Many believe, and rightfully so, that you cannot fully understand a culture until you understand the language. The phenomenon of a Greenpoint resident wishing they could speak Polish to enrich their communal experience, for example, is not unique. Similarly to language holding a microscope to the culture it embeds, a city’s layout and architecture does so to its intended community. Perhaps this is why the artwork of city planner John O’Neill seems to transcend what he draws on paper, leaving the palpable residue of an artist that truly understands his subject.
John recalls drawing buildings and houses as soon as he could hold a pen. Even as a child he’d had a bit of an obsession with cities, specifically. Now, he continues drawing these subjects for both work and play, as a city planner and a budding artist in Greenpoint. Although, like most artists in their early stages, he is still in the habit of identifying with his day job, and only timidly labels himself an artist.
“For a long time I was focusing on cityscape projects, a lot of times I’d make up the cities, but sometimes they’d be alterations of actual cities. I did one project called ‘Milwaukee Reinvisioned’ where I re-drew all the old, demolished buildings back over the parking lots that now replace them. It was meant to show what we lost and what we could have had. People really liked the vision, but more than that, they seem to like drawings of specific buildings or homes that are sentimental to them, so I started commissioning those drawings when COVID began.”
I myself had a piece commissioned of a friend’s favorite building, for their birthday, and (*this isn’t an advertisement*) they said it was the best gift they’ve ever gotten.
The Milwaukee native currently works as a community oriented planner, tailoring road projects, street configurations, and bike lanes to the needs of communities around the city. When asked about the impact of his day job on his art, John’s answer shed light on his drawings — which are almost suspiciously meticulous for anything done by human hand: “City planning helps you understand the parameters of what you’re able to do, like why some things are possible in building and planning, and why others are not. You think about the way that water flows down the street, or if someone with a disability can access a building, if there’s a lip between the concrete and asphalt — there are so many layers to these particular things. A lot of the cities and buildings I’ve drawn have become significantly more accurate and more to scale because of this lens.”
As far as what has anchored a lover-of-all-cities to Greenpoint specifically, the artist didn’t fall short of reasons. “I like Greenpoint because it really does remind me of Milwaukee. There’s this solid but uniform housing stock paired with spectacular churches, community buildings and public spaces.. There’s also such a long tradition for Eastern European immigrants which is very familiar.. I am not particularly religious, but I grew up Catholic and sometimes go to mass at St. Stanislaus to sit, reflect and appreciate the building. That architecture is one of the reasons I love living here, paired with the bakeries and Polish food, and the fact that the neighborhood has a ton of parks and green access but also industrial aspects. There is a strong sense of community. Another great thing about Greenpoint is that there’s a fairly spontaneous art community here, such that someone like myself whose art has always been fairly private, can find a workspace [mine was on 67 West St.] and other art folks willing to give recommendations for things like art stores for example”.
After we lamented the loss of old favorite art stores in Manhattan such as Lee’s and Pearl, John recommended Artist and Craftsmen Supply on Grand St. “It’s the best art store I’ve ever been to, they have top of the line pens, great paper, custom framing, and all sorts of materials. It’s an amazing place and the best part is that the people who work there really know art and can recommend products to you and answer questions in a way that attests to their art knowledge. It’s very personalized service.”
John’s current focus are home and building commissions, which started as a gift to the man who married him and his wife in McGolrick Park during Covid. “I’ll draw just about any building in any city anyone asks for, and on average charge $150 for an 9 x 12 piece.” You can follow John’s work or inquire about commissions at his website or on Instagram.