Born and raised in Santa Monica, California, Paul O’Connor has lived in Taos with his wife Tizia since 1989.
Known for his portraits of Taos artists – his award-winning book, Taos Portraits garnered him accolades and acclaim, his sculptures made from metal and wood, are gaining traction in the Art World, exposing him and his work to a far broader audience, but his journey from behind the lens to his recently completed studio, where he makes these intriguing flat, yet optically dimensional forms, is a story unto itself.
Paul first started taking photographs after enlisting in the U.S. Navy. While stationed in Japan, O’Connor bought his first camera, an Olympus OM-1 35mm. Endless rolls of clouds and sea scapes followed as Paul found himself drawn to the horizon line, his lens focused on the vast expanse of the big sky and cloud formations; the infinite space that would forever inspire his art in all of its outward manifestations.
1982 Paul received an honorable discharge from the NAVY and returned to California. He began working for a building contractor remodeling homes on the famous Malibu Colony Beach, where he’d paddle out and surf during his lunch breaks. At the same time, he was attending Santa Monica College taking evening classes, working on an Associate of Arts degree.
Paul then received a timely scholarship to attend Pepperdine University to continue his studies full-time. During his last term before graduation, Paul needed to take one more Elective Course and decided on Beginning Photography.
One of the first assignments in that course was to do a portrait of someone in their environment. Paul turned his lens on Ron Davis, the renowned artist, then living in a home architect Frank Gehry had designed for him, in the hills of Malibu. This was to become the first of many portraits of artists in their environs that Paul would take in the years to come.
Upon graduation with a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics in 1987, Paul went on to Pasadena Art Center to study Photography. On an assignment photographing a model in Santa Barbara, Paul met Tizia who was there on the set. His one day shoot turned into a two-week stay. They were married within months.
Having recently met artist Jim Wagner in Malibu, where he was showing his work, Paul was invited to visit him in Taos, where he lived. The couple decided to take the drive to New Mexico and look up Jim. The impact of the landscape and community on them was immediate. So much so, that they found themselves renting a place on La Loma Plaza on the third day of their visit, and never left.
One of the first people they met here was the architect, builder and visionary Mike Reynolds. Paul struck a deal to do the photography for Mike’s first book, Earthship I, in trade for a set of plans and began building the couple’s house on Hondo Mesa.
The Following year Ron Davis bought land down the road from them and began building a number of Navajo Hogan style buildings that became his new home and studio. Ron made a shift from large abstract expressionist paintings to sculpture, and hired Paul as his full time studio assistant while making a new body of work. The time spent working for Ron was an early inspiration for Paul’s own creative process, which has been informed by so much more to date; exposure to several other great artists, nature – sea and sky – space, time and his own meditation practice have all culminated in the work he is currently engaged in making.
In 1990, the O’Connor’s welcomed their daughter Sophia into their lives and shortly thereafter, Paul began taking the photographs that would become the seed for Taos Portraits, edited by Bill Whaley.
O’Connor’s first show was in 1991 at the Philip Bareiss Gallery. The show’s title was Taos Characters, 25 portraits of Taos artist in black and white silver gelatin prints.
Between 1996 and 2004 the O’Connors moved to France, where Tizia is from, to educate their daughter in the French school system. They purchased a 1927 Dutch barge in Holland and navigated it down to Toulouse, France. This became their home for the next eight years. While remodeling the boat from stem to stern, Paul would make wall hanging sculptures with the scrap metal and wood.
Returning to Taos in 2004, Paul continued shooting portraits of artists, had several exhibitions and finally in 2012, produced his book of 60 select images, titled Taos Portraits. The book won top awards in four categories from the New Mexico/ Arizona book awards. Although he continues making portraits, Paul felt a chapter had closed with photography being the sole expression of his creative energy and allowed himself to turn to making sculpture full-time.
He built a new studio to enable himself to work on the pieces freely without interruption, and his first exhibition of his sculpture took place in 2016, again at the Philip Bareiss Gallery.
In the process of making these squares and hexagons, Paul “discovered” another critically important element, the addition of a black hole that became an integral part of these pieces. Symbolic of a fundamental element of Paul’s spiritual practice, the hole represents stillness, silence and spaciousness.
The response to that show was overwhelming. The pieces all sold and Paul returned to his studio, energized and inspired. A year later, his hard work has more than paid off. After an introduction made by a mutual friend, Paul found himself not only with world-class representation, but his work included in prestigious Art Fairs (this past week at the Armory Show in NYC.), traveling to Miami’s Art Basel next in December, and points beyond, thanks to his Art Dealer Vivian Horan Fine Art in NYC.
Meanwhile, Paul continues to make portraits of artists living and working here in Taos.
“Once I have a few more ready, I’ll have another show,” he says. “At the Bareiss Gallery, of course.”
For now, however, his eye is focused on that infinite horizon that has inspired his creative journey all along, and continues to inform the work he makes, whether in the darkroom or the studio.
For more information about Paul O’Connor and his work, please visit his sites linked below this post.
All photos thanks to Paul O’Connor, including the NYC selfie, the selfie taken for the recent Harwood Museum Selfie show.
O’Connor’s piece included in the current Armory Show in NYC, also thanks to Paul O’Connor.