Artists create visual diary of life at sea

Christine O'Neill paints aboard her catamaran sailboat on the Chesapeake Bay. Christine O'Neill, a local watercolor artist, and her husband David O'Neill, an illustrator, live aboard their 45-foot catamaran. The O'Neills currently have an exhibition on display at the Annapolis Maritime Museum of art they made cruising the East Coast and the Bahamas.
Christine O'Neill paints aboard her catamaran sailboat on the Chesapeake Bay. Christine O'Neill, a local watercolor artist, and her husband David O'Neill, an illustrator, live aboard their 45-foot catamaran. The O'Neills currently have an exhibition on display at the Annapolis Maritime Museum of art they made cruising the East Coast and the Bahamas. (Baltimore Sun photo by Gabe Dinsmoor)

Christine O'Neill is petrified by sharks. But when she came across a school of them recently, hungry for food, she knew what she had to do.

"Facing My Fears I and II" are two paintings that O'Neill created to capture her encounter with the sharks. They're on display through Aug. 21 at the Annapolis Maritime Museum as part of an exhibit of paintings and illustrations by her and her husband, Dave O'Neill, two longtime Anne Arundel County residents-turned-sailors whose art celebrates life at sea.

"I … am totally afraid of sharks," Christine says in a narrative that accompanies her shark paintings. "At this fishing pier, looking over the feeding sharks, I had a very hard time even stepping to the edge."

Many artists explore the world of water, often from the safety of dry land. The O'Neills have chosen a different approach. After living in Maryland for many years, they now live full time on a 45-foot catamaran and sail up and down the Eastern seaboard, making art along the way.

The exhibit of their latest work, "Two Cruise," amounts to a visual diary of a year spent aboard Felix the Cat, their Prout catamaran, with stops in ports such as Annapolis, Charleston, S. C., Jekyll Island, Ga., and the Bahamas.

Christine paints a wide range of subjects, from a lone osprey soaring overhead to the pageantry of a sailing regatta. She says her favorite medium lately is a mix of watercolors and acrylics on paper.

Dave draws with pen and ink. Sometimes it's creatures from the deep — starfish, shells, turtles, sea fans. Other times it's details of the vessel itself, such as the block and tackle.

Both say they benefit greatly by getting out on the water, rather than merely observing their subjects from the land.

"Dave and Chris live on the bay and travel up and down the coast, and this is the art that was inspired by their travels," said Jeff Holland, the museum's executive director. "It's very much in sync with the mission of the museum. "

The water creates "such interesting patterns," Dave said. "The ripples on the surface. The light and shadow on the bottom."

"I get to paint some things out on the water that I wouldn't see otherwise, such as the ospreys" that live on the channel markers, Christine said. "But it's scary sometimes. You have to think things through. You have to make sure you're not drifting into another boat."

The O'Neills met while they were students at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. Christine, now 60, studied art education and went on to become a teacher in the Anne Arundel County school system. Her paintings have been exhibited in a variety of settings.

Dave, 62, studied graphic art and worked for many years in the design field — creating the interiors of private homes, hotels and restaurants such as the Severn Inn and the Chesapeake Bay Beach Club. The Annapolis show marks the first public exhibition of his work.

For most of their lives, the O'Neills lived and worked in Anne Arundel County. Married for 38 years, they are avid sailors and raised a son, Brook, who is captain of a private yacht in Florida.

Several years ago, Christine and Dave decided to move full-time onto their catamaran so they could travel more. During the winter they sail to the Bahamas or down to Florida or South America. From April to October, they can usually be found back in Maryland, where they are based at the Bay Bridge Marina Yacht Club in Stevensville. Christine teaches a painting course, "Vacation Watercolor Journaling," and takes her students to natural settings such as Quiet Waters Park.

Besides making art, the O'Neills run a charter boat business, Felix the Cat Private Charters using their catamaran to take groups of up to 12 sailing on the bay or in the Bahamas. Dave is the captain and Christine is the hostess.

Greeting visitors warmly on their boat last week, the O'Neills were tan and relaxed. When they're out on the water, Christine sets up her easel in the cockpit of the boat. She typically photographs her subject and works from the site, from photos or both.

In her paintings, Christine said, she works to "bring up" the colors and change the lighting or composition, taking out people or cropping the subject a certain way. For the museum exhibit, she attached notes and photos to many of her works, showing how she has simplified a background or enhanced colors to create the effect she wants.

"I like to make the art more than what is there," she said. "I don't want to be super realistic. I don't want it to look like a photograph. I like to push myself. I like to play with color and compositional balance."

Dave's priority is navigating the catamaran, but sometimes he'll take out a pad and sketch when he's behind the steering wheel. He plays with geometry and composition, too, often repeating the same design over and over in one illustration. Some of his drawings recall the work of M.C. Escher — abstract, interlocking compositions that seem to have no beginning or end.

The museum show was designed to be an exhibit of artwork but also a teaching experience in which viewers can learn about a subject and how it was interpreted. The works of husband and wife have been alternated so they play off each other. In many cases, the subject matter is similar but their approaches are very different. The message is that there are many ways to appreciate the world all around.

"Christine's paintings are joyful and full of color and movement," said Les Foster, the museum's volunteer art exhibit coordinator. "Color, composition and movement are foremost in her mind when creating a new painting. David has a background in graphics and design. It's obvious … that patterns, repetition and arrangement of space are the elements that make his work so strong. Both artists enjoy the play of sun and shadow, yet both render the same views and subjects so differently."

All works in the exhibit are for sale, and a portion of the proceeds will go to support the museum's programs.

Christine said people often ask her if she misses her paintings after they're sold. She says she doesn't mind because, for her, the enjoyment comes from the experience of taking the trips and creating the work. Besides, she said, she knows she'll create more next time.

"I had fun making them," she said of the works on display. But "the next one I do, I'll like even better."


Museum exhibit

The Annapolis Maritime Museum is open Thursdays to Sundays, from noon to 4 p.m., at 723 Second St. in Annapolis. Admission is free. Information: amaritime.org or 410-295-0104.

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