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Interview with Cynthia O'Neal, October 2, 2007 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Cynthia O'Neal, October 2, 2007
October 2, 2007
Local artist Cynthia O'Neal graduated with honors from UNCW with a double-major in History and Art History. Before returning to Wilmington, she served as the Assistant Art Director of the Los Angeles Art Association. She has murals on several local buildings, including three on UNCW's campus. She is currently writing a book titled Energy of Art, and her articles appear in UNCW's alumni magazine and in the Wilmington Star-News.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee:  O'Neal, Cynthia Interviewer:  Jones, Carroll Date of Interview:  10/2/2007 Series:  Arts Length  60 minutes


Jones: Today is Tuesday, October 2nd, 2007. I'm Carroll Jones with Ashley Shivar. We're with the UNCW Randall Library Oral History Project. And this morning we're visiting with Cynthia O'Neal in her studio at the City Market in historic downtown Wilmington. Cynthia attended UNCW, graduating with honors. We'll let her talk about that. She studied in Vienna, Austria and in the 1990s became Assistant Director of the Los Angeles Art Association located on trendy La Cienega Boulevard, which leads us to say, "What are you doing in Wilmington?" Now living in Brunswick County, the mother of a very precocious 2-year-old and happy in her work. Good morning, Cynthia.

O'Neal: Good morning.

Jones: Tell us about your growing up years in the Catskills. We'll go back a little bit to find out a little bit about you, the Catskills, New York and how you were recruited to attend UNCW. I found that kind of an amusing story.

O'Neal: Okay, well, I grew up in the Catskill mountains of New York and it was located about an hour north of New York City, and as I was in high school it came about that I became a track star of sorts, and so I was recruited all over the country.

Jones: All over the country, oh wow.

O'Neal: All over the country by large schools, small schools, every schools in between (laughs) to run track. And one of the schools that recruited me was East Carolina University, and so my parents and I planned a trip for official visits and I went to East Carolina, did not like the track facilities, mainly because there was no track facility at the time, (laughs) the coach was a bit abrasive, we'll just put it that way, and I thought to myself, "There's no way I'm going to school here," and at the same time UNCW was recruiting me, and previously I had not considered it, maybe because it was a little bit of a smaller school, but the coach was really nice and so we decided that since we were down here, we would go ahead and come to UNCW for the visit. And it was about February 15th, 75 degrees and sunny, the coaches took us to the beach and said, "Sometimes we do beach workouts" and that was it. My parents were like, "This sounds great" and I said, "All right, I'm going to school at the beach." And that's what really lured me besides the fact that the campus was so beautiful and, you know, all the key elements fell into place.

Jones: When was this?

O'Neal: This was in 1993, February of '93 and then I graduated high school in May-June time and came to school in August. So I decided that UNCW was the place for me.

Jones: Did you always feel that way?

O'Neal: What do you mean, while I was there?

Jones: Yeah.

O'Neal: Absolutely, without a doubt, hands down. I loved it.

Jones: So you were able to run track?

O'Neal: Yes.

Jones: It was time consuming.

O'Neal: Right. I did not know a single person when I came here, I didn't, you know, happen to know anyone in town or anything like that, so really the track team was my family and I felt very comfortable right from the start because they treated me like family, and you know, they put us in dorm rooms together and things like that, and so you know, even though I was miles away from home for the first time, I really felt very comfortable here.

Jones: Now 1993, what was the number of students that attended UNCW ________?

O'Neal: Oh my gosh, I have no idea, but it was a considerable percentage less. (laughs) I really don't know, I don't know, there's a lot less than now.

Jones: But you got there about the time there was a tremendous growth.

O'Neal: That's what I understand, yeah. And I don't know, again, much about the statistics, but I can just see, you know, offhand.

Jones: But you liked it?

O'Neal: What's that?

Jones: You liked it?

O'Neal: Yes, I loved it, I loved everything about my college, you know, my college career. So I was definitely busy running track, you know, to start off with. We had to have all our classes finished by about 1:30 or 2:00 for afternoon practices, we were gone every weekend for track meets, even in the winter for indoor meets, you know, so that was a little bit challenging, but from the start I was a multi-tasker it turned out, so it was all right.

Jones: What was your major?

O'Neal: I majored in art history. I decided that again right away my first semester. In high school I was good at drawing and I was good in my art classes, but there were no art history classes in my high school, it was only studio, and so I took my very first art history class my first semester and it was with Margie Worthington, and it was, I think it was modern art and like it's kind of from pre-impressionism time, you know, up to modern, and I fell in love with it, and she was an amazing, amazing teacher.

Jones: And you had no art before then?

O'Neal: No art history, I had just painting and drawing in high school, like your general high school art class, but no art history. That class made me fall in love with art history, and it made me fall in love so much that while I was taking freshman seminar, I professed too all my other classmates that they must major in art history because it was so fabulous and later I had some people come back to me that ran into me and said, "You know, I took that class and I loved it, you know, it was great," and then other people said, "You know, I took a couple art history classes and it was really hard. Thanks a lot, you know, I got a C." (laughs) And I'm like "I'm sorry, I loved it." Yes, for me it was just right, and I credit a lot of that to Margie. I also took her for design as a studio class and she's really, really an amazing professor, and she's not the only one. I mean Kemille Moore and Tony Janson.

Jones: You mentioned _______.

O'Neal: Yes, yes, and I just really felt like I was lucky to go to school at that time and have such a fantastic staff to help me along. So it makes a huge difference I believe. Back to that first question, I majored in art history, but then I took my required history course, which was, you know, whatever it was, 101, History 101, and that was with Mark Spaulding, who I came to find out later was the undergraduate recruiter for the history department at the time, but I didn't know that then, so I got an A and it was a breeze for me. And so I took a second, 102, with him, again just breezed right through it, and he said, "You know, you're kinda good at this history stuff. You should think about minoring in history as a complement to your art history major." That's how he put it to me. And I said, "Okay," because I was a very easy student, you know, I figured these people know what they're talking about so if they're directing me in a direction, that's the way I should go. So I said okay. So after a couple more history classes, he came back and he said, "You know, you're doing really well, you know, you're getting all As and this and that, and you should just, you've got all these history classes now, you should just double major," and I said, "Okay," and that's how I came to be a double major. (laughs)

Jones: So your double major was?

