Tim OBrien
November 2009
Out of the Alley

5 years ago I was sitting in a house in the mountains of Pennsylvania feeling quite low.  Outside the winter chill cut through the pines and sent ice crystals against the window I was peering out of.  Inside the family was occupied and staying warm.  It was a holiday visit to the mountains and this left me with idle time.  I don’t know how to deal with idle time.

At this point in my life, things were off kilter.  As a result my work was in a rut and though I had assignments, none were the kind I wanted and I wondered, looking out at the frosty scene, how I would get things right.

Inspiration is the only path I know of at times like these.  I had just been studying the paintings of William Johnson Heade.  I connected to the idea of images as ‘stages.’  One can direct the eye exactly where you wanted to no matter what the liner design was.  Seeing these works, I was pondering the idea of my own little presentations of birds and flowers.  Albert Bierstadt’s grand scenes have always inspired me and standing in front of one of these canvases, it can pull the breath out of your lungs and almost make you shield your eyes.  The crucial element that both Heade and Bierstadt utilize is deep darkness. 


Staring out a window I drew a giraffe.  Why?  I have no idea but I must have been thinking of past successes, such as my elephant painting.  This giraffe was sketched on a piece of paper on a message pad.  We all know the feeling; when an idea is just born.  It felt good.

Slowly over that winter and year my doldrums lifted.  Many things factored into this change, some of it the energy I got out of teaching at the University of the Arts, some of it helpful shrink visits and most of it from leaning into life and looking forward. 

In the subsequent years I added this sketch to a sketchbook and added many more ideas.  The career took over again as it often does and I was again busy and fulfilled.  The sketchbook ideas give me a deep satisfaction and comfort but I’m starting to think of my unrealized sketches as false bullets.  I feel safe having them but they kind of make me a TV cowboy.  Shiny silver holster and a sure shot but not a real cowboy.  It’s time to get them out and risk having to reload.  I guess all artists have to do this.


I started to produce this painting with research.  I love alleyways.  They are the stages I see all the time.  Subway rides from Brooklyn to Manhattan can sometimes give you unique views into these wonderful alleys between buildings.  These are often perfect frames for images.  I began photographing them and saving these references.  The Philadelphia zoo is a wonderful place to see animals up close.  The Bronx zoo keeps the visitors far from the action but the old Philadelphia Zoo gets you very close.  I shot many images of this particular giraffe with my class at the University of the Arts 3 years ago.  Still, I did not get the artwork right away.  The alleyways were good, but not what I was imagining.  I would just have to wait and shoot more.

Last spring I was out with my class at UArts for lunch.  It was raining and I was leaving a pizza joint and there it was, the lighting and alley that I was thinking of.  The wet ground made the light even longer in the alley and I knew this was it.  I shot the alley.  I had all the required elements.


This fall, on the heels of success with ‘Chuck Brown’ and perhaps feeling a bit of a TV Cowboy, I did a final sketch. 

This image is what I love to do besides portraits.  Lately I’ve been talking to my classes about the importance of working hard on parts of a painting that were NOT the idea.  A window in the corner, a downspout in the shadows are easily sketched in and forgotten but I practiced what I preach in this one.  There is equal attention all over this painting.


Feeling low is part of being an artist I fear.  We ride waves of euphoria when we catch a wave of good work or success.  We crash off the board and sometimes just sit in the calm water waiting for the waves to come back.  Sometimes you have to be more proactive that waiting and actually get moving and find a wave. 

This is a shot out that window at the icy mountains of Pennsylvania.
William Johnson Heade
Albert Bierstadt
This is the original sketch. I did fancy adding clothes lines in the background but I gave that up for the clarity of the background.
A possible alternate idea that I may get to yet.
Alley #1
Alley #2 in Washington D.C.
I am always looking for the perfect alley stages. This one has the building in the background that I like. The sun goes through this alley so the shadows never get deep enough.
I loved this shot of the body of the giraffe from Philadelphia.
Neck reference
Revised sketch of the original. The head is still in one direction with the body. I opted to turn it back for the final. I also decided that I could skip the mountainous cloud (this time).
The perfect reference. I finally found the alley. I had not considered water on the ground but I loved that aspect.
The turn back seemed necessary when it went from a sketch to a large piece. I don't know why.
I like the long puddles from the foreground to the background.
The use of white gouache is evident up close. I use it to brighten up the details.
Eugene O'Neill
A few weeks ago I attended an amazing event.  The Irish American Writers and Artists held their inaugural Eugene O'Neill Lifetime Achievement Award at the Supper Club in NYC.  I was contacted by the writer T.J. English to do a portrait of O'Neill for the event and program.  I'm now a proud member of this distinguished group and this event was fantastic.  
Before a crowd of over 200 people, author William Kennedy was awarded the inaugural Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award.
From the IAW&A:
"The event began with City Council Speaker Christine Quinn officially proclaiming Oct. 16 to be “Eugene O’Neill Day” in the City of New York. Singer ASHLEY DAVIS opened and closed the event with a song. IAW&A co-director MALACHY McCOURT was Master of Ceremonies. Actors MATT DILLON and MICHAEL O’KEEFE read from the works of William Kennedy, and Pulitzer-prize winning playwright/director JOHN PATRICK SHANLEY read a passage from O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night.” There were short speeches from IAW&A co-founders PETER QUINN, MICHAEL PATRICK MacDONALD and T.J. ENGLISH. Novelist MARY PAT KELLY (“Galway Bay”), a member of the IAW&A Board of Directors, was in attendance, as were distinguished artists such as actors GABRIEL BYRNE and KEVIN CORRIGAN, writers COLUM McCANN and THOMAS KELLY, and many others. Among the highlights was the unveiling of an original illustration of O’Neill created by artist TIM O’BRIEN exclusively for IAW&A, to be used on the cover of the brochure/program for the evening. It was, as we had hoped, an unprecedented gathering of Irish American writers and artists. We come out of this event with a membership of over 200 people. This could be the beginning of something exciting and monumental. To those who attended, Much Respect. To those who did not, we hope to see you at future events."

