Tim O'Neill: Crafting a Life in the Arts and Building Community

Photo by Bill Lemke

My husband and I feel fortunate to be in Madison, a caring, thoughtful, and vibrant community. We moved back after seven years away because we longed for an arts and cultural community, which was difficult to find on the far western side of the state. We are artists, and as such, realize studio practice means you are often alone. Its time and space to undertake creative endeavorssolving problems and working through your process. Some mediums lend themselves to shared spaces where specific equipment is neededlike ceramics or printmakingbut for the most part, artists are loners. This makes an artist community even more valuable.

I sat down with Tim O'Neill to discuss his life in the arts and the role he plays in our local arts community. Tim is a furniture maker, metalsmith, and sculptor. He works at the University of WisconsinMadison as a 3-D technician for sculpture, glass, and digital fabrication, and as part of the academic staff. He co-owns the Artisan Gallery with his partner, Theresa Abel, an artist, painter, gallery art director, and taste maven for Madison.

“Its interesting that I met my future wife the same year I started making art,” Tim tells me. “1990 was a pivotal year. I met Theresa, as well as two important mentors: Richard Judd and Ron DeKok, both accomplished furniture makers that were respected by their peers locally and nationally. The effects were profound and immediate. Richard took me under his wing. As he taught me woodworking, I witnessed his incredible work ethic and passion for fine craft. He immediately saw my potential as a designer and encouraged me to hone my skills so that my craftsmanship would support and complement my designs.

A few weeks after I started working for Richard, he introduced me to Ron DeKok. I was looking for a place to live closer to work, and Ron had an old general store a mile from Richards shop in Paoli. I asked if he had any apartments available. He didnt, but said he 'was a little bored and liked building living spaces.' Even though he didnt know me, he offered a third of his shop to make a studio apartment. Like Richard, he was very generous with his time and knowledge. We agreed he would teach me building construction and I would work evenings and weekends to pay off my rent.

Photograph by Bill Lemke

That agreement also brought me into his shop to help with furniture making. His approach was somewhat unorthodoxa very sculptural process and more spontaneous. Most of the designs were in his headnot a lot of drawing to go by, and very unusual methods of woodworking. Unlike Richard, whose work was very process driven and disciplined, Ron creates amazing things from a very chaotic and frenzied work environment. It was crazy and interesting being in the middle of two people that were so talented and skilled with such divergent methods to making art.

“The year was capped off by meeting Theresa, who was in her final year at the UW studying painting. I was introduced through seeing her art. She had a lot to say about art, academia, and the unjust world we live in. She was intelligent and beautiful, smoked cigarettes, swore a lot, and was a vocal feminist. We were drawn together by the shared goal of life as an artist. I was smitten.

“The early 90s I was living outside Madison, renovating an apartment with Ron, learning my trade with Rick, and visiting Theresa in Madison. I wanted to see her more often so I began taking night art metals classes at Madison College. It started as an excuse to see Theresa because I was in town, but I was soon bitten by the metalsmithing bug. My woodworking skills readily transferred to the new materials and processes. My instructor, Holly Cohen, suggested I continue down this pathshe was impressed by my skills and talent.

After a quarter century of making, Tim has proven his skills and talent. He has been awarded top prizes at art fairs across the nation for his beautifully crafted furniture, and has work in private homes and public collections, including the Hillel University of WisconsinMadison Jewish student center; Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, NY; Temple Beth El in Madison; and Epic in Verona. His socially and politically driven jewelry is in several prestigious private collections and exhibits, including DHR Investment in San Francisco, CA, and the Bellevue Art Museum in Bellevue, WA. His work can also be found in numerous publications, including Fine Woodworking Design Book7 (1996), and 500 Enameled Objects (2009). Though Tim is soft spoken about these achievements, they are notable and well deserved.

I had the influence of these people. I was learning new techniques and materials, furiously drawing my ideas, and it all converged. Soon I began to develop and sell work. At that same time, Theresa, myself, and a group of local artist friends helped found the artist collective Artbite. Artbite put together art shows in vacant spaces throughout the Madison area from 1994 to 2008, like what are now known as pop-up galleries. The early and mid-90s was an incredible time for me building all that stuffboth art and the relationships with my career. I worked with Richard for seven years before taking the leap to my own studio. That same year I went to the UW for art metals to study with two more influential mentors: Fred Fenster, and later in grad school, Lisa Gralnick. Both are extraordinary metalsmiths and artists that encouraged me to think more conceptually and not just rely on my polished technical skills.

In the winter of 2016, one of Tims pieces was included in the University of WisconsinMadison faculty show at the Chazen Museum. His sculpture, The Year of Life and Death , garnered much attention and was purchased by the Bank of Kaukauna. Under the tentative call of a life-size cast-bronze crow, the sculpture is a seven-foot-tall tapering octagonal obelisk surfaced with Tims own creation of hieroglyphics and symbols that are carved and burnt wood.

