Art makes the sparks fly at Garry Oak Gallery

Sparks fly as Joel Griffith welds a metal leaf onto a wooden table he’s custom building for a couple from Canada. View his wooden bowls, furniture and steel sculpture at Garry Oak Gallery, where he and Mike O’Connell are the featured artists for November. - Rebecca Olson / Whidbey News-Times
Sparks fly as Joel Griffith welds a metal leaf onto a wooden table he’s custom building for a couple from Canada. View his wooden bowls, furniture and steel sculpture at Garry Oak Gallery, where he and Mike O’Connell are the featured artists for November.
— image credit: Rebecca Olson / Whidbey News-Times

Their media of choice may be at opposite ends of the spectrum, but both Mike O’Connell and Joel Griffith will ignite viewers’ imagination as the featured artists for November at Garry Oak Gallery in Oak Harbor.

O’Connell’s paintings are as ordinary as watching a zombie dog walk down the street — though his latest artwork does feature zombie dogs. From Mount St. Helens exploding to the names of punk bands and quotes from movies to a jet approaching the Twin Towers, O’Connell’s art boldly walks the edge.

“It’s just lots of little pieces, bits and pieces,” O’Connell said. Like many of his paintings, it appears to be a big circle. But upon closer inspection, the painting consists of about 30,000 characters with pathways and spaces created by “H’s” and quotes from movies like “Repo Man,” TV shows like “Dead Like Me” and “South Park,” the Hindenburg catching fire, the major disappearances from the Bermuda Triangle, clocks and even the names of people who passed O’Connell painting on the street.

“Any time I see a license plate on a movie, I’ll write the number down and put it in a painting,” O’Connell said. “It’s like a giant, insane jigsaw puzzle.”

While this piece won’t be finished until the end of the year, similar pieces can be viewed at Garry Oak Gallery, where this piece will spend some time before it sells.

“I just love working on them. It’s something to do everyday,” O’Connell said.

Similar to these pieces are O’Connell’s visual stories of the character Helen.

“She’s been to Mars, she’s been to the moon,” O’Connell said, adding that Helen’s ghost story is currently on display at Garry Oak Gallery.

“I just paint them as I go. The stories are actually painted,” O’Connell said. “They’re all pretty unique; I’ve never seen anything like them.”

Also a published poet, O’Connell said that these visual stories “keep the two muses happy.”

When people view his imaginative art, O’Connell said he wants viewers to “just be entertained and look for things you wouldn’t notice.”

O’Connell has been painting for about 16 years. He started in oils but after a five-year bout of depression that kept him from painting, he came back to painting only to find his paints gone.

“Then I started in acrylics and never looked back,” O’Connell said. He has lived on the island off and on since 1953.

Locally grown

A Coupeville native, Griffith graduated from Coupeville High School and keeps his wood and steel art local. Nearly every piece of wood used to create his wood furniture and bowls grew on Whidbey Island, and the steel used in his furniture and sculpture was salvaged locally.

“I don’t know many people that do what I do that can tell you the story behind a piece of wood,” Griffith said, adding that that personal touch makes his work unique. Even his sawmill and lathe are handmade.

“Steel’s got a really cold quality and wood’s warm, so it looks complete,” Griffith said of blending wood and steel in his art. One wooden bowl sits in a metal ring lined with leaves, and a jewelry box he built for his wife seems alive with metal vines.

After working as a steel fabricator/welder for more than 20 years, Griffith took up art full-time this summer and now has people as far as Canada visiting him and choosing wood for customized pieces. While he grew up drawing, painting and playing music, Griffith found his true artistic calling a few years ago when he made iron candle holders for a friend.

“It just kind of took off from there. I did a piece here and a piece there and pretty soon, people wanted what I was doing,” Griffith said. While he cut firewood, he began to notice qualities in the wood that would translate into bowls with specific patterns or shine.

“I love wood hunting — going out in the woods and finding a piece,” Griffith said, adding that it’s like opening a geode when he sees what the wood is capable of.

“But I’m kind of a wood nerd like that,” he laughed.

Adding the steel elements incorporates another layer of creativity into his work. One of his pieces at Garry Oak Gallery was built out of an old steel bed frame and hydraulic pipes.

“That’s half the fun for me — collecting a bunch of things and figuring out what to do with it. There’s never really a plan,” Griffith said.

View O’Connell’s and Griffith’s art during November at Garry Oak Gallery, which is located at 830 SE Pioneer Way in downtown Oak Harbor. The co-op gallery features art of all types, including blown glass, paintings, photography and more. O’Connell encouraged the community to turn to Garry Oak Gallery for their holiday shopping.

“There are great gifts at Garry Oak. I’ve done most of my Christmas shopping there so far,” O’Connell said.

For more information, call 240-0222 or visit


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