Fearless as Folk

An article originally in Dirt Magazine by Melissa Shaw


Annie O’Neill lives in the same boarding house under the Shawangunk Mountains that she stayed in as a child. It has its original 1950’s stove and curtains, but the biggest surprise is the carefully curated collection of Mexican folk art: dolls, paintings, woodcuts, ceramics. Intermingled with these treasures are Annie’s own painted ceramic bowls and plates, and animals sculpted out of clay, or incised and hammered steel.

O’Neill is an adventurous soul. She has lived in Mexico, traveled extensively, and rock climbed for years. This same fearlessness shows up in her work. Intrigued by transforming a material into something else, she learned to cut steel using an acetylene torch. It was like “drawing with fire,” she explains.

On trips to Mexico in the 1960’s and 70’s, O’Neill honed her appreciation of Mexican folk art, often traveling to remote villages to watch craftspeople at work. She opened a store in New York City, thinking that others might be intrigued by the art she collected. She was right.

Eventually, O’Neill was drawn to the medium of clay. “When I dream about art, I always think of clay—people, figures. It’s almost as if I’m trying to channel a Mexican folk artist.”

O’Neill’s workroom is small but charming with windows looking out to the woods. Listening to hypnotic early chamber music, she uses a special paintbrush that she bought from a Mexican bark painter to swirl snail shell patterns around the edge of a plate. “I treat glaze like paint . . . I think clay and metal are forgiving, unlike paper.” She picks up a pin tool to etch away black glaze, revealing the scales of a fish.

Inspired by the colors and textures she sees on her daily walks, O’Neill’s subjects are mostly birds, fish, and otherworldly animals. Her figurative pieces are male, and they intertwine with the animals, as though a fierce dialogue is going on. “If it looks too structured I make some mark that messes it up—a freeing gesture. I always like to work from my mistakes and incorporate them into what I’m doing.”

The art brought back from her travels is also a constant source of inspiration. “I never think anything is my idea—we just create amalgams.” Wherever she finds her muse, she’s still as excited as a child to see what comes out of the kiln after the glazes have been fired.