By Phil Dzikiy
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal
It’s been nearly 20 years since the Kenan Center’s last retrospective of beloved longtime Lockport artist Olivia McConnell. Now, the Kenan is offering a chance to get reacquainted with the woman and her work.
“Olivia McConnell: A Retrospective” is currently showing at the Kenan Center, and the show will continue through Feb. 13. Today, the center hosts a “Tea and Shared Memories” event to learn about McConnell through those who knew her.
Olivia McConnell, or “Ollie,” as she was known by many, lived in Lockport for most of her life, from 1924 to 1976. During her time here (she was born in Michigan and died in Arizona in 1984), she made a lasting impact on the art community through both her paintings and her teaching lessons. This, despite suffering from debilitating arthritis for most of her life.
McConnell contracted a severe form of arthritis while in her mid-20’s, exhibit co-chair Bruce Ader said. But it never stopped her from pursuing her life’s passion.
“She was such a positive role model,” he said. “People are just passionate about (her).”
More people than expected came forward with to loan McConnell paintings to the exhibit, Ader said. The retrospective contains 85 pieces of her work, ranging from her early days working with oils, to her later work with watercolors. McConnell is mostly known for her landscape and canal scenes, but she did some portraits as well.
A few of McConnell’s paintings are on sale during the exhibit (six to eight at the time of this writing), which surprised Ader.
“People don’t want to let go of her work,” he said.
But perhaps the strongest memories of McConnell’s artistic legacy in Lockport were her painting lessons, which she taught for many years.
“It was great that people could take lessons with such a talented artist,” Ader said. “Her role was that she gave something to these people that they normally wouldn’t have had.”
One of those people was Christa Caldwell, who took painting lessons from McConnell in the mid-1940s.
“She was someone I knew all my life,” Caldwell said. “Her mother and my grandmother were friends, they knew each other. I grew up knowing her.”
When Caldwell was 9, she started taking lessons with McConnell, and although Caldwell admits she wasn’t very good — “I was one of Ollie’s failures ... I really didn’t have any talent” — she enjoyed the lessons.
“The thing I do remember about her is the lasting gift that she gave me,” Caldwell said. “She taught me to look at things differently.”
Caldwell remembers the time she was painting a tree with a brown trunk and figured it was complete. But McConnell saw more.
“She came back and she picked up a purple and orange and black and started putting them into the trunk of the tree,” Caldwell said. “It was just a whole new idea to me. She was a master of color.
“Whether or not we realized it, the fact that she did what she did under very difficult physical circumstances, meant a lot to all of us,” Caldwell said.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Olivia McConnell: A Retrospective
WHEN: Through Feb. 13
WHERE: Kenan Center, 433 Locust St., Lockport
MORE INFO: Call 433-2617 or visit kenancenter.org