O'Neal: Art history and history. I had two majors while running track.

Jones: That probably ________, isn't it?

O'Neal: It was great. It was a little bit more work to double major but it was great, and I often did art history projects for my history papers, and I would do it in a way that I would make it as much of a historical paper as possible because some professors would say, "Oh, you can't do that, that's art history." But for the most part, they liked the refreshing subject in the history department, so like when I took Spanish Civil War, my paper was on Picasso's Guernica and Dr. Seidman was I felt, you know, his responses were that he really enjoyed reading that paper. So it's something refreshing.

Jones: That is good, real good.

O'Neal: Yeah, so that was really nice. And the same thing happened with my graduating with the honors project. The honors department chair at the time was Kemille, and she said to me, "You know, we were talking and no one has ever done a departmental honors project for art history before and we think you should be the first," and I said, "Okay," and that's how I ended up graduating with honors because whatever they told me, I just agreed to. (laughs)

Jones: But it was easy for you?

O'Neal: That's right, that's right, it was.

Jones: That's just too bad, isn't it?

O'Neal: It is, I mean, not to say that I didn't work hard, because, you know, I put a lot of effort into everything I did, but I think I managed it well I guess, because now that I look back, I'm thinking how did I do all that, (laughs) running track, double majoring and then doing the honors project.

Jones: Well, I guess your vision was straight ahead.

O'Neal: Mm-hmm.

Jones: I know another student who did something like that and I used to marvel. Anyway, tell us when did you go to Vienna?

O'Neal: Well, okay, so when they asked me to do the art history honors project, I was almost finished with my college career, and you know, I was finishing up track and so I decided to take one extra year at UNCW to do this project and so I said to myself, "Well, if I'm going to do this project, I'm going to do it the right way and I'm going to do primary research" and I decided to do it on Gustav Klimt was my favorite artist at the time and the Secessionists were his group, and I said I'm going to go to Vienna and study their material firsthand. I don't know German but I'll take a German class and just see how, you know, do as well as I can do with it and that's what I did. I then researched right away which programs, which schools across the country were going to Vienna to study abroad, because UNCW did not have a study abroad program to Vienna at the time. So I found some college, I don't even know what it was called, it was in northwest Washington State or something like that it was called, and so I then had to go through a few departments, the financial aid department and different departments to make all the paperwork match up so that I could go through the school, get the credits, then have them transfer back to UNCW and still get all the financial aid, you know, to pay for the trip.

Jones: That's a lot of work.

O'Neal: So I started working on this in about October of I guess it was '97 so that I could go in January of '98, and it went through kind of at the last minute but it all went through, so I was able to go.

Jones: And how long were you in Vienna?

O'Neal: And so then I was in Vienna for the semester, a little bit into the summer, so for about I guess five months, maybe six months.

Jones: So you lived directly on the economy?

O'Neal: That's right.

Jones: And did you need all this German or did you find that in Austria there are a lot of people who might speak some English or understand it?

O'Neal: Everyone speaks English it seemed like, but I made a really big effort not to speak English, whether it be from going, I always got an apple from the grocery down the street every day, and I would talk to him about the weather or, you know, whatever the topic of conversation that day, I really made a huge attempt to speak German. And a lot of the other kids that were taking some classes in the school that I was taking classes, they would complain, "Nobody speaks German to us, they all just speak English to us," and I'm like "I don't have that problem," you know, you just really have to try, and they weren't trying. So there was one or two that did but for the most part they didn't try.

Jones: So you were there during a time that was a little bit cold.

O'Neal: Yes, it was cold, yeah, real cold.

Jones: You had to deal with that.

O'Neal: That's right, it was fine with me. (laughs) Yeah, it was a great experience, absolutely great.

Jones: And you felt that this was a big aid in what was becoming your career obviously?

O'Neal: Yes, mm-hmm, yes. I still love Vienna, it's still my favorite city in the world.

Jones: It is a beautiful city, it really is.

O'Neal: It's clean.

Jones: It's alive.

O'Neal: Well you know, and the thing about Vienna is that it's a center for art. I mean if you think about all the musicians that came.

Jones: All the music too.

O'Neal: Right, that's what I mean, encompassing all the arts, right, all the musicians. And it's almost like this creativity center, and I think that that radiates onto, you know, other people who are studying art there. So it was a real privilege to be there at that time, and I took some great classes there and music and things like that and I went to the library every day and again, I found myself in conversations about motorcycles with the microfiche guys, (laughs) and I _______ German but I tried until we'd finally break down and say, "Okay, let's speak English," you know, but it was a lot of fun.

Jones: Well, they must've been pleased, at least you gave it the effort to do that.

O'Neal: Right, well, I just thought it was respectful to do that.

Jones: You were not typically American.

O'Neal: I tried not to be, I tried to blend into the Viennese as much as possible, and I had classmates that were younger than I was, you know, when I say when we went to this school, they were from like Indiana, middle America, and they, you know, sometimes really acted like they just were the typical American.

Jones: A little more immature perhaps.

O'Neal: Yeah, and I would try not to sit with them in the subway times and not to be stuck up like that because they were really very nice people, but you know, I just wanted to be respectful of the culture, and any place I travel in the world, you know, I foremost try to be respectful of the culture.

Jones: Did you gain weight in Vienna?

O'Neal: I did actually.

Jones: Of course you did.

O'Neal: The pastries. (laughs)

Jones: That's right. Their wonderful Apfelstrudel.

O'Neal: Yeah, the monster Apfelstrudel I had, the poppy seed strudels, yeah.

Jones: But that was all right.

O'Neal: I gained about 10 pounds, but it also coincided with me not running track, so here I was running, you know, all the time, every day and then I stopped running, it was in a cold atmosphere and, you know, ate a lot of strudel, so. (laughs)

Jones: But you made friends there that you can still communicate with?

