TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Caleb O’Connor, the artist commissioned to paint 16 murals for Tuscaloosa’s new federal courthouse, will move into his new studio Monday on The University of Alabama campus.
O’Connor, who moved to Alabama this month from Chicago, will spend the next two years as an artist in residence in UA’s College of Arts and Sciences. He will paint all 16 of the massive murals chronicling West Alabama’s history – about 14 feet tall by 9 feet wide in size – inside his newly renovated studio in Tuomey Hall located on UA’s main Quadrangle.
“I like being around creative people, and I think there’s no better place than universities for that,” O’Connor said. “Just the overall excitement of youth is something that feeds my creativity, and having the studio on the campus of a university is essential to that idea.”
The University community and the public will have a chance to see O’Connor’s progress on the murals first hand thanks to glass walls that enclose the interior entrance of his studio.
Dr. Robert Olin, dean of the College, said the new federal courthouse will be a landmark in Tuscaloosa for the next 100 years or more, and the College is excited to be a part of that history.
“The College is proud to be a part of this historic construction, and we’re delighted that these murals are being created where our students can learn from and appreciate them,” he said.
O’Connor said he is eager to have students across various disciplines work directly on the project with him. For example, costume design students could help make historically accurate costumes for his models to wear, or history students could help in researching the subjects of the paintings.
“I want maximum involvement,” O’Connor said. “If anyone wants to talk to me about anything, I’m open.”
Sky Shineman, an assistant painting professor in UA’s department of art and art history, said students will benefit tremendously from having a working artist of O’Connor’s caliber on campus.
“I’m really excited about matching up his needs and the talents of our students and to create successful collaborations,” she said. “He’s a funded working artist who is getting significant commissions, and I think everyone will benefit from seeing the process of his work.”
O’Connor is a native of Hawaii and a graduate of Maryland Institute College of Art. His work has been exhibited nationally and internationally. While on a Fulbright grant in Italy, he studied marble carving and bronze casting. Some of his major oil paintings are displayed in Chicago at the Ann Nathan Gallery.
All major federal building projects are required – under a program called Art in Architecture – to devote one-half of 1 percent of construction costs to commissioning original art.
U.S. District Judge Scott Coogler, a member of the group responsible for selecting an artist for the project, said the group visited O’Connor in Chicago and was struck by the realistic quality of his artwork.
“We were very impressed, particularly with his ability to paint faces and expressions,” he said. “Some of his paintings are just absolutely incredible with the way they communicate emotion.”
While O’Connor said he has experience painting large murals, he has never taken on a project as cohesive in theme and with as many paintings commissioned at one time as the courthouse murals.
Before moving to Tuscaloosa, he visited the area multiple times to research ideas for the paintings. He has made a series of preliminary sketches that depict the region’s history chronologically. The area’s American Indian history, the burning of the UA campus during the Civil War, the civil rights movement and local industry are among the subjects that will be represented in the paintings.
The murals will line a 120-foot long hallway on the second floor of the federal courthouse and will be unveiled when the courthouse is completed. For now, O’Connor said he is looking forward to making himself at home inside his studio.
Tuomey Hall, which serves as an academic house for the Blount Undergraduate Initiative, was selected as the spot for O’Connor’s studio because it was one of the few buildings on campus available with high enough ceilings to accommodate the large murals.
The studio occupies half of Tuomey Hall’s Danford-Yarbrough Library, which has been adapted for use as an art studio with some of the library’s ornate finishings now under plywood covering.
“This is a great space,” O’Connor said. “I’m anxious to paint.”
UA’s College of Arts and Sciences is the University’s largest division and the largest liberal arts college in the state. Students from the College have won numerous national awards including Rhodes Scholarships, Goldwater Scholarships and memberships on the USA Today Academic All American Team.
The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.