Stephen O’Donnell is a self-taught painter citing the source of his education as the love of history and biography. “The illustrations in books, paintings of places and people, first drew me in. Palaces, clothes, jewels; all the rarefied externals. My broader interest in painting and art history and design was rooted there. Great classical paintings – and often, very bad ones, too – are where I always return for my inspiration and ongoing instruction.”
Having a father in the Air Force, he spent his early years moving from various bases in California. Being the perpetual new kid in every school, he took solace in being known as an artist child. This allowed him to circumnavigate his shyness and create an identity for himself. He explains, “being ‘artistic’ was my established persona at home and in the world. I got a lot of attention for it. I found some acceptance through it. It was the one place in my life where I could be certain of respect.”
Through High school he participated in competitions and exhibitions, and as a star art pupil was expected to go on to art school. A rebellious nature rejected this and instead he moved to San Francisco where he: designed and made costumes for the Shakespeare Festival; took acting workshops, then facilitated acting workshops; taught vocal performance workshops; wrote a lot; and sang. He performed in San Francisco’s cabaret scene. He describes these years as, “six very mixed-up years, but I was doing what I wanted to do.”
When Stephen moved to Los Angeles in 1986, he began to painting again. He recalls the reason he didn’t want to go to arts schools was that, “I’d always wanted to do a lot of different things, to explore all the creative channels that interested me and that I felt I had some talent for. Proving to myself that I could do those other things, too, helped bring me back to what I did first and probably best.” At first he was painting for the pleasure of it, but in time but in time he decide to show the work to a gallery owner. This was at the age of 36 in Portland, where his family originated from, and where Stephen had returned to. Two months later, that gallery presented my first solo exhibition. He is now a renowned, much collected artist.
I very frequently employ the self portrait as the basis for my work. I’ve long felt that, by beginning with myself as the model, I’m able to avoid the biggest limitation of the portrait as an art form: that it’s “about” someone specific. In my paintings, because the portrait is only of the artist, the viewer, while including whatever they might perceive of the artist, still has more of an opportunity to find their own narrative in whatever visual scenario I might present. A play of gender is the most recognizable thematic device in my work; I’ve often been referred to as the “man in a dress” artist. I’m often questioned about the political or psychological “choices” that I make in presenting myself in this way, but I never have a simple explanation, because my work almost always develops at a subconscious level. I feel that all the fascinating and beautiful imagery I’ve internalized along the way - my whole life - are constantly being sorted and arranged in my brain, filtering through my beliefs, my experience, to coalesce and “appear” in my head as fully worked-out designs for new paintings. When I first started showing my work, I often dealt pictorially with the issues of being a “sissy” boy, which I certainly had been as a child. As my work progressed, more and more I painted myself as a man in women’s clothing; I didn’t think about it, I just did it. It seems it often takes a lifetime to discover - rediscover? - who we really are. And at this point in my life I clearly identify as non-binary. I may usually present as a man, but I’m decidedly both; I’ve long felt a very deep connection to the Native American concept of berdache – or two-spirit – the idea of a person who embodies a blending of both genders. So, perhaps, the way I’ve represented myself in my paintings has been a way to honor and reconcile those feelings. To create scenarios that express my ideas about beauty and my particular sense of humor. But also to live a “life in paint” that I wouldn’t otherwise find possible - physically, aesthetically - in reality.