A sense of place is key to the collages Elaine O'Neil constructs with fabric and thread. That means images of her hometown of Chapel Hill appear frequently in her work, including spots such as Franklin Street, Southern Village and, of course, the University of North Carolina. Tar Heels, especially, have long relished her quirky depictions of the Old Well, UNC Finley Golf Course, graduation day and basketball games. But Carolina blue isn't the only shade in O'Neil's palette.
"I've been known to use my darker blue fabrics, too, and I'm even working with some red fabric," she said with a laugh, alluding to the team colors of rivals Duke and N.C. State universities. And now that her middle son is at East Carolina University, she's also pulling out the purple and yellow swatches.
Last month the N.C. Cancer Hospital in Chapel Hill unveiled O'Neil's most ambitious work to date, a series of 12 wall hangings, initially sewn to be photographed for a 2011 calendar to raise money for the hospital. Called "North Carolina Textures: Scenes from the Mountains to the Coast," the art calendar, whose pages can be individually framed, highlights iconic images from across the state, including mountains, oceans, barbecue and basketball. The 26-by-26-inch collages hang in the atrium between the Cancer Hospital and the N.C. Neurosciences Hospital.
The collection was purchased by Carolyn Goldfinch in the memory of her husband, John Reeves Goldfinch, who died from cancer in 2009 at age 58.
"I know Carolyn and knew John well, so that makes it all the more meaningful to me," O'Neil said.
O'Neil, 47, lives with her husband, Glenn, executive chef at the Cedars of Chapel Hill, a retirement community at Meadowmont Village. The couple owned restaurants for several years, first the Grill at Glen Lennox and then O'Neil's Neighborhood Grill in Meadowmont, which they sold in 2006.
"O'Neil's became a great gallery for my work," O'Neil said. "I'd hang my quilts all over the walls there."
Now her original work hangs at FRANK gallery on Franklin Street, and in the Weathervane, the restaurant at A Southern Season.
In her original and commissioned work, O'Neil is drawn to "places that mean something, that bring back happy memories. And I get to be a part of that while I'm working on it."
The artist's original "place" was a storybook setting in midcoast Maine.
"It was the best childhood I could imagine," she said. "I grew up on a small farm 15 minutes from the ocean. Both my parents were teachers and we had lots of animals. In the summer we'd play in the fields, swim in lakes, rake blueberries to earn money."
Her mother taught home economics and started the area's 4-H club, and O'Neil credits her mother and grandmother with her interest in textiles.
"They were always sewing, and at my house we had two fabric closets. I loved to open them up, pull out pieces of fabric, cut them up and glue them together. I was attracted to the fabric - the patterns and prints - more than the sewing."
O'Neil first studied agriculture at the University of Wyoming, but eventually landed at Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science, where she graduated with a degree in textile design.
"I had two loves, and I still do. Art and growing things. I still have an amazing garden, and use my love of design there too."
With one semester of college to go, she took a summer job in Camden, Maine, and then planned to move to New York City to take the fabric design world by storm.
"That's when life got in the way," she laughed. She met her husband to be, who owned a restaurant there. They married in 1987 and started a family the next year. On the side she did interior design work and made slipcovers, which at least kept her working with fabric.
O'Neil's art quilts were born from a friend's challenge.
"She had a gallery in Maine and said, 'I have a show coming up. Why don't you do something for it.' I cut up fabric and made images of Maine scenes, like lobsters and lighthouses."
They sold immediately, and she kept sewing.
A full-time artist
After the O'Neils moved to Chapel Hill 15 years ago for work, she transitioned her "place" to North Carolina. The sale of their second restaurant finally allowed her to be a full-time creative artist.
"The day I stopped doing slipcovers was the happiest day of my life," she said.
O'Neil has come to realize that viewers respond not only to her cheerful images but to the medium.
"Fabric is something we all relate to. It has warmth, accessibility and it's soft. And as you look closer, you see more things. Like, 'look, this water has little dots.' That's the fun part for me. I use the fabrics for shapes and patterns."
While she does sew her collages, her creativity comes from the scissors more than from the needle, she said.
"I'm really good at cutting. I'm kind of like Edward Scissorhands."
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