Maggie O’Neill’s studio is her mood board. It’s a shrine to her love for color and her new found appreciation for paper. To walk into her Shaw studio space is to step inside of her technicolor brain, it’s overwhelming in all the right ways. From giant primary colored canvases to even bigger paper based sculptures, everything inside is larger than life, including O’Neill’s personality. Wearing a chunky, rainbow colored cardigan, O’Neill (who is the founder of SWATCHROOM, SUPERFIERCE and a full time artist) looks right at home as she starts excitedly telling me about her current project, a giant wall installation that’s made up of blown up D.C. parking tickets.
“It’s a whole fun texture that I’m completely enamored with,” she says, explaining her new found obsession of working with paper. She first thought of the idea many years ago, when she was living in Adams Morgan and racking up all kinds of parking tickets. Inspired by their pink and white cherry blossom-esque colors, she came up with the idea of taking the tickets and twisting them into flowers. After the District Department of Transportation refused to give her a sleeve of blank parking tickets (surprise! It’s illegal!), she decided to create her own giant versions instead.
It’s different from the artwork that covers the rest of the walls. O’Neill is known for her impressionist, pop-art paintings of D.C.’s most famous landmarks, but this is far more abstract and a little cheeky. “I hope this doesn’t come off weird, but I think there’s actually become a point where I’m sick of looking at my own artwork,” she says. Focusing on paper has been a welcome reprieve, a chance to try something totally new.
“I love D.C., I’m from D.C., and those have been the pieces I’ve been making for such a long time,” she adds. “That’s what people know of my work, but, selfishly and creatively… That’s not the work I want to continue to make.”
Although, one aspect of her work she never sees letting go is her love of color. “I had this conversation with this guy last night at the Pink Tie Party, which was hilarious,” she says, explaining, “He said ‘I just like black and white’ and I was like ‘I have a physical reaction to the idea of it and to the application of it.'” While she appreciates minimalist palettes, especially when it comes to the work she does at SWATCHROOM, O’Neill has no interest in toning down her own work. Sometimes it feels like she couldn’t even if she tried. “I just don’t feel comfortable, it’s like my motor skills freeze,” she says.
After the parking ticket installation, which O’Neill created for the National Cherry Blossom Festival as their official artist of 2018, her next theme has no obvious ties to D.C. The series, which is still unnamed, draws from the iconography of classic games like bingo, chess and cards, but is based on the entrepreneurial risks she’s had to take as an artist.
“If you’re in business for yourself, you should just expect that there will be huge huge huge hiccups,” she says. “When they show up, how they show up, under what set of circumstances, you don’t know… they’re like a fucked up surprise party, but it’s going to happen.” She goes on, explaining, “There’s a whole series of work that is related to taking risks and being an entrepreneur and specifically being a creative entrepreneur… you can fall hard but I do believe it’s well worth it.”
O’Neill likes to work in a larger scale and envisions these game pieces as immense. The kind of art that doesn’t just capture your eye, but confronts you. “This series, the playing cards and the chess pieces, I want them to be eight feet, 10 feet tall and aggressive,” she says “Or so ominous that you have no choice but to stop in your tracks.”
Clearly she is a font of ideas who is easily inspired, but O’Neill is also incredibly business minded. She knows exactly what her clients are interested in and know how to push those boundaries, but she also has a lot of ideas for D.C.’s creative community and how it can be a cause for change. “We all exist in these little islands, but imagine how unbelievable that cooperation would look like or how effective that could be,” she says. That’s one of the reasons why she created SUPERFIERCE, a traveling art show that focuses on showing and supporting female artists.
“It was really unfortunate how many times I’d reach out to other women for advice, counsel or community and they’d be like ‘You know what, I’m good’ or ‘I had to figure it out my way, you’ll figure it out,'” she explains. “If I could help 25-year-old Maggie, I would help 25-year-old Maggie… why would you not?”
As a small business owner, O’Neill is used to looking at her art through the lens of business. She argues that if more artists took that approach, specifically women in the arts, they could insight more change. Especially when it comes to representation.
“The more economically powerful we are as a community, that’s actually when things change,” she says, adding, “If everyone starts to think of themselves as small businesses rather than artists, I think a shift would take place that would make being a women in the arts completely different.”
Being a creative woman, and supporting other creative women, is a subject O’Neill is incredibly passionate about. As we talk about the grim statistics (in the US and Europe, women make up 3-5% of major permanent collections), O’Neill ruminates about the changes that have to be made to even the playing field. “When you can actually start funding other people’s work or investing, I think that’s when you can actually shift the statistics,” she says. “I think it’s not just enough to have some people selecting women’s artwork, you got to come at it from all these different angles.”
Those two pieces of Maggie O’Neill, her shrewd business side and her constantly creative side seem like they would be diametrically opposed of each other, but they work in perfect harmony. “It’s weird for people, they want you in one lane,” she says.
“I didn’t know any different, both businesses were built at the exact same time,” she says, adding “One feeds the other or vice versa… It’s very therapeutic for me when I come here and I paint in the mornings before I go down the street for a team meeting… People are like, ‘Oh you gotta work out in the morning’ and I’m like or paint… or drink like three cups of coffee.”