Painting a Somber Summer Vacationland

Jamie O’Neill first became fascinated by stories of the past while growing up on Nantucket. Now a father, he is still pulled by history as he turns his art to capturing “stuck in time” images that catch his eye near his Brewster home.

Artist Jamie O’Neill holds Salt Box, a painting inspired by views he’s seen around the Outer Cape. (Photo by Chris Kelly)

New works at the core of his “Capescapes” exhibit at Alias Gallery in Orleans are architectural, realistic, and uncluttered with people. And whether depicting old houses, a solitary boat in the marshes, or a street scene in Provincetown, they are scenes that O’Neill says he’s fallen completely in love with.
The still-life-like paintings, often painted outdoors, draw a connection between old and new.

The artist once gave tours of a Nantucket windmill that was built in the mid-1700s. “You could see every groove of every foot that had stood there for hundreds of years,” O’Neill says. He wants that historical presence to show in his current work, he says.

Lt. Island is among O’Neill’s newest paintings. (Photo courtesy Jamie O’Neill)

“These buildings and boats are things telling a story by existing for so long,” says O’Neill. “Sometimes you can just feel like the ghosts are in there, like the walls can speak.” But he finds details that bring modernity into view. “Now this building has a Budweiser sign on it, or an old fire station becomes someone’s home.”

That Budweiser sign is seen in Old Colony Tap, his rendering of Provincetown’s venerable bar, brick-red and white against a solid blue sky, with grayed-out windows that leave what’s happening inside a mystery. His Lobster Pot is a more colorful yet still figure-less scene of the wharfside restaurant, and in Bradford Inn, the eye is drawn to a jaunty American flag that had O’Neill thinking of the Fourth of July.

Lobster Pot is a portrait of a place O’Neill is “in love with, as a painter.” (Photo courtesy Jamie O’Neill)

Other paintings in the oil series — including Salt Box, with its green-roofed buildings, brick foundation, and boat on the lawn — are imagined scenes based on drives he’s taken around the Outer Cape, capturing enough photos to fill his iPhone.

Gallery owner Chris Kelly describes O’Neill’s architectural paintings as nostalgic. But “I don’t think it’s just the architecture,” he says. “The palette gives them that feel. Everything’s a little bit whitewashed.”
O’Neill agrees that his color choices are a big change, as he’s “turning a new page” from his recent graffiti art — he has worked on exterior walls and painted bright train boxcars. In both those and his newer works he depicts fine details — small rocks in a trainyard or blades of grass — but they diverge in mood.
The Cape Cod pieces “have a really quiet, somber, melancholy kind of feel,” O’Neill says. “And the Cape has that feel to it sometimes.” And he agrees with his wife, artist Elizabeth Kirby Sullivan, that the art has a postcard-like “summer vacationland” style.

The former Pumper House No. 1 in O’Neill’s Pride. (Photo courtesy Jamie O’Neill)

O’Neill’s “Capescapes” images are small, just 8-by-6-inches on Masonite panels that suit the 300-square-foot exhibition space (alongside Siân Robertson’s Alternate Route) that Kelly calls “the biggest, smallest gallery on the Cape.”

But the show also includes some of O’Neill’s larger paintings — of shells, marsh, and sea — plus the 48-by-36-inch oil and acrylic Wellfleet Woods, featuring a derelict green truck resting on a pile of oyster shells.

O’Neill says he’s always been inspired by 20th-century American realist mainstays Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper. For Wellfleet Woods, he adds Robert Frost’s poetry, joking that he felt like he was hanging out with Wyeth’s and Frost’s ghosts while painting it.

As for Hopper, O’Neill notes he has inadvertently been following the artist’s trail, living in New York and admiring Hopper’s urban pieces like Nighthawks, then moving to Gloucester, where Hopper painted seaside homes and other outdoor scenes. Five years ago, O’Neill moved to the Cape.

The painting Wellfleet Woods, center, was influenced by the art of Andrew Wyeth and the poetry of Robert Frost. (Photo by Chris Kelly)

“He got here before me,” O’Neill says, but he believes the tranquility Hopper painted can still be found here.

Another thing he says he’s finally found here is an artistic community. O’Neill got to know Kelly, an Eastham artist and graphic designer, through mutual friends from the Art Institute of Boston when Kelly co-owned Longstreet Gallery in Eastham. When the 18-month-old Longstreet lost its lease in January 2022, the two stayed connected, and O’Neill has been among more than 30 artists whose work Kelly has shown since opening Alias Gallery in April.

O’Neill says the “Capescapes” show is “me trying to bite into Cape Cod, and how it makes me feel, and really getting it down.”
Both O’Neill and Kelly have art in the Members’ 12×12 Exhibition and Silent Auction through Sept. 10 at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum. O’Neill’s 353 Commercial St., another of his Provincetown architectural scenes, is in that show. His Familiars, featuring a catlike figure and two wolves, is on display through Nov. 10 in a juried show at the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum.

‘Stuck in Time’

The event: Painter Jamie O’Neill’s “Capescapes” exhibit
The time: Through Sept. 17; noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, and by appointment
The place: Alias Gallery, 64 Main St., Orleans;
The cost: Free

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