“It was the culmination of the carving and burning process that I have been doing for 15 years. It was always kind of a secondary treatment as a base to my furniture pieces, and I wanted to think about it more as a primary focus and not about the mere necessity of function. It was always about language to methose hieroglyphicsfloating around in my imaginary lost culture. I wanted to push that point further to explore what it means to incorporate words into language and how we lose words from a language structure.

Photograph by Bill Lemke

The complement to the tower was the crow. For me, the crow became a more overt metaphor for this idea about language influx. I find crows fascinatinghighly intelligent. Their caw is one of the most pleasurably gratifying sounds I know. Its amazing how they pass language and words along to their offspring. They can teach their young to use tools through their vocalization and to warn their offspring of enemies that will try to harm them. I found that interesting and brought those two divergent forms together, one symbolic the other gestural. They were very archetypal. I thought of the crow being a more organic form and the tower being a kind of monolith, obelisk shape that is a manmade structure. I have yet to decide if the two fight each other or work together. It developed into a strong piece, almost mythical, which I like because that was the original intent. I wanted to create a myth of this fictitious past culture and what weve lost, or what we can gain from knowing it. An enigmatic feeling.

It seemed to me there should be some connection between Tim's two chosen mediums, but Tim says no. “I thought when I was getting into metalwork that I would combine wood and metal, and people would ask me that. I thought, 'Yeah, thats a possibility.' But it became apparent they were servicing two different aspects of my life, and I dont need to bring them together. Theres always a possibility, but they represent two different ways of thinking.

“The furniture has always been about aestheticspure design and making things the best that I couldwhether its a table, cabinet, or whatever. And wood is so inherently beautiful. When the jewelry happened, I found it was more personal, more about my political ideals and how I stood in this world socially. It became a good outlet for that. I created some work that really, point blank, hit some issues for me, and was happy to have people experience them at different levels.

“I think in metalsmithing theres been more of a historya very long historyof different social movements. Jewelry wove its way through class at different levels and what it meant to those different people. I used that as a starting point. I have skills and I wanted to show them off. Im a maker first and foremost, and I enjoy very precise work. That was transferred from the woodworking skills, and I could use those skills to communicate the social activism within the work.

“One of my goals is to get back into my metal studio, having been focused on wood for quite a few years. There are some issues both socially and politically that have been somewhat dormant in me that I would like to express through metalwork. When I started creating politically motivated work in metal, the U.S. was in the grips of a war I was totally against, and it pushed me. There have been a lot of issues since then that have been irritating me. Ive managed to get some things out there to add to the larger dialogue, like the financial crisis rings, which were important to me even though it was a small body of work. With this recent election, were going into a new presidential and Republican epoch, who knows whats going to happen.”

For makers in all mediums, in all fine arts, what is happening in the worldin lifeis what influences the work they create. Sometimes its about the environment or the history of a civilization. Other times its about the mood of the country or how the artist sees society working in front of them. The artist reveals their opinion and lends their voice to conversation through the creation of their art. For Tim, its not just about creating beautiful or poignant work, its about crafting his life.

Photograph by Bill Lemke

“Youre always doing different things, but you realize its about something bigger than just us and our individual work. I realize that I probably could have been a pretty good instructor in wood or metal, and its one of the things I would have liked to do, but that opportunity has passed. There is only so much time. I do assist in the classroom now, helping students, and thats the most pleasurable thing I do in my work at the University. I get to help students develop their ideas and work on their skills. I talk with them about my career and life just to let them know its possible to pursue a career in the arts, especially as a studio artist. I appreciate the times we have invited graduate students, who are at the beginning of their careers, to exhibit in our gallery. When you are just out of school, its a great opportunity to show next to established artists, perhaps someone that you have admired. I love to encourage that.

Its hard work if you want to benefit from it. Those early years were frustrating and difficult, and it was the unknown that was scary. But its a strange thing, when you get older and look back on those hard times, you know, 5, 10 years later, and think, 'those werent too bad.' You learn from them. Its a funny trick our brain plays. Luckily, Im good at what I do and people appreciate it and want to own it. I created a repertoire, a signature body of work, and a position within my group of artist friends and colleagues. That was incredibly helpful, and I kept going because I liked it.

“Its fortunate that both Theresa and I have a keen eye, and what I think is a good understanding of the arts. Thats pretty important. We share our point of view in the larger arts community. We are focused on bettering what we have done in the past, and I think thats how the gallery has continued to grow. Even though Im not as active in the gallery, I think thats how it has continued to buildliving up to the potential we saw in the artists we represent and the kinds of exhibits we host. The relationships that we developed with artists and clientele have been the greatest thing we have gained. They have become the bedrock of the gallery, and I think people see thattheyre aware of itand it propels the gallery even in hard financial times. Thats what really keeps us going.”

As artists, it's what keeps us all going. The community supports and keeps us striving for more. To join the Artisan Gallery community and to view Tim's work, visit the gallery in Paoli or go to artisangal.com .

Kay Myers is a local artist and freelance writer.