We’ve all heard the joke that Ottawa has two seasons: winter and construction.
While the latter is often a nightmare for commuters, construction sites are just what artist Eryn O’Neill looks for when capturing the city’s evolving urban landscapes through her unique works of art.
“It comes down to catching a city before it’s finished,” explained O’Neill during an interview at The Rectory Art House, where she and nine other artists each have their own studio space. “I want to offer a visual break between the before, when everything is torn up, and the after, when the site is cleaned up and functional again.”
Don’t expect paintings of pretty flowers and breathtaking landscapes from O’Neill. She isn’t looking to provide the public with an escape from their city surroundings. “I’m putting them right back into that sensory overload,” she said of her depictions of real-life spaces, from construction sites to urban architecture to light rail transit-themed works.
O'Neill presents the everyday and overlooked. “No one stops to appreciate the staircase they’re walking up to get to work every day. Sometimes, you’re just on autopilot. It’s the same with moving through transit stations. You just keep moving. You’re not stopping to soak it in. My work offers this pause between moving through.”
These days, the Ottawa construction community has been noticing and appreciating O’Neill’s work.
In June 2020, her paintings caught the eye of D-Squared Construction CEO Domenic Franco Madonna. The businessman checked out her solo art show at Wall Space Gallery in Westboro Village. Her series focused on the infrastructure within the LRT stations in Ottawa.
As well, he noticed her LinkedIn profile photo, taken by Dwayne Brown. She’s featured with one of her construction paintings in the background. It includes a safety traffic barrel in black and orange, which also happens to be D-Squared’s company colours.
Rubber traffic cones and safety barriers are regularly featured in O’Neill’s work. So much so that people will bring damaged pylons to her. She has a collection of broken cones, stashed away in The Rectory Art House at 179 Murray St.
Madonna went on to hire O’Neill to create three paintings that were hung in his company’s head office in Greely. Not long after, Tomlinson Group of Companies approached the artist and commissioned her for an ongoing series of works to be displayed in the company’s beautiful new headquarters in Barrhaven. She’s been meeting with CEO Ron Tomlinson, touring the quarries and pits, getting up close to the heavy equipment machinery, and having conversations and forming connections with Tomlinson employees.
“It’s been really fun,” said O’Neill, who snaps photos during her behind-the-scenes tours to take back with her to the studio. “I’m honoured that they’ve opened up this world to me and been so generous with their time and knowledge, and that they’re so enthusiastic.
“There are just not a lot of artists out there doing this. I don’t feel like I’m one of many, which is really exciting.”
O’Neill, 36, was born in Ottawa and grew up in Westboro. She studied fine arts at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design before earning her Masters of Fine Art at the University of Waterloo, spending three months studying in Edinburgh, Scotland. She’s currently doing her second master’s degree, in art history and curatorial studies, at Carleton University.
She also has deep roots with the Ottawa School of Art. She started taking classes at the art school at age seven, followed by night classes throughout high school. When she moved back to Ottawa after grad school, she began teaching in OSA’s fine arts diploma program.
O’Neill has had paintings purchased for the City of Ottawa’s Art Collection and Global Affairs’ Art Collection.
The artist said she’s always been fascinated by heavy machinery but that she discovered her love of construction sites while in Waterloo. The downtown core was undergoing heavy work during her time there. As an avid runner, she was continually jogging past the noise and chaos and finding inspiration for her paintings.
O’Neill has continued to explore her interest in transitional urban spaces upon her return to Ottawa. “It became less about getting stuck in it and a lot more about intentionally going out and finding construction sites,” said O’Neill.
She said she’s been inspired by American artist Charles Sheeler, who was hired in 1927 by Ford’s advertising agency to create a series of photographs of one of its automobile factories, and by Edward Burtynsky, who’s well known for his photographic documentation of industrial sites across Canada.
She’s currently working on a new series of paintings focused on The High Line, a public park built on the historic freight rail line elevated above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side. The paintings will show at Wall Space Gallery in March 2022.
As well, the two-time recipient of a grant from The Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation will create a new body of work based on phase two of the City of Ottawa’s LRT project.
She hasn’t ruled out a fourth university degree in her future, either. It would involve the Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism at Carleton University. "My motivation to apply for a Masters of Architecture comes as a culmination of my years of practicing as an artist and wanting to expand my skills further into urban renewal and growth," said O'Neill.
"I've been asked on several occasions where I studied architecture, due to my subject matter, so I figured I should have an answer."