A conversation with artist Terri O’Connor

When Terri O’Connor was growing up on the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Band reservation, her father would spend hours visiting with people in the community.

“My dad always would go and sit with the elders, I remember there was always coffee and soup and bread, and they would just sit for hours and talk,” she recalls. “I didn’t grasp it at the time, but now as I’m older I understand how important it was when he would go and visit. It was such an important part of his life, and I feel honored to have been there.”

One of the many things O’Connor learned on these visits, which has informed her life as an artist ever since, is to truly see people; to look deep into their faces and strive to find the stories they tell.

“Expressions are so important, and it comes across whether you think it does or not,” she explains. “You can feel it, from children to adults.”

As an indigenous artist, O’Connor has always gazed into the faces of the past as well as the present, piecing together stories of hardship and hope, of obstacles and perseverance. Stories that stretch deep into the maw of history and continue today.

“I like to look at past portraits of Geronimo, of Chief Joseph, to see the intensity that was captured in that moment,” she says. “And when I’m out and about, I always look at the shadows and shapes on people’s faces.”

“I think [Chief Joseph] was a great man,” she says. “He faced horrible hardships, but he had a philosophy and he stayed true to it, and I want to capture that in my art.”

She says you can see it in his face.

“I always try to capture that and show that,” she continues. “The things inside all of us.”

O’Connor began drawing shortly after she was able to grasp her first pencil. In the ensuing years, her style has evolved to incorporate an eclectic mix of techniques, from pencil to paint and beyond.

She says her father “dabbled” in art, and she remembers when he gifted her some oil paints as a child.

“I always liked drawing, and I liked sketching,” she says. “My dad did work with the tribe, and I remember getting to do some cards for the museum there, but I didn’t start doing my own shows until later.”

O’Connor eventually moved away from the reservation, located in the northern part of Wisconsin, to Madison, and then to Poynette, where she lives today. But wherever she has gone, she has looked closely at the people around her.

“I always loved pencils,” she says. “I loved doing portraits of people, both on the reservation and off. Then I got more into painting, too.” Some of her work incorporates the colors and contours of native regalia. Other pieces showcase the lines and shades of faces frozen and rescued from the relentless onslaught of time in the stillness of the picture she creates.

“I kind of like the feel of old portraits,” she muses. “It draws you back into the hardship people faced, but also into the strength they had.”

For O’Connor, still images have always magnified fleeting moments in time, preserving generations of expression, instructing and edifying those who come after. She says images of her great, great grandmother, and of her grandfather, who served in World War I, conjure up ideas and emotions through time.

“Think of the changes they went through,” she says.

She hopes her artwork does the same for other people. As she made her way through her own life, O’Connor never truly wavered from her love of this magic trick that art can do, defying time and even death and all of life’s seemingly immutable forces.

“I did always want to be an artist,” she says. “I tried some other things but couldn’t quite find my rhythm.” For O’Connor, art has always had held a special allure, regardless of medium.

“I’ve had people tell me they see a style in my work, which is always surprising because I feel like I dabble in so many things,” she says.

She enjoys hearing feedback about her work.

“I love having conversations at art shows,” she says. “I want people to feel, and I want to hear about what my pieces make them feel. That’s the way we learn. We learn by asking questions.”

She hopes people will come to the 5th Annual Native Art Marketplace, an invitational Native art showcase, June 3 and 4, to learn more.  “I’ve worked with all these great artists and they are all willing to teach,” she says. “We’re open for questions and we want people to feel welcome.” She hopes, in one way or another, all people are lucky enough to look at the people around them, to really see them, just as her father did, and just as she does today. “Hopefully people will think maybe they need to go there,” she says. “Maybe they will think, ‘I need to take a peek.’ Let’s take a look at this, together.”

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