I had a great time and since I was announced from the stage and had a name tag on, after the ceremony people knew who I was and came up to me.  Matt Dillon introduced himself, a gentleman.  Man, I saw so many of his movies, from the Outsiders and Rumble Fish, to Drugstore Cowboy, Beautiful Girls and There's Something about Mary.  Cool guy. 

I ambled up to the bar and met the very charming John Patrick Shanley, the writer and director of Doubt and Moonstruck.  After a brief conversation, I could tell that he coveted my painting.  I thought I'd give it to him and he accepted and we're due to have a dinner in the city.  Should be interesting. I will push for an acting part for my sister-in-law, Nell.

Elizabeth and I met up with Skye Gurney of TIME, she happened to be there.  We stood at the bar and I looked over these warm faces tipping back pints and my love of the Irish was blooming.  Suddenly William Kennedy broke into song.  A funny but sorrowful ditty about waiting outside a saloon for his father.  We all smiled as the sang, "Salooon, Saloooon, Salooooooon!"  Clapping and toasts and back to our conversations and then the singer from earlier in the evening began singing a beautiful song and others joined in.  Standing next to me was Gabriel Byrne.  When it was over Gabriel said hello and we talked for a while.  Also very charming and said that the place where my grandfather was born was the place he used to drive to as a young man in hopes of a little something.  He indicated that he would be back with 'In Treatment.'  That's great news.  I love that show.

Anyway, I met so many great writers there.  I think they are eager to expand the membership and as far as I can see there are way more writers than artists.  To my fellow Irish American illustrators, check the organization out.

My hunch is that John Patrick Shanley is speaking. This is William Kennedy. Photo by Nuala Purcell.
T.J. English, author of THE WESTIES, PADDY WHACKED and HAVANA NOCTURNE. He's a founder of the organization. Photo by Nuala Purcell
Michael Patrick MacDonald, author of the acclaimed ALL SOULS about his life as a Southie in Boston growing up. Now a fellow Brooklynite, he's also a founder of IAW&A Photo by Nuala Purcell
Matt Dillon, The honoree, William Kennedy and Colum McCann, who is incidentally a friend and shortlisted for the National Book Award for LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN. Fingers crossed. Photo by Nuala Purcell
Skye Gurney of TIME, Timothy Patrick O'Brien and Elizabeth Parisi. Photos by Nuala Purcell

The formation of the IAW&A is kind of interesting.
From their website:
"How We Began
In March 2008, a small group of Irish American writers were featured speakers at a literary festival in Charlottesville, Virginia. The title of the presentation was IN SEARCH OF IRISH AMERICA and the panelists were authors Peter Quinn and T.J. English, historian and author Daniel Cassidy, New York Times columnist and author Dan Barry, and Maureen Dezell, whose book Coming Into Clover chronicles the history and development of the Irish in America.
After the presentation was over, the writers gathered at a local pub. At the time, the presidential campaign was underway. In fact, the hotly contested Pennsylvania primary was just days away, and in the news there was much speculation about whether or not “white working-class ethnics” would ever be able to vote for an African American. The writers took a quick poll and discovered that every one of them was supporting Barack Obama for President.
None of us were from Pennsylvania, but all of us came from Irish American working-class roots and were familiar with the kinds of “white ethnics” who, we felt, were being simplistically portrayed in the media as staunch conservatives, if not outright bigots. Our own experiences were counter to this stereotype. We were Irish and came mostly from Catholic backgrounds, but every one of us considered ourselves to be inheritors of a “progressive” political and artistic tradition.
A Collective Awareness
Together, we took out an ad in the Irish Echo, the largest Irish newspaper in the U.S., in which we proclaimed our support for Obama. Among other things, the ad stated: Senator Obama represents to us the best hope for achieving an America that includes all and leaves no one out – an America that slaves and immigrants alike dreamed would one day include their children. We believe he can inspire and lead the struggle for social justice, civil rights and equality of opportunity. We see in him a continuation and reaffirmation of the movement John F. Kennedy helped to foster and for which Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy gave their lives.
A total of 44 esteemed Irish American writers and artists signed the ad, including writers Jimmy Breslin and Thomas Cahill, filmmakers Ed Burns and Terry George, musicians Mick Moloney and Dicky Barrett of The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and many others. Out of this initiative grew a spirit of collectivism that we named the Irish American Writers & Artists Association. Though our non-profit status precludes us from further endorsing political candidates or parties, we hope to continue to bring together Irish Americans in this spirit of activism, tolerance and enlightenment. Please read our mission statement and you will see that – philosophically, and through word and deed – we hope to promote and highlight the artistic achievements of Irish Americans past and present, and in so doing assert the most daring and progressive side of our collective heritage. We hope you will join us."

