turn off the world around me and feel immersed in one that I imagined for myself. It is also something that had detrimental effects on my school performance and social skills, especially with my ADHD.But this is also the space where I bloomed ideas for art, stories, music, you name it. Growing up, I received a considerable amount of pushback about "spacing out". I've had to learn to manage my attention to function in day-to-day life. I'm learning how vital it is for me to have space in my week where I am alone and without distraction. It's not exactly meditation, which I do too. But it's an active process, going into my mind and being in a private visual world. Having ADHD makes me constantly on high alert to match other people’s energy, and if I’m not careful, I can unknowingly drain myself. Letting my brain have time to go where it wants, without being called back or being aware of anyone else's energy, has such an impact on my drive for creation. I’m an ideas machine, but I need space and time to imagine how those ideas work in the context of my life. Otherwise, they stay trapped as ideas forever.