O'Neal: Uh-huh, yes I did, I made a couple friends, one from the school. There's only really one person that, you know, that I related to from the school, and then the other person was a native Viennese that I was really good friends with, and I met him in the gym, (laughs) which was pretty funny. I was, this is really off on a tangent, but I was bench pressing, and in the gyms in Vienna, girls don't lift weights. They dance, they strictly stay in the dance studios, but not me because I ran track and you lift weights when you're in track, and so I was doing my max that day, which was just a couple of, you know, times, but it was, you know, that heavy weight, and I asked him for a spot, and he was just like blown away that there was a girl in there lifting that much weight in a bench press, so we started talking and at the time he was 28 and a resident to be an orthopedic surgeon, and just a really neat guy and we spent some time together. He took me around and showed me some of the, you know, the local places.

Jones: That's very fortunate.

O'Neal: Yeah. So I still keep in touch with him over e-mail every once in awhile.

Jones: What did you do from there? And tell us this, what do you think was the greatest, what came out of this trip to Vienna to you that made the most difference? How did it help you? How did it change your outlook in art or whatever?

O'Neal: Well, I felt like any time you travel, you get a new perspective on things, and I felt like I just got a fresh perspective on how artists can change, or attempt to at least, change society and even what I do today is reflective of that thesis that I did, and I didn't even tell you what the thesis was, but it was called Gesamt Kunstwerk and the Vienna Secession, and basically these Viennese Secessionists as a group felt that art makes man happy and there's a lot of research through Freud and different, you know, areas that supports this. They think that, you know, when people have art, do they have a better life, a richer life, you know, in spirit or happiness basically, and so I took that and I ran with it and that's still today why I really love to do public murals especially, because even though the average person might not be able to afford to commission a mural in their home, if they're driving by say Julia's Florist or something like that and they see this mural and it makes them happy, then you know what, I've done my job, you know, I'm doing what I'm supposed to do in this life, and that's just a lot of that came out of that Viennese trip and studying that and really grabbing that _________ the Secession, so a lot of people look at that movement and they just see Gustav Klimt, because he's popular and people have the posters of The Kiss painting and, you know, he's just kind of one of those Monet, Picasso, popular artists now but, you know, I tried to get down to the core essence of why they were doing what they were doing.

Jones: Did you ever have in any of your classes or in speaking with artists or instructors, Dr. _____ as an example, how art is used with children with disabilities?

O'Neal: Oh, like art therapy?

Jones: Art therapy.

O'Neal: Well, I didn't go into it too much.

Jones: Particularly the children who first time I heard about it was many years ago, I witnessed it and it was just mind-blowing, in a class where an art instructor asked children from the age of six to ten to draw pictures of themselves. Now, these were children with disabilities, many of them had no use of certain limbs for example, they were born with cerebral palsy or something, and they drew the pictures of themselves minus those things that they didn't have, because they weren't in their vision, they weren't in there, and she said that it was not just therapeutic but it made the children on up, gave them a level.

O'Neal: Yes, I haven't worked too much with children with disabilities, but I have worked a lot with children.

Jones: Well this thing went on with adults instead of for the children.

O'Neal: Okay, right, and it's definitely expressive and, you know, I have three main art students that I work with, they're seven, eight and nine-year-old girls and one of them is really good at rendering figures and animals and things like that and the other one is not really that great at rendering stuff, but she's awesome at mixing colors, so I really try to encourage whatever their strong points are, but I think, you know, the main thing, and the other one's good at clay, so I mean there's something in all of us that is, you know, that correlates with the art and expressiveness, and you know, ______.

Jones: It comes from inside.

O'Neal: Right, it comes from inside, yes, and there's certain energy to it that we bring from a childhood age, our background, our environment, and we bring into it how we relate to art. So I don't know if that kind of makes sense.

Jones: So from Vienna was it then that you went to Los Angeles or did you have a stop in between somewhere?

O'Neal: Well, I came back from Vienna and presented my paper and finished up the school business, and then I was immediately offered the position, or actually offered the interview for the position in Los Angeles, I flew out I mean probably within a week since I came back from Vienna and got the job and then moved out two weeks later, so it happened pretty quickly.

Jones: Well, tell us about that, because you're a girl from the Catskills who's lived at the beach and then goes off to Vienna, which is quite different, and now you're headed out to what some people erroneously call la-la land.

O'Neal: That's right. (laughs)

Jones: I take exception to that.

O'Neal: I love Los Angeles, I still do.

Jones: That's where I was raised, so...

O'Neal: Yes, I love it.

Jones: So how did you find this as far as you're a student who's just graduated honors, you traveled a bit, you have a sense of history and you're out there, in that position what did you get out of that, what did you feel you gave to it?

O'Neal: Well, I got a wonderful training in running art galleries and the business end of art, and I really use that today still. Everything I've learned there I still use to this day because, you know, for instance I have like usually a couple articles come out in the local paper, you know, during the year, a couple times a year, and people will say to me, other artists, people, you know, just random people say "Oh, I always see you in the paper. How do you get in the paper so much?" And I say, "I send press releases" and that's one of the things that I learned to do at the LA Art Association, you send press releases.

Jones: Is that like a local newspaper?

O'Neal: Yes, that's correct, yeah. Different local publications, and then in turn I always again try to be respectful, I thank the writer for, you know, for the article and let me know if you need anything ever again and that sort of thing, and they have e-mailed back to me, "Well, you make it easy for us," so if anyone asks me, I'm willing to share, send press releases. (laughs) So, I mean pictures along with it, whatever you're up to and it's one of the things I learned. Communication, mailings, experience with other artists, hanging artwork properly, not to say as we didn't do it at the LA Art Association by the method where you're supposed to measure 60 some inches from the floor and that sort of thing. That was not how we did it. We did it pleasing to the eye, which gain is reflective of the Viennese background, pleasing to the eye, pleasing to the viewer, making them happy, making everything kind of flow when they walk in and view it. So there are a lot of great experiences. I also modeled part-time there and so I was able to, you know, experience Los Angeles.

