Capturing the Seasons

Artist Betsy O’Neill immerses herself in Michigan’s natural bounty // Photos of artist by Jasmine Bykerk
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Artist Betsy O’Neill focuses on a poppy field in Fennville.

Betsy O’Neill feels periwinkle. Yes, she feels it. The blue-violet color taps her imagination regularly, and it often hovers quietly in her mind until she eventually dabs her paint brush into it and swirls it onto her canvas. You’ll see it in this artist’s water, grasses, trees, and sky. And especially in snow. “I’m painting my feeling in the snow scenes,” she says. “There’s no way to explain it. It’s a dimension my subconscious is feeling.”

Periwinkle (called light blue violet) is one of the artist’s trademark colors, and when it’s blended with her sense of form and composition, you get some beautiful painterly artwork made with a unique mix of acrylic paints.

With two daughters ages 12 and 10, and one son, 16, O’Neill and her husband, Craig, are always busy (they home-school their daughters). But that doesn’t stop the Grand Rapids artist from turning out lots of artwork, from originals to prints to note-
cards and more. “I get little bits of time to paint. When my kids are doing extracurricular things, I paint — even in my van! Or I’m folding notecards in some random place, like in a parking lot, making good use of time,” O’Neill says with a laugh. She also admits that being an artist-mom has its challenges. “My family always comes first, so (sometimes I struggle with) finding the time to create, to work on my website, to email people, to sign prints. I’m often torn in a million directions.”

The artist studies her wintry blue-violet tones.

O’Neill wasn’t always a city girl. “I grew up in Caledonia on a 10-acre hobby farm. We had pigs, cows, sheep, goats, and a horse. I was home-schooled and had the best childhood — being in the barn, in the fields. I just loved the look and smell and feelings; I’d immerse myself in the seasons. I find my soul in places.”

That soul-finding is especially expressed in her paintings.

“If I drive past a place, I can see what it’s saying, and I want to stop and paint. Art makes me stop and see. So many people miss that in life. They’re not stopping and seeing.”

Her snow paintings often include hints of purples, periwinkle (in the shadows and highlights), and navy blues. “People are amazed that those colors are in snow. I hope my art inspires people to slow down and see things, see color, and really start noticing.”

O’Neill says she “fiddled with art” growing up, but didn’t study it seriously until later in life. “I was dabbling in it, creating art for my home and for my family, and doing some commissions on the side. But I went to school to become a dental assistant.” In 2014, she sensed what she calls “a shift.”

The quintessential Michigan bonfire stars in a Point Betsie (Frankfort) landscape.

“I started painting just about every day,” she recalls. “We went to Mackinac Island, and I was inspired to make memories from that trip through painting.”

A year or so later, she showed her work in the national ArtPrize competition, held every other year in Grand Rapids. “The venue I hooked up with (Downtown Grand Rapids Inc.) had huge windows and I got to know the site sponsors well,” she says.

You may catch the gregarious artist at an art show in your area. Do stop by her booth; she loves chatting with browsers. When she’s conversing with fair attendees about the memories that are sparked by her paintings, she says, “I’m talking with strangers, and through my art we have something in common. It’s not political, not religious, or anything like that. It’s just something happy, and that resonates with me. It’s so great to connect with people.”

Those conversations have inspired the artist to travel more in her home state, including to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore near Empire, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Munising, and Leelanau County in the state’s pinkie region. “That spurred so much enthusiasm,” she shares. From her studio in her home in southeast Grand Rapids, she contemplates her youth. “I miss the country, but living in the city does have its beauty, with streetlights and the snow coming down around them, and cozy houses with the lights on,” she muses. And, naturally, O’Neill brings the country to what she calls her “teeny city yard.”

Empire Bluff at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore takes on a beautiful glow come winter, and artist Betsy O’Neill is well aware of its charms, as seen here in her painterly perspective of a cold winter’s day.

“I’m working on illustrating a book,” she says. “It will focus somewhat on urban farming and gardening.” The country is so close to her heart that in her city yard, she has a white picket fence, espalier apple trees, squash and gourds growing, and an annual harvest of raspberries, blueberries, and sunflowers. “I love it all — it’s backyard gardening, cooking, community, neighbors sharing,” she says.

The future may also bring more works from O’Neill’s sojourns to the Leland area. “I want to explore that area’s trails, the expanse of the sky, the sand dunes,” she says. “That’s what’s pulling me now. “

As for the periwinkle snow and her wintry works, O’Neill admits she isn’t always fond of Michigan winters. “Sometimes we’re like living in a cave, right? I mean, holy cow — we all know that,” she chuckles. “It’s not my favorite season, but I’ve found beauty in it. And those moments when the sun comes out? I try to capture them.” Because, after all, it gives her another opportunity to make the most of that enchanting periwinkle shade.


MORE INFORMATION

Betsy O’Neill will be at the Fulton Street Farmers Market and Indie Flea GR, both in Grand Rapids, from January through June. Check her website regularly at betsyoneillfineart.com for updates on times and additional statewide show information.

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