April 20, 2008 — The historic building at the top of Crystal Gade, with its pastel peach exterior and classic Danish colonial architecture, lends itself perfectly to its new enterprise.
The front door stands open, beckoning one into Lucinda Schutt O'Connell's sunny, bright gallery. It feels like walking into one of her classic Caribbean watercolors.
O'Connell reflects her surroundings — open, friendly, welcoming. She smiles a lot as she talks about art, travel, the incredible people she meets, her recent marriage to Sean O'Connell.
"The way I connect to people is through my art," she says. She tells little stories from here and there — the autistic child she introduced to painting, the CEOs who come to painting late in life.
The light, airy atmosphere of her gallery encourages talk and imagination. An enormous paint-splattered board leans against a far wall. A work in progress — a painting of two older people trudging home up nearby stairs is pinned to it, next to a photograph.
"I saw these two people, and I had to take a picture," she says. "They are returning from a funeral." The posture of the two tells where they have just come from. O'Connell in a few brush strokes has captured the emotional significance of the scene; it is her gift, or one of them. She is a many-gifted artist.
Dressed in jeans and a cotton shirt, O'Connell steps to one of the gallery's huge windows overlooking Charlotte Amalie. "Just look at this," she says with a wave of her arm. Actually, the view looks like a characteristic O'Connell watercolor.
She's always known where she was headed. "When I was about six years old," she says, "I gave my grandmother a drawing of the Easter Bunny and announced I was going to be an artist. My mother warned me. 'It's a tough way to make a living. Marry someone rich.'"
It was advice O'Connell immediately discarded, studying art in high school and continuing at the Art Institute of Ft. Lauderdale.
She moved from Florida to St. Croix in 1987, until in 1989, she says, "Hurricane Hugo blew me to St. John." O'Connell fell in love with the island's color, its flora and fauna. She was Caneel Bay resort's artist in residence for eight years, before moving to St. Thomas.
She took off in the late 1990's for the Napa Valley in Northern California "I knew I would come back to St. Thomas," she says, "but I wanted to explore, look at a new pallette."
O'Connell became the first artist-in-residence at Napa Valley's prestigious Robert Mondavi winery. "I had free rein to roam the vineyards," she says — adding with a laugh, "and all the wine I could drink."
O'Connell became taken with the Tokalon vineyard, a fabled spot among vintners, part of the Mondavi holdings. "The vines were so gnarled and bent," she says, "like older people. When I painted there, it was magical. They were my silent audience."
O'Connell returned to St. Thomas, where she opened the Blue Turtle Gallery, now Gallery St. Thomas, which she sold in 2003. She opened her present gallery and studio about a year and a half ago.
O'Connell teaches everyone from CEOs to elementary school children. She is resident artist at the Ritz-Carlton St. Thomas, where she conducts twice-weekly classes.
O'Connell firmly believes in giving back to her community. She supports several organizations by contributing major works for fund-raisers, and she worked closely with the V.I. Council on the Arts for years.
She brought new life to the children's ward at the Roy L. Schneider Hospital in 2004 (now the Schneider Regional Medical Center), painting the walls with murals. She delights in talking about the rewards of her labors. "I get emails from fifty-year-olds, lawyers, doctors, thanking me. Some even have had their own shows," she says. "It can be life-changing for them."
And then there's the young ones, the disabled children she teaches. "They're so happy to have someone who cares," she says. "They love it, and I love it." She mentions a boy with autism. "Akim was so shy when he first came, he wouldn't say hello, he didn't want to stay. I put him down before a big sheet of paper and gave him paints, and you should see him go now. He tears into it."
Her advice for novice painters? "Paint like you're going to throw it away," she says. "Leave your mess-ups — they might be the best part of the painting."
O'Connell can be reached at 514-2432 or you can check out her website.
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