Artist crafts historical murals in Tuomey Hall

Katherine Martin

Beyond the glass walls of Tuomey Hall, renowned artist Caleb O’Connor coats an enormous 14 by 9 feet linen canvas with thick, white gesso. Rested against the walls of the studio are more massive paintings in final stages of completion.

O’Connor has been commissioned by the United States General Service Administration to paint 16 wall-sized murals for the federal building in downtown Tuscaloosa.

Members of GSA and U.S. District Judge Scott Coogler selected O’Connor from hundreds of artists and chose him for his strengths in realistic paintings and great attention to detail.

O’Connor said Coogler was looking for someone to paint realistic images instead of abstractions.

Each of the 16 paintings will depict scenes from significant moments in the city’s history and culture. The first piece in the series will be of the Native Americans that settled in Moundville, O’Connor said.

Others in the timeline will include scenes from the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War II and images of settlers and pioneers of the city. Some of the paintings will illustrate slavery, industry and the building of locks and dams along the Black Warrior River.

“I want to react to the community, whatever I feel like is capturing the essence of that time,” O’Connor said.

Other than historical figures represented in the paintings, O’Connor uses models from around the city to involve the community.

In one painting in the studio, local children and families run around Capitol Park, where the old capitol building once stood on its grounds.

Another piece propped against the wall shows University President Robert Witt walking on the quad, talking with a student, with Denny Chimes rising high in the background.

In the left hand corner of the painting, Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant walks along in his signature houndstooth hat and crimson blazer.

Standing inches from the paintings you see painstaking attention to detail, like the tiny braids in a child’s hair and ripples in a Union flag in the painting of the burning of the rotunda on the University campus.

Born and raised in Hawaii, O’Connor moved to Baltimore to attend the Maryland Institute College of Art where he studied under renowned painting professors Israel Hershberg, Mark Karnes, Barry Nemett and Raul Middleman.

After graduating, O’Connor was awarded a Fulbright grant to study for nine months in Seravezza, Italy, located near Pietrasanta, a city known for its marble and bronze sculpture.

In Italy O’Connor studied how to carve marble, something he said he prefers to painting. O’Connor said when he returned home to the states, he wanted to build marble fountains and place them around the country, something he still wants to do today, but he soon realized it wasn’t a very realistic goal.

While living in Chicago in 2009, O’Connor received an e-mail in his spam folder from a GSA representative asking him to do this project.

“My desire is to share whenever I have the possibility,” O’Connor said. “That’s what motivated me to take this project.”

O’Connor and his family moved to Tuscaloosa in July of 2009 so that he could be close to the subject and plan to stay at least until the project is completed.

“I spend a lot of time in the studio, with my family, just ruminating,” he said. “But this project has brought me much closer to the public than I’m used to.”

O’Connor says he gets several visitors to his campus studio almost every day and encourages others to stop by and check out what’s going on.

Hallie Paul, a junior in New College, has visited O’Connor’s studio and said having him on campus is cool because it allows him to interact with the students.

“He seems to really want to immerse himself in the community and wants to learn from the students, but at the same time, have them interact with the art,” Paul said.

The deadline for the project is September of this year. Six of the 16 paintings are completed. When they are completed eight paintings will hang along the walls on each side of a grand hallway.