Jones: For an agency?

O'Neal: Mm-hmm, I did have an agent, yeah, and that was kind of hard because they want you to be available all the time and I had this other job, and if that wasn't enough, I also decided to take a couple of graduate classes at Cal State Northridge in art history and so after I guess it was two or three days a week, after I got off work in West Hollywood at 5:00, I drove to the Valley, up the 405.

Jones: That is not a good time.

O'Neal: To make my, let's see, 7:00 class. So it took me almost all of those two hours to get a 20-minute drive.

Jones: [inaudible]

O'Neal: Mm-hmm, yeah, so but you know, I fully experienced Los Angeles, (laughs) so I can take that with me. Yeah.

Jones: Well that's good, you've chucked that away in your mind.

O'Neal: Yeah.

Jones: Do you draw on these experiences sometimes or these things that you've seen or learned to use in your artwork?

O'Neal: In Los Angeles particularly?

Jones: No, just now for example, you racked up quite a background so far and you're very young, so it would seem that these are sort of opposite places. Los Angeles is not Vienna is not Wilmington is not the Catskills.

O'Neal: That's kind of the point is that right, you get perspective, and yes I do, like my artwork, I have a lot of different series that I do, so I have paintings from Venice, I got to travel through Europe when I lived in Vienna, and Italy really made an impression on me, so I do a lot of especially Venice. I was there during carnival so that was interesting, (laughs) and so I like to do bright color in Venice scenes. But then I also have what's called the Retro Pop Glam Series, and that's what this face painting is from. That's Los Angeles influence there, and I did the first one when I lived in LA. So sometimes people go "Oh, you do a lot of different things," and I say, "Yeah, you know, I do whatever inspires me." So I definitely would say yes, my work today is reflective of all of that.

Jones: You then visited museums in _______?

O'Neal: I did, yeah, in Europe yes and also Getty in Los Angeles. What's that?

Jones: They have a different way of I think showing their art.

O'Neal: In which way do you think?

Jones: I think that some of their artists, their old ones particularly are held in such high esteem that they still haven't stopped worshiping them.

O'Neal: That's correct, yes, which I made sure in addition to the museums I visited art galleries in both places, Vienna and in Los Angeles, because the galleries are like I think they're bringing in the new artists and they're showing the things that the museums aren't showing, so like right, like the _______ Gallery, you see exactly what they want you to see at the _______ Gallery.

Jones: Did you go by any chance to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam?

O'Neal: I didn't, no, [inaudible].

Jones: They have the Black Watch, Rembrandt's Black Watch.

O'Neal: Oh wow.

Jones: And it stands alone in a room on a black background. That's all that's in there. It just hits you.

O'Neal: Wow.

Jones: And it's not that big. I think the first time I saw it I thought, it's morbid, but when I read all this stuff, anyway, that's beside the point.

O'Neal: Well yeah, and then the other thing is I got to see in Vienna Gustav Klimt's work in person, and I was starting to I don't know how to explain it, but it's kind of when you like something and everybody likes it all at once, you kind of feel like you don't want to like it anymore because everybody likes it.

Jones: It becomes commonplace.

O'Neal: Right, and I was starting to feel that way about Klimt's work, you know, because everyone would go, "Oh yeah, I have a poster of The Kiss in my room," but then I saw The Kiss in person and it's, you know, about that wide and I mean it's huge, and it's brilliant, so, you know, I said that's right, Gustav Klimt is still my favorite artist. (laughs)

Jones: So then what happened, what brought you back here? Did you have any other steps on the way?

O'Neal: No, not on the way. I was actually in a relationship at the time, and the guy I was with came from North Carolina to Los Angeles and he didn't like LA and he wanted to move back, and you know, I guess I sort of moved back for him, but if I wasn't really okay with it I wouldn't have moved back, you know, I think it was just time for me to move onto a different experience and do something different. So it was almost like Wilmington was going to be a pit stop and so it was a pit stop for a few more years, and then when that relationship was over, I was back in New York, back in LA like all the time, making that triangle, and then I was in Bali and Thailand until I settled again. (laughs)

Jones: And what did you do in Bali and Thailand.

O'Neal: Well, I saw Balinese dancers on National Geographic one day and I thought, "Wow, they are really beautiful people, their features are so symmetrical and look at their costumes. That color is the color that's on my palate. I need to paint those people," and like Vienna I couldn't just, you know, download some pictures or something, I had to go there and experience it to paint it.

Jones: _______.

O'Neal: Yeah, so I called my friend Diane and she's like I don't know maybe in her 50s or 60s, I'm not really sure, and I said, "Hey Diane, you wanna go to Bali and Thailand with me?" and she said, "All right, let's go" and like three weeks later we had our tickets. (laughs)

Jones: Now you couldn't hitchhike over there, so how did you swing it?

O'Neal: Well honestly, I just sold paintings to do it and, you know, I some of my clients I thanked, I said, "Thank you for purchasing this painting that's gonna service my Bali trip," so I just raised the money by selling paintings like I've been, you know, doing professionally.

Jones: Maybe you missed your calling.

O'Neal: Yeah, fundraising. (laughs) I've been told that before. But so yeah, so I got to go there and we had a really wonderful, wonderful time and the dancers were beautiful and we got to stay in a little fishing village in a, you know, a $7.00 a night bed and breakfast, which Diane wasn't completely thrilled about I think but she went along with it and at that place there was one guy who ran the bed and breakfast. He was young, in his early 20s, and his sister also in her 20s ran the restaurant down the way, and so it was a family village basically. But they were both dancers and had been trained to be dancers at a very young age, so instead of just going to the local tourist spot where they have the dancers showing, I really got to talk to him and he told me how they would bend their fingers back starting at a very young age in order to twist them into the different positions that they have to twist them in, which means every position means something different. You know, and then he got out his pictures of himself and his sister and they danced at the local temples, because it's all a religious act to them, you know, not just a tourist attraction. So that really neat to get into the heart of it, and then we also, Diane knew somebody who knew somebody who set us up with staying with a Balinese artist, or actually he's Javanese but he lives in Bali with a woman who's from Vienna. He's married to a woman from Vienna, so we had a great time staying with them.

