Portrait of a Walmart with You as the Subject

By Louis DeNicola, Cheapism.com

Artist Brendan O'Connell

Walmart and high-priced art aren't often mentioned in the same sentence. But artist Brendan O'Connell turns the Walmart shopping experience into upmarket culture. His paintings, the largest of which fetch about $40,000, often feature the colorful displays, iconic blue-vested employees, and bargain-hunting shoppers at the ubiquitous warehouse store. Interested in how people interact with their environment, O'Connell zoomed in on the grocery store and made Walmart his setting of choice.

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No, O'Connell didn't sit with an easel in the middle of Aisle 5. Rather, beginning in 2003 he traveled the country taking pictures inside Walmart stores and recreating the images on canvas later in his studio. "I was struck by the notion of capturing everyday American life," he told The Boston Globe. "Walmart has replaced the church as the place where people congregate." He counts actor Alec Baldwin among the fans of his work. "Alec's become quite a collector of American paintings. He saw my work in New York and bought a couple."

Sometimes O'Connell focuses on the abstract shapes and colors formed by dozens of cans or bottles, all lined up in columns and rows. It's hard to make out exact brand names, but as seen in "Fiber and Ketchup," the shapes and colors and label designs are so ingrained in our minds that the products are instantly recognizable. Works such as "Deli and Shampoo" capture Walmart shoppers in their natural habitat, although friends and family sometimes serve as shopping models.

Artist Brendan O'Connell's painting 'Cashier'

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Early on O'Connell was kicked out of many sites. A man taking pictures of shoppers and bottles of mayonnaise seemed odd. Since then store managers have come to accept his research methods (positive press didn't hurt) and welcomed him back, sometimes even supplying a forklift for panoramic shots. The company also bought a painting he made of the original Walmart store.

"My last two favorite paintings came from photos that people sent me as opposed to ones I took, which I love that because I've been in more Walmarts than anybody I know who doesn't work for the company. So you start to get a familiarity blindness, where if somebody goes in and just thinks of it in an artful way, they're going to come up with something more interesting just from the freshness of it," he told the blog Pop Culture Passionistas.

O'Connell has talked about a collaborative project with Walmart in which he would set up a studio inside a store. He'd take a picture of a scene or interaction and begin transferring the image to canvas right there, turning an everyday ritual into fine art. Shoppers would be able to watch the process, perhaps become a subject of the work, and possibly carry home a print bearing a more Walmart-like price tag, O'Connell explained to The Boston Globe.

Artist Brendan O'Connell's painting 'Bleach & Blonde'

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Everyartist.me, another O'Connell venture, helps nurture the creative process in children. Last year Everyartist.me helped more than 8,000 elementary school children fill a football field with their art. O'Connell and associates hope the record-setting event will be the first of many, and a Kickstarter campaign is raising funds for the cause. By giving kids a chance to stretch their imaginations, the project may also teach them there's more to life than shopping.

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