If you could make a working model of Sean O’Meallie’s brain, it wouldn’t look like your standard cauliflower.
There would be levers and pulleys, ramps and flippers. A marble, say, spins whirligigs and hoists flags. Springs twang. A work whistle blares intermittently. Fireworks explode but they sound like a choir of whoopie cushions. And every element would be shiny and new and the color of a My Little Pony.
“My brain is kind of full,” says O’Meallie, whose new one-man show, “Sean O’Meallie: New Work,” runs through Jan. 23 at the Business of Art Center in Manitou Springs. “It’s a happy place, but there are lots of things in there. Sometimes the doors don’t close right.
“I just like to get in there and play.”
The resulting work is certainly playful.
In the BAC show, there’s an eager dog composed of sausage shapes, a smiling blue balloon and a perfect slice of store-bought bread.
The candy colors, the apparently manufactured finishes and preschool shapes of his wood sculptures read “toy,” but like childhood itself, it’s usually more complicated than that. Underneath the happy faces and almost edible surfaces, this former toymaker taps into the icons and ideas that are hard-wired in American psyches. Through his happy deceptions and intriguing contradictions — between thinking and feeling, appearance and reality, the hidden and the found — he sets those preconceptions on their heads.
A case in point: The dog has a tiny Oscar Mayer penis; the bread sprouts long, coarse hair; and the balloon is square.
“One of the things about working in an imaginative space is anything might happen,” says O’Meallie, who sells most of his work through galleries in New Orleans, Nashville, Salida and Cambridge, Mass. “It allows you to depart from what your mind, and everyone’s mind, expect.”
Then he laughs like an uncomfortable clown.
‘A lot of toys’
O’Meallie leads the way through the basement of the downtown house he’s shared with Mary, his wife, since 1976, and their three children, all grown. O’Meallie takes a left at the box of Play-Doh (the hot dog pictured there looks like an O’Meallie) and walks into his old toymaking studio.
It’s hard to know where to look.
A white kangaroo he made for Mary stares, empty-eyed, from one end of the small room. Tiny sculptures populate one short shelf. There are boxes and boxes of who knows what. One stack sandwiches a mint-condition box labeled “TCK Sport Car Challenge.” A textbook that features one of his pieces sits on a desk.
Shuffling sideways is required to get through.
“Yes,” he says sheepishly, “I have a lot of toys.”
O’Meallie grew up in New Orleans; his father was a mechanic and his mother was the founder of a private school. He started sculpting with clay at 3 years old. He majored in art (with a brief foray into psychology) at the University of New Orleans, where he met Mary, who was also studying art. O’Meallie never bothered to graduate, though. He didn’t see the need for a degree.
In 1977, they moved to the Springs. O’Meallie had worked summers at The Broadmoor since 1973.
“I wouldn’t cut my hair, so they made me wear a wig,” he says, pushing his graying pageboy behind his ear. “It didn’t fit, so all day it would …” His hands indicate a slow slide up. “I didn’t care.”
The hotel fired him four times.
O’Meallie learned woodworking at a small company here that made contemporary oak furniture. He learned his craft there.
Eventually he began making toys, and by 1988, he and his New York backer were pitching toys to big companies in hopes of hitting the jackpot with their own Tickle Me Elmo or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
But finding that perfect blend of dream fulfillment and functionality is harder than you’d think.
First, you nail down the essentials, such as the age and gender of the target owner and whether it is going to be a collectible or an active toy, a construction or a “watch-me toy.”
Next: the idea that drives the action.
“Maybe secrets, because secrets are so powerful,” he says. “So we’ll want to do something with concealment and a reveal or a piece that has no readily apparent purpose.”
Among the toys he sold in those years were a working man’s Transformer called the Doublekins (a police station turns into a fire station, a farmer becomes a construction worker) and Build’n Buddies (characters that store tools in their heads).
In 1998, he quit to become a full-time artist.
“I’ve always been on a path to make art,” says O’Meallie, who, by the time he quit, hadn’t made any art in 17 years. “It’s a constant, but life (sometimes) shunts things aside for a while.”
A little sleight of hand
O’Meallie settles into an old lawn chair in his studio. He’s wearing corduroy today: a deep red shirt and an orange apron speckled with paint, and pale khakis over gray Converse low-tops. His emblematic billy goat beard spreads out from his chin like a salt-and-pepper fan.
Around him are tools that most men use only in dreams. A drill press. A belt sander. A rotary carving tool. A band saw and a table saw. A jointer. A small pile of wood planks waits next to the door. The rest are under tarps in the backyard.
He is a contented man.
“They’ll all be black,” he says.
He’s talking about the 11 guns and rifles he’s planning for his next piece. The template for the unnamed work is spread out on the table. Along one edge he’s inexplicably written “Blunderbuss Ballyhoo Wallpaper Hubris.” The guns, he says, will be mounted together, floating off the wall like a cartoon thunderhead of man-made doom.
“A little ominous really,” he says of it. “Creepy.”
Ask him to explain this or any of his work to you and he’ll usually shrug. Prod him some, though, and he’ll unfold a meandering deconstruction, including what ideas are at play, the genesis of construction and how it connects to pop culture, to social, aesthetic, anthropological and political issues.
It’ll make sense. Mostly.
When it’s done, O’Meallie will off-handedly negate the entire discussion: “… although I’m not sure that anyone will take that meaning from it.”
Which could be partly why O’Meallie’s work resists easy categorization in the marketplace. His sculptures are, on their face, happy-pretty, and beauty isn’t exactly embraced by the contemporary art scene. Throw in the tabletop size of nearly all of his work (he’s produced one 20-foot bronze), and his oeuvre doesn’t exactly fit comfortably in the pages of Art in America.
“For art to be taken seriously,” he says, “it has to look serious.”
And for better or worse, serious art has a serious price tag. At this point, O’Meallie’s not as serious as he’d like.
But he has projects that help him remain a full-time artist, including a kinetic coin bank for the Spanish Peaks Library District in Walsenburg. In January, he’ll start pitching an outdoor work he calls “The Chair Project.” If he can find the support, extra seating will pop up all over Manitou Springs.
“The chairs would come from Manitou homes, schools and businesses for the event and then be returned,” he says. “The installation, documentation and deinstallation will be completed before the start of the normal business day.
“This is like a mini Christo (and) Jeanne Claude, but there is no visitation by the public — only a photo record.”
A little more sleight of hand from a master magician.
O’Meallie picks up a smile from a pile of them near the belt sander. Right now he’s into smiles, which, he says, look like sausages.
“I like concrete things as much as ethereal things,” O’Meallie says. “The objects have this persistence. They’re stubborn, but they can be haunting, really.”