Jones: So there's just one more perspective on the world.

O'Neal: Exactly, and one more experience to share.

Jones: How many are you planning to gather before you give it up?

O'Neal: Oh, plenty more, plenty more. Yeah.

Jones: Good, good. Well let's get back to Wilmington. I've taken the long way but that's all right, it's all part of it.

O'Neal: (laughs) Yeah.

Jones: Your road has been full of all kinds of interesting stops. You told us why you came back to Wilmington, now why are you still here?

O'Neal: Right, okay, so after I was doing New York and LA and Wilmington, I mean seriously, my car was in Los Angeles, my car wasn't even in Wilmington at the time I went to Bali and Thailand, so I was flying to New York and LA so much that I was just splitting it three ways. I had some clients in New York, and you know, family and clients in Los Angeles. So after Bali and Thailand, I was in LA for awhile and then I flew to New York and then I came back to Wilmington, it was only supposed to be for two weeks, and then I was hired to do a mural job. It ended up taking me, they kept adding on more and more and more.

Jones: Where?

O'Neal: It was the Green Room Surf Shop. So I was going to just do the front and then they added the one side and then the other side, so it took me in the course of about three months or so, and my plan was that I was going to spend the winter in Los Angeles and then come back to Wilmington for the summer, and in about March or April or so. So I finished the mural at the end of February, it was time to come back to Wilmington and I had met Clay, who's my husband now, and we had started dating, and I told him "I'm only supposed to be here for two weeks" and then it kept extending, extending, and we hit it off and now we're married.

Jones: You met him here?

O'Neal: Yes, I met him here.

Jones: Is he from here?

O'Neal: He's from about two hours from here, Washington, North Carolina. He's a North Carolina boy.

Jones: What's his line of work.

O'Neal: Clay was a bartender when I met him, but he's also an artist. He's got a lot of talent. As a matter of fact, we've got a couple of paintings of his in here, but he now works at Ferguson. They do plumbing and lighting, so he has a "real job" but he's also a big surfer. He was sponsored by surf companies and, you know, to ride their surfboards and all that stuff, so he's a very good surfer.

Jones: He's in the right place for it.

O'Neal: Yeah, that's right. He used to live on the outer banks and he was, you know, kind of a big time surfer out there I guess you'd say, (laughs) but yes, and now we have a daughter.

Jones: That's terrific. I can see where he'd go to the west coast for that. It's great surfing country.

O'Neal: What's that, oh, on the west coast?

Jones: Yes.

O'Neal: Well yeah, and he lived in the outer banks of North Carolina and so and then we did take a couple of California trips for surfing, but he really wants to go to Bali. (laughs) I guess that's where the big waves are.

Jones: He wants to go to Bali?

O'Neal: Yeah, so I'm sure we'll make it back there eventually. (laughs)

Jones: When did you open this? Are you in this with somebody else?

O'Neal: That's correct, yes. I share the space with my friend Lisa who makes the handbags and does the applique work, and she is just really talented and a very, very creative person. And I'd never even consider having a partner doing anything like this, but she's the right fit, you know, yeah, and she's amazing, really amazing. But that makes it easier for me too, because we're open six days a week. I only have to be here three days a week. I can spend the other four with my daughter, which is very important to me. And now as I was telling you earlier, it makes it easier for me because I have three days that I can do work here while the customers come in, so at home I have to work it in around naps and things like that, so it actually makes it a lot easier for my schedule to have this space.

Jones: You mentioned to me on the phone that you had, I've forgotten now how many murals you said you had around town. Can you tell us where some of the others are and the two remaining at UNCW, what are they about, where do you have them? You were obviously commissioned to do these?

O'Neal: That's correct. Mm-hmm. Dick ______ from Auxiliary Services called me to do a bid.

Jones: This is for UNCW?

O'Neal: Right, UNCW, he called me to do a bid, put a bid on a mural in Wagoner Hall. They were doing a renovations for the students and they have a tropical theme in there and so I did some sketches for them and they chose me out of the artists they interviewed to do the mural. And it was wonderful and lots of fun and it was a really exciting experience, and they were pleased with how it came out, so they also decided to commission me to do a mural I think it was probably about a year later. Oh no, actually that one, maybe the same year to do the Hawk's Nest, which I did over Thanksgiving break. They were also doing some renovations, and that was really rewarding for me because I don't now if you saw the Hawk's Nest before, but it was like a prison gray-blue with hardly anything on the walls, and it was this glass room, so you could see it as you walked by, and there was nothing in there. And I made it the brightest colored Vermont [ph?] street scene you've ever seen in your life and I actually made awnings out of canvas and my dad helped me make frames for them so that they came out over the windows, and it was just very bright when I got done with it. (laughs)

Jones: They painted over it or whatever they did?

O'Neal: Yes, they've renovated the building, so.

Jones: And number three?

O'Neal: [inaudible] Number three was the admissions building, and they wanted a collage of local Wilmington scenes and UNCW campus scenes to greet prospective students when the come in. So that was very important to me as well because I wanted to have, you know, perspective students get a nice reaction so they'd want to come to school at UNCW. I'm very supportive.

Jones: [inaudible]

O'Neal: That's still up _______. They told me at the time that they were going to move the building in about a year. It's been now like two years, so they haven't moved the building yet, but the head of admissions told Dick _______ that the only way that she would agree to this mural is if I could paint it again or something like it in the new building. So I've got that one sealed in there. She's making sure I come back and paint it. And that one I painted when I was just into my ninth month of pregnancy, and then UNCW Alumni Magazine asked if they could do an article on me and they took a picture of me at like the end of the day and I'm out to here, you know, pregnant, and they put it in the Alumni Magazine and I said, "Man, I hope my classmates read the article or else they're gonna say 'What happened to her?'"

Jones: So you were nine months?

O'Neal: Yeah.

Jones: Now you were up on a ladder and all of this?

