June 2019 Issue
by: Caroline Logan Cherry
A professional art career came late to Peter O’Neill, but in truth, it was close to not coming at all. After two failed marriages and a botched suicide attempt, Peter O’Neill felt he had nothing and found himself in a New Jersey hospital hopelessly despondent and in treatment for acute depression. Then something clicked within him. He looked around at the others with truly severe mental impairments and realized he did not belong where he was. He checked out of the hospital and literally, checked himself back into life.
Peter’s childhood dreams had been to become an artist, but he received little in the way of positive reinforcement. “I liked to draw when I was a kid, but art classes weren’t even offered, and when I’d sketch in my notebook, they’d tell me, ‘Stop drawing and pay attention!’” With no positive influence, he took a job in real estate with the lure of riches and prestige. Still, Peter could never shake the feeling that art was his true calling in life. When his career crumbled, along with his second marriage, he found himself at a crossroads. So, in April 1996, with only his inner resolve, a heart filled with creative need and relatively empty pockets, he boarded a Greyhound bus for Florida determined to become an artist. “I think I was too numb to know the risk I was taking,” he said. It was just something I did.” At age 36, he arrived in St. Augustine with less than $200 in his pocket and nowhere to stay. For a year, he eked out a living as a street artist, doing pencil portraits. His first commission earned him $15—not a lot of money, but proof that people would pay for his work.
Peter is entirely self-taught, something he is quite proud of. For him, art is a communication between the viewer and the creator. “It should never be judged. There is no good or bad art, only the message of the piece. I am living proof of that. I paint from life experience. My work can be sad, sentimental, happy, rude, or whatever—but it must convey feeling at the core level.”
Peter's second gallery in Charleston, SC marked it's grand opening in 2006. He spent the next ten years in the Lowountry, gaining even further exposure. In 2009, Peter broke into the international art market that is New Orleans' famed Royal Street of the French Quarter. Ten years later, he is still one of the top galleries in New Orleans! His desire to pursue another popular tourist market lead him to world famous Duval Street in Key West, FL, where he opened a 14-month pop-up Peter O'Neill Gallery in 2017.
In 23 years, Peter transitioned from local street artist to one of the most sought-after artists in today's art market. Exposés like the one featured in American Art Collector Magazine have been welcome additions to an already impressive career that continues to grow.
“Two Minutes of Silence,” painted in response to the September 11th attacks. The painting depicts a kneeling New York City fireman, his head resting on his shovel, against the backdrop of the collapsed World Trade Center. The imagery was so powerful, that the piece was chosen by the FDNY and the office of the mayor to grace the cover of the program for a memorial service held at Madison Square Garden.
To view and purchase Peter O’Neill’s work, visit his online gallery:
www.oneillgallery.com. He has both originals and giclees for purchase.