Sunday, January 12, 2003

Talkin' up the power of art

Evanston man brushes aside pain as he teaches, creates and works to help others

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Not that he lies or anything, but most people just roll their eyes when Robert O'Neal promises: "I'm doing too much. I'm going to slow down really soon."

Yeah, right.

Heaven knows, no one would blame the 62-year-old Evanston artist, teacher and community activist if he gave himself a break, what with the toll that 12-hour days can take on an increasingly frail body.

"I suffer from rheumatoid ankylosis, a condition that bends you in half and cripples you if you don't take the medicine and keep moving,'' he explains. "I wake up stiff and sore in the morning, force myself out of bed, take my medicine and get moving. Once I do that, I'm OK and I can do anything anyone else does."

And then some.

Like teach art at churches, senior and youth centers - almost always free to students, though he is sometimes paid by the organization - attend a bizillion meetings, sit on several boards and still find time to make his own art, a field he studied at the University of Cincinnati and the Art Academy of Cincinnati.

Even a partial list of involvements past and present can be daunting: Arts Consortium, House of Joy (his brother Todd's church), Model Cities, Urban League, Imagemakers, Art on City Walls, Over-the-Rhine Association, Culture Fest. "Lord, no, I can't possibly remember them all," he says.

He spends a lot of time singing the praises of Cincinnati's African-American art community. Sitting in the Arts Consortium's African American Museum on the lower level of the Museum Center at Union Terminal, he points his cane at the wall and asks, "Can you believe the amount of talent in this room? It's staggering. It bothers me that people think this show is only a `black experience.' It's not. It's a human experience."

Sea of talent

"This show" is the Arts Consortium's 30th Anniversary Reunion of Artists Exhibition, a show of work from 21 professional artists - paintings, photographs, ceramics, fabric, sculpture - who passed through the Arts Consortium's programs, highly successful artists including Gilbert Young, Johana, Jimi Jones, Mel Grier and Robert Harris.

"I'm not sure people understand the amount of talent that has gone through the Arts Consortium. There are 21 professional artists in the show, but it could as easily have been 40.

"And this will tell you how they feel about the consortium: My daughter Toy (Toilynn) curated the show. Not a single artist she talked to turned her down. It was like, `For the Arts Consortium? Count me in.' And then so many of them traveled here from around the country at their own expense to be here opening night."

If he sounds proud, there's a reason: He co-chaired the committee that invented the Arts Consortium. That was 34 years ago and President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty was bringing hope to inner cities across the country. Mr. O'Neal was working for one of the programs it spawned, the now-defunct Model Cities. "I chaired a committee of 60, made up of 20 representatives from Over-the-Rhine, 20 from Mount Auburn and 20 from the West End. Our mission was to focus on eight areas - housing, youth, culture, those kinds of things.

"The proposal for the Arts Consortium came out of the cultural committee. It was funded and started operations 30 years ago. Now look at it."

It's dedication to that sort of work - building a community through art - that leads Mr. O'Neal to list his occupation as "community artist."

"Really, I don't know what else to call myself. I work with the arts, and I work in the community. And art is, after all, the feelings and emotions of the community.

"I love teaching children, and I love teaching senior citizens. That way, you get the old helping the young."

The faces he's seen

Mr. O'Neal talks a lot about children and family. He and wife Julia have four of their own children and raised three others - "they all still call me Dad" - and a small army of kids who have studied with him.

There's another small army studying with him right now: Disabled artists in a program founded by Robert Harris, an art teacher, program specialist with the National Conference for Community and Justice and also a community activist.

"These artists, they're very special people," Mr. O'Neal says. "I have a blind lady who does ceramics, but you look at her art and you'd never know it. I have another blind lady who makes jewelry and it's as good as anything you've ever seen. I'm going to stay with this a long time.

And that promise to slow down?

"I am. Seriously, I'm winding down. I hope to take time and do more painting of my own because I need more art in my life. I've been so involved in the community that I haven't had much time to myself. I want to do more portraits, more abstracts, more photography and get back to making more ceramics masks, something I started doing 30 years ago.

"But it's probably going to be a year or two before I can manage it. In the meantime, I'll keep working on people's faces."

Come again?

"I'm also a master face painter. I do whatever someone wants. Ninja Turtles, sunbursts, if you want a Mona Lisa on your forehead, I'll do that, too. Real art. Adults like it, children love it."

There he goes with children again. "They're our best hope."

Which is why he teaches? "Somewhat, but more because art is miraculous. I've seen lost teenagers grow into successful adults. I've seen alcoholics put down the bottle for a brush. I've seen lives change. Art is powerful."


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