O'Neal: Well, you know, I only stepped two steps on the ladder but even really when I stepped those two steps on the ladder, those ladies were coming out of the offices yelling at me. (laughs)

Jones: That would make me nervous.

O'Neal: Yeah, it really wasn't that dangerous though, it was just so I could get the top of, you know, the corner of the eight foot ceilings or whatever.

Jones: Where are some of the other places in town?

O'Neal: Well, a lot of people's favorite is Julia's Florist, that's right down on the corner of Kerr and Wilshire. It's a garden scene.

Jones: I've seen that.

O'Neal: Right. There is Kohl's, it used to be Kohl's across from the college. It's College Station Ice Cream now and I did the train on the drivethrough so that the window of the train is actually the drivethrough window, the conductor's window. And then I mean there's 16 so I guess I probably can't name all of them.

Jones: No, [inaudible].

O'Neal: Okay. Another one of my favorites is the bowling alley up in Ogden. It's called Cardinal Lanes North, but I think they just changed the name to Beach [ph?] _______, and I've painted that entire bowling alley from corner to corner, so from the very back corner all along what they call the side walls. I took every panel from the above the lanes and took that home and painted it like underwater, so it goes all the way across, and then all the way back up the other wall. And the side walls look like the ocean, split horizon, underwater and above water and then it goes into a beach scene.

Jones: Have you done any of the commercial or business buildings in town, banks?

O'Neal: I'm trying to think, let's see, no real banks. They used to have local artists in banks more but they've changed now to just bank graphics, because I've asked about that, you know, and they've done away with the local artwork.

Jones: Have you had any exhibits for example at the Cameron Art Museum?

O'Neal: I have not yet at this time.

Jones: Have you met the new director?

O'Neal: I have, yeah, I like her, I do.

Jones: She's a little different than anything we've had here before.

O'Neal: Yeah, mm-hmm.

Jones: People have to get used to a whole new different ______.

O'Neal: Sometimes people have to get used to change, and sometimes it's harder for some people more than others. And I understand some of the criticisms that she's come under, but you know, it never hurts to stir the pot and do something different. So that's just my opinion on it, you know, everybody's got their opinion.

Jones: It's good to reach outside if you're a growing metropolitan area.

O'Neal: Exactly.

Jones: ________ but you're not beholden to anybody for it.

O'Neal: Right, right.

Jones: What do you feel about the local, I'm talking about not just Wilmington but southeastern North Carolina, let's take in Southport, let's go up to Pender County and other places, the local scene as far as art, now I'm grouping art into all of its forms, not just painting for example. I was corrected on that many, many years ago, and I've never forgotten it, because it was very embarrassing the way it happened, so I had to stop thinking about artists as being people with a little paint brush.

O'Neal: Right.

Jones: And many artists I've found, painters, are multitalented, they do all kinds of things. But at any rate, how do you feel about our art community here in southeastern North Carolina and is it a training ground, is it going forward, do we have a lot of good people here, not so good? Your perspective.

O'Neal: As far as a training ground, again, I think I'm very happy with my education at UNCW and I think that that is becoming a stronger and stronger school for artistic training. As far as the community here, I think that it has a lot of growth left. I almost feel like I'm surprised it hasn't grown more as specifically an artistic community, and I don't know if that's maybe some local government issues or what's going on, but the fact that, you know, the arts council dissolved a few years ago is very...

Jones: No funding.

O'Neal: Right, no funding, and that's really disheartening.

Jones: They're trying to get it back though.

O'Neal: I know, but it's not quite working yet, (laughs) so it's a little bit disheartening because I feel like it's got all the other elements to it. I mean I know a lot of people compare it to Charleston. I think that in a way it's good to compare it to that because they have a similar community. It's a little bit bigger city, yes, but they have the river and the beaches and all that stuff too, and I think that it could be that. And I think that it should be that, because it would enhance the community tremendously, artistic and non-artistic, to have more of the arts here. So I'm hoping that it keeps moving in that direction. And I think it is little by little. I don't think it's going backwards, but you know, I'm a little surprised that it hasn't grown more in the last ten years say than it has.

Jones: Do you think the film industry has anything to do with that, people come here either as tourists or to _______ short-lived to get involved in that ______.

O'Neal: I think the film industry really helps the people who are in the, you know, the film arts. I know that UNCW, again, has a really great program now and it's because of the influence of, you know, Frank Capra and being here, and I think that's awesome. I wish that there was some way that that could happen for, you know, painters and sculptors and things too. I think Hiroshi being here has been a great influence. Look at what one person can do, you know, to help enhance a community.

Jones: Hiroshi is one of the people I was thinking about because he is an artist, but his work is almost all pottery and that sort of thing.

O'Neal: That's right. He's a really neat person and I think that goes a long way.

Jones: _______ is multitalented too.

O'Neal: Yes, yes, and I'm very respectful of her work. I think she's a tremendous artist and we're lucky to have her in this community as well. There are a handful of I think really core group of artists that tremendously enhance the community. Now I think that the fact that we're growing so much, especially Brunswick County now, Pender County, and you know the people who are, I mean just to be general, the people who seem to be buying the homes are from New York, Connecticut and California.

Jones: And Ohio.

O'Neal: And Ohio. (laughs) And I think that that really helps the art community as well, because they've been exposed to more art maybe and they appreciate it slightly more and they're building new homes so they need to collect artwork for their new homes. Oftentimes they want to refresh their décor or whatnot, so I think that that really has a big impact on the arts in the community.

Jones: What do you want to do, where do you want to go with your art, whether it's here or anywhere else? Surely you have some dream, some accomplishment that you haven't done, although God knows I can't think of one.

