O’Donnell is Seriously Humorous
by Molly Hammill
When I pulled up to the house Patrick O’Donnell’s grandfather built on the North Shore of Boston, he was standing on the front porch waiting for me — hands in his pockets, eyes on the lookout for his expected guest. O’Donnell doesn’t have a cell phone. No website. No computer. No email address. I’d called his home phone a few days earlier to set up a time to interview him and see some of his art. I expected a reticent technophobe.
He pulled a hand up for a salutary wave and shot me a grin, friendly eyes smiling behind his bifocals. “Park right there. That’s fine,” he said. I fumbled around my car for a pen, wallet, cell phone, keys, purse and camera. Once I made it up to the porch he met me with a painter’s handshake and a face that expressed a kind of gracious and appreciative curiosity.
O’Donnell grew up in Beverly and has been painting houses since he was 12 years old. (He had taken a break from his first day on a new job a few minutes away to meet with me.) He says painting houses as a kid set him on the path to become an artist.
“It was 1972. I started working on a crew — I had to scrape, do all the chores and ride my bike to get coffee for the crew. I’d have to clean the brushes — so I’d start throwing paint on plywood … and I just kept doing it. I was like, ‘Look at me, I’m Picasso!’ It was sort of fun and kind of a joke, but then somewhere along the line someone was like, ‘Wow, that’s cool. Can I have that?’”
O’Donnell isn’t the kind of guy you’d necessarily expect to be the author of the loud, joyous, abstract explosions of color and form he boldly presents in his work. His tone is tempered and calm. There’s a gentle, inquisitive air about the guy.
His studio — a 10’ x 10’ room in the center of his house — is at the heart of his home. Mountains of brightly colored canvases spill out into the other rooms; geometric mind puzzles are piled up on tables and lean against walls.