Tis the season for “back to school” shopping and you can bet your back-to-school bottom dollar that much of that shopping will be done in Walmarts across the country. Walmart is, of course, the biggest retailer in the universe but did you know it’s also the subject of fabulous art?
American artist extraordinaire Brendan O’Connell is sometimes referred to as “The Walmart Artist,” but his gifts and vision go way beyond the bread aisle. Still, it’s those aisles of American staples that put him on the map and launched a career of depicting art in the most unlikely of places. Attention Walmart shoppers: you could be the subject of a high-dollar painting!
O’Connell earned degrees in both Philosophy and Spanish and after graduating he moved to Paris to teach languages. While there, he taught himself to draw and eventually quit his “day job” to take on art full-time. Meanwhile back in the states, Walmart was experiencing its heyday and rapid expansion. Little did O’Connell know that American commercialism would influence his work and his life in such a dramatic and colorful way.
Long influenced by artist Edward Hopper and his calculated Americana renderings, O’Connell returned home with the goal of sketching a slice of American life in its rarest form, unfiltered, and as he saw it. His first choice was retail outlets and their windows of America’s obsession with mass-marketed merchandise, which naturally led him to Walmart. He was fascinated by it all: the colors, the rows of products, the shoppers, the lights, and the fact that under one giant roof it all unfolded in enormity and excess.
“It’s the most visited interior space on the planet,” he says. “From an artist’s perception, the idea of dressing this environment is exciting.”
So, O’Connell set out across the country and began painting rows of goods and aisles of shoppers even though he’d often get kicked out by store managers. But, after profiles on NPR, in “The New Yorker,” and on “CBS Sunday Morning,” Walmart execs contacted him and told him they liked what he was doing and wanted to make it easier for him to continue doing so. The rest, as they say, is history and if you ask me, artistic genius on such a human level.
He says it’s simply finding beauty or significance in what are often otherwise throw-away moments. O’Connell revels in finding and depicting our place in the realm of consumption as well as society’s fetish with products. I love how he morphs otherwise starkly lit and uninteresting aisles into colorful and whimsical canvas creations. And although the retail giant is loathed by probably as many as it is cherished, O’Connell ‘s hopes his paintings will one day not only be considered a clever and brilliant artistic venture into a mundane environment, but something sentimental as well.
“Someday people may feel nostalgic about something they were terrified of, so what if we elevate the everyday moment into an act of beauty or piece of art?” he asks.
O’Connell’s work has since been elevated in exhibits in New York, Toronto, Shanghai, and a host of other cities. He also has permanent collections at the GA Museum in Athens and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. He has been commissioned by a number of companies including Walmart. Today O’Connell has built quite a repertoire that includes his signature works, and he is also the founder of Everyartist, a non-profit with the goal of promoting art among children. What better place to do this than in Walmart with a box of Crayola crayons and some colored pencils? Funny how things sometimes come full circle and make you wonder, right?
As for me, the next time I’m in a Walmart I’ll try to picture the aisles through his eyes: eyes of inspiration and imagination. Maybe while you’re doing your back-to-school shopping, you can give it a try too.
O’Connell calls Walmarts “whole cities of goods under one roof,” and many are indeed bigger than many towns and cities when you consider sales, profits, and products. Amazing, right? So are these other “fun facts” about Walmart:
Walmart is the largest private or semi-public employer in the world, with more than 2.3 million employees worldwide, which is more than the population of Houston.
In fiscal year 2015, sales were $482 billion, which is more than Iran’s GDP.
If Walmart were a country, it would be at least the 26th largest economy in the world.
The mega-retailer employs 1.5 million people in the U.S. alone.
One of every four dollars Americans spend on groceries is spent at Walmart.
90% of Americans live within 15 minutes of a Walmart.
Walmart averages a profit of $1.8 million an hour.
37 million people shop at Walmart every day, which is more than the population of Canada.
Walmart is bigger than Home Depot, Kroger, Target, Sears, Costco, and K-Mart combined.
Each week, Walmart serves more than 200 million customers at more than 10,400 stores in 27 countries.
Bananas are Walmart’s top selling items.
Walmart accounts for 25 percent of Clorox sales.
If Walmart’s more than 900 million square feet of retail space were spread out over one place, it would take up roughly 34 square miles or about 1.5 times the size of Manhattan.
Walmart parking lots alone take up an area roughly the size of Tampa, Florida.
The most frequent destination typed into GPS device Telenav is Walmart.