Artist Feature: Stephen O’Donnell

Editor Shenyah Webb, Art, August 25th, 2015

"I...live my daily life as a man, but I am very deeply both genders."

stephen odonnell self portrait nailed magazine
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Stephen O’Donnell’s portraits take me to a place that feels at once fantastical and familiar. The light, textiles, furniture, architecture, and most importantly, the fashion are deftly and precisely portrayed.

His work has an almost audible quality; some of his paintings rustle like clean linen, others creak with the sound of rusty hinges and wooden floors, a lonely breeze humming through windowpanes, birdsong, a haughty harrumph.

A mid-career painter who is entirely self-taught, O’Donnell almost exclusively paints self portraiture, more specifically, portrait historié (historicized portrait), wherein “…the subject portrayed is got up in clothes of a period previous to their own.”

While his painting calls to mind the works of the great masters, it has a decidedly modern twist, playing fast and loose with gender identity. O’Donnell describes his process as an unceasing revision of his image, an endless mutation of self, reinventing himself each time he creates a new piece.

Of his gender identity, O’Donnell says, “I identify as a degree of transgender: more female than male, I may dress and live my daily life as a man, but I am very deeply both genders. . . The way I represent myself in my paintings is a way to honor and reconcile these feelings. Painting myself the way I do, as a man in women’s clothes – I never really try to make the illusion that I’m female – is a way of expressing this most important part of my identity. The closest I can get to representing a whole self.”

Though the gender duality revealed in his paintings isn’t part of his day-to-day life, he hopes to one day further explore this. “I do have the sense – hope – that as I move into my old age I’ll allow myself more – fabulousness – in my appearance, both masculine and feminine. I feel like that in my personal presentation I haven’t allowed myself to play for a long time, since my twenties, really. I think more me is coming, whatever blend of gender that looks like.”

After spending hours with his work, I really would like to have afternoon tea and play dress-up with her.

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stephen odonnellStephen O’Donnell is a mid-career fine artist. His work is widely collected, both in this country and abroad. Entirely self taught, he is best known for his self-portraiture, paintings which most often employ a great deal of gender ambiguity and a rather droll humor. His work usually exemplifies the genre known as the portrait historié, or historicized portrait, in which a recognizable subject is portrayed in period costume or mythological guise, a conceit often used by seventeenth and eighteenth century artists. He is married to writer and graphic designer Gigi Little. They live in Portland, Oregon with their dog Nicholas.

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Shenyah Webb

Shenyah Webb is a Portland-based visual artist and musician. She has been with NAILED Magazine since its inception in 2012 and has served as the Arts Editor and a Contributing Editor since its launch in 2013. A Detroit native, she attended The College for Creative Studies, where she focused on Fine Art and Industrial Design. She is currently enrolled in a Somatic Expressive Arts Education and Therapy training program, studying under Lanie Bergin. You can learn more about Shenyah here. (Shenyah.com)