O'Neal: Oh my gosh, I have a list of them. (laughs) Well right now in my spare time, whatever, I don't have spare time, but in my spare time I'm working on a book called The Energy of Art, and the concept of this book has a lot to do with the gezunt [ph?] conspirk [ph?] again and I didn't even explain that but I'll explain it briefly. How these Viennese are just wanting to make man happy was by creating a total work of art. So they believed that everything from your architecture down to your silverware, if it was designed by an artist, that this would make you happy. And of course nobody could afford that. (laughs) Back then there was only one baron [ph?] that, you know, got to do that and he was from Brussels, and their fashion, everything. You know, my book on the energy of art is about how we perceive art and how it affects us and my kind of unorthodox view is that when I'm painting a canvas, I put energy into it and then when you view that canvas, you receive energy back from it, almost like an eastern qi thing in a way, but it also has a lot to do with scientific things like, you know, there's a yellow umbrella. How does yellow make us feel, how does pink make us feel, how does the shapes and the composition make us feel? It's all of these elements put into one. And also, it's going to be different for each person, because every single person has had a different background growing up. They have different experiences that they bring with them when they view this painting. So when I view this painting, it's different from when you view this painting, because you have different background experiences. You know, it might not appeal to somebody who likes really dark, abract things. That's what pleases them. So it's, you know, The Energy of Art book is just kind of about our experience with viewing art, all different kinds of art. So I'm working on that but mainly I think I'd just like to paint as many buildings as I possibly can in my lifetime.

Jones: Really?

O'Neal: Yeah, the sides of building. Of course I love doing the canvases as well, but the bigger the better, as many buildings as I can.

Jones: I was just going to ask you about size. I heard it from a number of people that watercolor is the hardest thing to work in. How do you feel about that?

O'Neal: I don't like watercolor, okay, I work in artistic fervor, and that's why I think my college career worked for me, because I had my hand in so many different pots and I had to get it all done at once, and there's a certain sort of energy that comes from having too much to do, if that makes sense, and so I always have too much to do. But it keeps my energy going, and it keeps, you know, I do have down times where I'll relax a little bit, so I can keep that balance, but I really like that fervent energy and so, you know, as long as I keep that energy going. I forgot where I was going with this. (laughs) What was the question that you asked me?

Jones: I said, you know what, now I've forgotten. It was probably something about, I asked you about working in watercolor.

O'Neal: Oh watercolor. I don't have the patience for that, that was the point of that story. (laughs)

Jones: That's all right.

O'Neal: Yeah, I need to work very quickly and throw my energy into it and brush strokes, brush strokes, you know, that kind of thing, and watercolor is just a little bit too tranquil for me.

Jones: Do you like working on commission?

O'Neal: I love it. I absolutely love it. Do you know why?

Jones: No.

O'Neal: Because when somebody says to me, "This is what I would like for my home," you know, and I create it, you know, they already like my style, so I have the confidence that I'm not going to mess anything up, because I know that they like what I do. So when they say, "This is what I want for my home" or "This is what I want for my business" and I create it and they're happy, that's what makes me happy. This is why I'm doing what I'm doing. I'm making them happy. So I love working on commission, because then I know they're getting exactly what they want.

Jones: Do you do any portraiture?

O'Neal: I have in the past.

Jones: Do you like it?

O'Neal: I don't do it anymore because it takes me, again, it takes me too long, because I have to work longer on it and the people always liked how it came out, but I was a little bit more critical of it, you know, and it's just not really my favorite thing to do, but I do love doing dog portraits. (laughs)

Jones: Dogs.

O'Neal: Love doing dog portraits, pet portraits in general, cats too. They have a really neat expression that they come out with and when the people go, "Oh, that captures them perfectly!" again, I'm like so happy.

Jones: How can you get a dog or a cat to stay still?

O'Neal: Photographs. (laughs)

Jones: I was going to say or is it photographs?

O'Neal: It's always photographs, and I always do more than one photograph.

Jones: But don't you have to meet the animal to get a perspective on the personality?

O'Neal: Sometimes, but not always.

Jones: [inaudible]

O'Neal: Okay. (laughs) And I do a lot of the time meet them, and sometimes like I know I've got a series of pets where it's, you know, I've just done a bunch of pets that people might like to buy prints of. Again, I've got to keep thinking of the marketing strategies in order to keep myself in business as an artist, but the thing is, I go up to random people and if I like how their dog looks, I go "Can I take a picture of your dog?" So on the street I'm just taking pictures of people's pets and then when I get ready to do a new series of dogs or different breeds, you know, sometimes.

Jones: Do you have dogs?

O'Neal: I don't have a dog right now, no. I have a cat.

Jones: You have a child.

O'Neal: Yes, I have a cat named Steve and I now have two birds as of Friday, two parakeets. In a moment of insanity, I purchased two parakeets for my daughter, but they're actually wonderful, it's really neat. I'm kind of actually inspired by birds right now, and I'm pretty sure that my next series of work is going to be some sort of bird series.

Jones: Cynthia tell me, is there something somewhere that you haven't done that you would like to paint that you haven't done? I'm talking about.

O'Neal: Like a subject matter or a place?

Jones: A subject matter or maybe something different than what you've done, you'd have to travel a bit or whatever, I don't know, but there certainly must be some goal or something you'd like to try that you haven't.

O'Neal: Well, you know, I want to continue to travel, and I really get inspired through my travels, so as of yet I can't say right now that like, you know, what happened in Bali, I saw the Balinese dancers on TV and I said "I have to go there." It's a new experience, it's a completely different place. There's, you know, there's nothing that's really driving me to go to a certain place right now, but I do want to travel around, because I'm sure that, you know, if I go back to Europe or if I go back to Asia, that there's something that's going to strike me, and I'll have to do a series on it. So it's kind of opposite this time. I'd like to travel to get the inspiration first. But anywhere I can travel and any time I can travel, I will. It's a little bit hard, again, with a 2 1/2-year-old right now, (laughs) so we have to keep that in mind when we make our plans, but I know that, you know, Clay wants to go back to Indonesia or I would be going back, he would be going for the first time, but this is what I have to think of, okay, it was different when I didn't have a family. Now I have to think about yes, there is the chance that she could get malaria if she goes, and I really don't want to take her, so then that leaves me to would I give her to my parents for two weeks to take care of while we go, because you can't go for, you know, less than two weeks to halfway around the world. So this is kind of where I'm at right now. My travel plans are slightly restricted. But some place like Europe. She is extremely bright and she likes museums.

