Seeing the light: Oak Harbor artist leans on paintbrush to help get through darkest times in life

Depression turned Mike O’Connell into a recluse. Successful treatment has led to a life buoyed by his passion for painting.  - Ron Newberry/Whidbey News-Times
Depression turned Mike O’Connell into a recluse. Successful treatment has led to a life buoyed by his passion for painting.
— image credit: Ron Newberry/Whidbey News-Times

To rise from darkness, Mike O’Connell got a lift from his paintbrush.

There was a time in his life when he was so gripped by depression that he couldn’t leave his home in Auburn.

For two-and-a-half years, this went on, until treatment and therapy let light back into his life and eventually gave him back his passion for painting.

O’Connell, 65, who now lives in Oak Harbor, leans on that brush quite frequently. He’s a creative sort, using a vast imagination to write poetry and self-publish two science-fiction novels.

But it’s his paintbrush that has had the most far-reaching impact and given him the most personal comfort.

O’Connell’s paintings are on public display in several places on Whidbey Island, including the Pacific Northwest Art School in Coupeville, Garry Oak Gallery on Pioneer Way in Oak Harbor, the nearby Terrace Wine Bar & Bistro and the Island Family Hearing Clinic on Midway Boulevard.

“Oh my gosh, if it wasn’t for his art, I’d be in fear of what would have happened to him,” said his sister Kathy Hawn of Coupeville. “It’s such a release to him. His thoughts used to take him to dark places. He can release those in a different way into his canvas.”

After working for 25 years in the paint industry, finishing as an associate chemist, O’Connell began having trouble with severe headaches and ultimately fell into a deep depression that led to his withdrawal from ordinary life about 10 years ago.

He went through extensive treatment, and slowly got reacquainted with the world outside his Auburn home one baby step at a time. It was a difficult road that included a divorce, but he wound up back in Oak Harbor, where he had spent part of his youth, to start a new path.

“Getting back into painting helped,” O’Connell said. “Sure there were a lot of bad times. But to get to where I am right now, I probably wouldn’t change anything.”

O’Connell likes to work with acrylics and specializes in text paintings. He has painted 11 intricately detailed orbs, including one on display at Garry Oak Gallery.

The orb there is in the form of a giant circle that contains thousands of words and symbols from different cultures around the world. The words and symbols are references to anything from natural disasters, to rock bands, to significant dates, to insignificant license plate numbers from movies he watched.

“Whatever popped in my head when I worked on it,” he said.

The orbs take up to eight weeks to paint and he’s working on a 12th but thinks that might be his last one.

“Now, I’m doing more free-form stuff. It’s good therapy,” O’Connell said.

Art is O’Connell’s labor of love and favorite pastime. It’s helped him get through the most difficult times of his life.

It’s helping him with the recent loss of his mother, Wilma Louise O’Connell, who died on Dec. 14.

O’Connell spent the past two years as his mother’s primary caregiver after she had a stroke. He lived with her the past four and half years.

“It was pretty tough,” O’Connell said of her passing. “It made for a strange Christmas.”

Caring for his mother required most of O’Connell’s attention and he became somewhat isolated again at their home.

He’s going through an adjustment without her. He’s unaccustomed to the time he finds on his hands and the freedom to venture out.

He’s trying not to be reclusive.

“I haven’t figured out my daily routines,” he said. “Before, I’d give mom breakfast, lunch, dinner, get her up and get her to bed. Now, it’s like ‘What do I do? I’ll go paint.’

“I’ve been painting up a storm.”

There’s an energy to O’Connell’s voice. He sounds like a grateful man. He spoke of a nice visit with his two sons over the holidays. He has a sister nearby who cares deeply about him.

“I think I’m his biggest fan art wise,” she said. “It’s what he eats and breathes.”


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