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Walmart artist fosters art event for 300,000 children

Atlanta native Brendan O’Connell has made a name for himself in an unlikely arena: painting impressionistic scenes from Walmart stores, capturing the everyday-ness of the American consumer.

It wasn’t necessarily the easiest subject matter: When he attempted to shoot reference photographs inside the stores for his early Walmart paintings, the management showed him the door. They’ve since embraced his quest, and Walmart is a happy collector of O’Connell’s works.

Like Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup paintings, the Walmart pictures expanded the subject matter of serious art. Now, in a similarly democratic vein, O’Connell wants to expand our access to the creative drive.

Through — and with the help of Walmart and other investors (including actor Alec Baldwin) — O’Connell, 45, is staging an event Thursday that will have 300,000 schoolchildren creating artworks on the same day and on the same theme: gratitude.

“Our goal is to build this massive nation-tribe of kids, parents and teachers who will spark, celebrate and foster creativity,” O’Connell said recently in a phone call from his home in Connecticut. “It’s kind of like Earth Day.”

Last year O’Connell tried the same experiment on a smaller scale, corralling 8,500 Bentonville, Ark., students on a single day to paint their interpretation of Walmart’s key values (respect, service, excellence). They filled up an indoor football stadium at a local high school with their paintings.

This year the experiment has expanded to include Georgia, Texas and New York. Atlanta art teacher Jennifer Cawley, one of the leaders in metro Atlanta, is excited about the prospect of a mass paint-athon.

“It will be one of the biggest one-day art projects in the world,” said Cawley, who teaches art at Our Lady of Mercy in Fayetteville. “It just instigates creativity.”

Cawley’s high school-age students will fan out to elementary schools that are part of the Catholic school network, and help guide the younger students through the project.

Joining the larger effort makes it more attractive for the students, she said.

“I think it will help boost their creativity and their confidence level because they will know that everybody is doing it,” Cawley said of the younger students.

Cawley, who is also a painter and a graduate student at SCAD Atlanta, joined the effort by accident. She went to the same high school as O’Connell, and was surprised to see him being interviewed on television one recent Sunday morning. She called to offer congratulations on his success and he immediately drafted her.

Last year’s paintings were assembled into a mammoth collage, printed onto a 200-foot sheet of vinyl and displayed outdoors in downtown Bentonville. This year the members of are still trying to figure out how to show off an exponentially larger array.

O’Connell said he’s busy looking for “significant places” where a collage of the paintings could be projected at night. “We’re trying to get (New York City Mayor-elect Bill) de Blasio to let us project it onto Freedom Tower,” he said. Other possibilities: the Mall in Washington or perhaps the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas.

Alan Dranow, senior director of the Walmart Heritage Group, has helped acquire some of O’Connell’s paintings for Walmart’s museum, and he also has bought one for his own living room.

Walmart is happy to support the project because of the possible benefits, he said. “We’ve seen such important things come out of children interacting with art or creating art … greater critical thinking, greater creativity by students.”

O’Connell spoke about the rationale behind during a TEDx Atlanta talk in May. Americans in their 30s now spend their time, energy and money on things that didn’t exist when they were 20, he said.

“I have an 11-year-old and an 8-year-old,” he said more recently. “What world will they inherit 20 years from now? That world hasn’t been invented yet. Who will write the code of their experience? They will create their own code.”

The critical tool for that task, O’Connell said, is creativity.

“Survival of the species is dependent on the creative development of each generation. As a parent, I have to do everything in my power to make my kids incredibly creative and give them the tools to collaborate.”

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