Jones: What's her name?

O'Neal: Margaret Reese [ph?] and we call her Reese. So Reese went to the costume exhibit, for instance, at the Cameron Museum. Now you can't go by yourself, you have to take the tour. I don't know if you've been to the show, but the tour is about an hour and a half. Well, Reese made it in her stroller for about a good hour and 20 minutes of the hour and a half tour until she finally said, "Blah, blah, blah, costumes, costumes, costumes." (laughs) And I said, "Oh, excuse us."

Jones: That's a bright child.

O'Neal: But you know, she really, it was costumes. She really likes paintings and things, so I feel like something like more towards Europe might be better for her at this point and she would really enjoy the museums and the art and she's actually into dinosaurs right now, so I think our next trip is to New York to see the dinosaur bones. She told me, I don't know if I told you, she told me a couple weeks ago that she wanted to be a paleontologist.

Jones: She said the word?

O'Neal: Yes, I was driving and she was in the back and her exact sentence was "Mommy, for my job when I grow up, I Either," like that "Either," "want to play games or be a paleontologist."

Jones: She's 2 1/2?

O'Neal: Two and a half, yes.

Jones: You and your husband and whoever she's around must talk to her a lot.

O'Neal: We talk to her a whole lot. (laughs) Yeah.

Jones: Good, keep it up.

O'Neal: And I said, "Sweetie, if you can say paleontologist at 2 1/2, you absolutely can be one, and you can play games too and be whatever you want." (laughs) So she's quite bright at naming dinosaurs. She can name a good 20 or so dinosaurs, and she blows me away every day. And she's very artistic. She not only can paint and draw and color and all that good stuff at 2 1/2 but she sees things in other things. She'll see a shape and she'll go "Oh look, that's a caterpillar" or "That's a dinosaur" or that's something else in a shape of, you know, I don't know paint peeling somewhere.

Jones: Does she play with clay?

O'Neal: What's that, with clay?

Jones: Does she play with clay?

O'Neal: She does a little bit, yeah. Mostly she just likes to smoosh it and get into the texture, but she hasn't molded too much yet. (laughs) We're very proud of her, if you can tell. (laughs)

Jones: You don't have to do this but I'm going to ask you anyway. Are there any artists that are local that you particularly admire?

O'Neal: I do have a favorite local artist, and that is Brooks Pierce.

Jones: Brooks Pierce, okay.

O'Neal: Yeah, I really, really just love her stuff. There's more than one, there's more than one. I like Dick Roberts, he's got, you know, the abstracts. I like him as a person.

Jones: I think he goes to Bald Head with that group.

O'Neal: Right, exactly, and I was invited one time, but I missed it because I was traveling so much. (laughs)

Jones: Oh really. Well, ________ was the gal I was talking about.

O'Neal: Yeah, I knew, as soon as you said gal, yes, and I like _______.

Jones: I've known her forever.

O'Neal: Yeah, I like ______'s stuff too, and I like the fact that she works in different mediums, and again, I think that all encompasses into, you know, making man happier, so the more mediums she can work in, the more things she can do is ________ to me.

Jones: Doing just all kinds of things and she really has gotten involved, of course, in _______.

O'Neal: Yes, yeah, and I saw her, the last time I saw her was at the holiday show last year, and I said, "I just really liked your quote in the paper, that was awesome." She was like, "Oh, I'm not sure if I remember what I said." (laughs) But it was really great.

Jones: Brooks Pierce?

O'Neal: Yeah, Brooks Pierce is probably my favorite as far as, you know, and I don't know her that well, you know, or anything but I just really like her work, I've always liked her work. I like her palette a lot. She's got a lot of purples and things, but just I like her style. I love Dick Roberts' stuff. I own a yellow abstract of Dick's. There's a local artist named Harry Davis. Have you interviewed him yet?

Jones: No.

O'Neal: You should. (laughs) He's a really, really neat guy. He is an African-American artist, he's in a wheelchair, and he's in the collections of like Bill Cosby and Denzel Washington and he's a self-taught artist, and I've got one of his boxer paintings, and it's incredible. It's black and white with just a touch of red. It's Archie Moore in the last round with Rocky Marciano, so it's got just a touch of red for the blood and the gloves are red, and the rest is in black and white and gray. So yeah, he's really neat.

Jones: I'm trying to reach out and get all kinds of medium. One of the more interesting people was Dumay Gorham.

O'Neal: I don't think I've met him.

Jones: He works in metals.

O'Neal: Oh cool.

Jones: Unbelievable sculptures. Old, old family, very well-respected family here and he's happy as a clam. He too has a daughter, just one.

O'Neal: Really?

Jones: He loves her to death.

O'Neal: Oh, that sounds really neat, and I think I've heard of him but I don't think I know him. But I mean, you know, I've made friends with so many artists in this community.

Jones: Well that's why I'm saying, it's different mediums.

O'Neal: Yeah, and Cindy Weaver, who does pottery, she's really neat. Her husband Tracy paints, so there's just, I could probably just sit here and name ones I like all day, but I'd say Brooks Pierce is my favorite, followed by Dick Roberts and Harry.

Jones: Our time is running out. And we could talk some more. I'd like to come back.

O'Neal: Okay.

Jones: I want you to let us know next time you're in the middle of a mural and maybe we can come out and photo you.

O'Neal: Okay.

Jones: Is there anything you'd like to say, any advice you'd like to give to some budding artist or somebody who thinks they want to be an artist?

O'Neal: My advice would be that no one's ever going to give anything to you without you at least saying, you know, you might want it. I don't know, I've just learned that my business experience through the LA Art Association and that sort of thing has helped me sustain being an artist and it's still not easy. It's not easy to be an artist. You have to really, you know, work to get yourself out there and to get funding, you know, unless you're independently wealthy, which I'm not, but it's just really kind of hard, but don't give up, and you know, it'll happen, it'll fall into place.

Jones: Thank you, Cynthia. It's been a learning experience and it's been a real pleasure to talk to you, and I marvel at your energy.

O'Neal: Thank you. (laughs)

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