Brendan O'Connell says Walmart is a curated, artistic space. And his success in the art world seems to be proving his point. His paintings of everyday brands like Crisco, Utz, and Tab are fetching sky high prices.


ATLANTA -- Like any other shopper, Brendan O'Connell grabs his cart when he enters the Walmart on Howell Mill Road in the city's Buckhead neighborhood. Like any other shopper, he scours the aisles for what he needs, tossing the items into his cart.

This is where the similarity between O'Connell and everyone else in the store, ends.

He wheels his cart to the laundry detergent aisle, parks it, rips the plastic wrap off the canvas he grabbed several aisles back, unscrews the lid off the paint he brought with him and begins his next work of art.

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O'Connell's subject perches on the metal shelf, surrounded by others that look just like it.

"Certain strokes are working out. I was playing with the lid the cap area." O'Connell is painting two jugs of Tide laundry detergent. On other days he has painted Crisco, Velveeta, Tab, Utz Potato Chips, Life cereal. And these days he is getting paid quite handsomely to do it. His paintings fetch $1200 to $40,000, but the fame and money is rather new found and to spend a day with O'Connell is to encounter a man seemingly unaffected by his art-super-stardom.

O'Connell, who grew up in Tucker and attended St. Pius Highschool, then Emory University, went to Paris after graduating in 1990, to write the great American novel. And to follow a girl. "It was one of those classic things as a kid, when you declare your love and then they break up with you and then I moved to Paris just to make sure she was{serious}." He laughs. "And she was."

He decided instead to paint. Except he didn't know how. So he taught himself. Over the next few years he worked on the streets of Paris doing portraits of tourists and passersbys. When he moved back to the states, he discovered that Walmart had become a phenomenom. He began walking the store's aisles, trying to capture the myriad colors and shapes. He got busted. Constantly.

"I was asked to leave many, many Walmarts. I would go in and quietly hold the camera in the little basket, take a picture and somebody would tap me on the shoulder and say 'You're going to have to leave.'"

O'Connell began to have shows. His paintings of iconic brands sold out. People snapped up his dreamy interpretation of Crisco, Velveeta, Tab, Utz potato chips.

"That was one of the early ideas playing with it, what's the view of the world from 5 miles per hour, pushing a cart? And you know instantly and viscerally what it is. That's amazing to me. We have this relationship to brands where brand are an irrevocable part of our lives."

Walmart stopped throwing him out. They realized his paintings were not meant to mock the retail giant. O'Connell was painting in earnest.

"This is a place where millions of people go in everyday, and for them it's a chore or a necessity, but how do we make art out of really ordinary throw away moments?"

O'Connell's introduction to the country came by way of an article by Susan Orlean in the New Yorker last year. That was followed by many more interviews including a substantial story in Time Magazine and a sit down interview with Stephen Colbert on his popular Comedy Central Show, 'The Colbert Report.'

These days his paintings are in high demand, and it is on this wave of success that O'Connell is home in Atlanta, for a show at Fay Gold Gallery.

In conversation, O'Connell attempts to deflect the buzz that surrounds him. He talks of wanting to support his kids, of wanting to bring art to Atlanta. O'Connell founded an organization for children called Every Artist. Its goal is to use art to engage elementary school aged children across the country. So far, it's working. 230,000 children in 46 states are taking part, but only 3,000 of them are from Georgia. O'Connell is talking to Atlanta officials, to try to get more students in the program.

"My point is that the early exposure and development to tactile experience with art affects your brain."

Back inside the Walmart on Howell Mill road, O'Connell talks up his fellow shoppers, his cart-as-easel blocking the aisle. "How you doing? Am I in your way? Of course I am." "How you doing? Am I hitting you? Sorry."

He asks one passing woman if she's ever bought a beach towel. She glances over her shoulder at him, her cart pausing, then mumbles something unintelligible and quickly pushes her way out of his aisle.

O'Connell would like to see his art on beach towels at Walmart. Or beach bags. Or t-shirts. It would bring his vision full circle. Every day objects made beautiful, made available -- to everyone.

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