Again, for my fellow Irish American artists...check them out!
NYC Marathon results, 2009

This year's New York City Marathon was great.  As I wrote last week, they're all different in unexpected ways.  Some things are unexpected hardships and some are unexpected easy patches.
For those who have asked and for those who wanted to see if I was going to croak, I'll offer this report.

The morning started with a worry of the potential rain.  I went to Staten Island with a chair, ski pants and golf umbrella.  Under all of that I stayed warm and cozy.  If you believe in karma I may have earned some good karma early.  As a 4 time NYC marathon runner I know fully well the challenge of the portable toilets running out of toilet paper.  I always bring my own roll and this year I had a funny 'Larry David' moment leaving a toilet.  Walking out with a bright, white and full roll of toilet paper I could see the people in line to go into the same toilet all eyeing my roll.  I blurted out, "This is mine, I brought it with me!"  They all smiled but then all looked concerned.  I then, out of guilt, reeled off sections for about 9 women in line.  All thanked me profusely.

The morning then got frustrating.  My wave was due to start at 9:40.  To get to my corral I had to check my bag then walk a long way to my start.  By the time I made it to my corral they had a 7 foot chain-link fence around it.  They closed the wave corral and would not let anyone in.  You get placed in a certain places in a corral based on your average pace.  Therefore, I had to now leave at 10 am and run with slower runners.  This is frustrating as they force you to have to weave through runners for miles.  People who traveled here from all over the world took this news hard and were climbing over toilets and the fence and running past guards.  I just put my head down and tried to keep calm.
This later start might have made me miss all the people I was supposed to meet but I had to no worry about that.

The race went off and I listened to Pearl Jam's Yield and I ran up the Verrazano bridge.  I suddenly realized by mid span that I was not behind a bunch of slow runners but running with fast runners that were knocked out the the last wave.  I was running pretty fast from the start but once I was going DOWN the bridge I was not out of breath, I could see that amazing city and was feeling fine.
I ran easy and fast all through Brooklyn, stopping at mile 8 to say hi to Cassius and Elizabeth, seeing Ellen Weinstein at Fernada Cohen's place in Fort Green ( I stopped and ran back yelling "Ellen, ELLEN!!!") and felt great.  My thoughts were about whether or not I would regret going out too fast.  I would try to pull back.  Just before the half-way point I tried to slow down but I sped up again.  At one point, I think mile 16 I took off my shoe to see what the hell was under the ball of my left foot.  Untied the shoe, took off the sock…nothing.  I put it all back on and started off again.  That mile was the slowest of the race, 9 minutes.  I scooted along and felt great all through first avenue and into the Bronx.  The Bronx is where spirits break and the wall hits runners.  I felt no wall at that point.  I did stay over 8 minute miles for the last 5 miles but it was calculated to not die at the end.
Coming down 5th avenue I  was thinking that I only had 4 miles to go and I was imagining my average course at home.  I tried to visualize where I would be in Park Slope, seeing the street corners and trees in the park.  At 5th and 93rd I saw my family cheering section and I stopped to say hello and prepare for the finish.  A few blocks later you turn into Central Park.  I could not remember if there were hills coming up so I entered carefully.  To my surprise there were a series of downhills which lifted my spirits.  Then a dreaded hill just before mile 25.  THIS is exactly where I passed out 2 years ago.  My arms were actually tingling at this point so I put them over my head  and then stared saying "GO, GO, GO."
I could hear the crowd roaring and started to think of my time.  MY watch said I did a sub 3:30  marathon but it was NOT matching the course and I had to ignore my GPS and plow ahead.  I see balloons and an arch and I pump my arms and legs and UUUUUHHHGGG, that's not the finish, that's the viewing stands!!!   I kept going and finally see the finish line.
Now, as a sign of my vanity and clear thinking at the end of the marathon I did a funny thing.  They photograph and video your finish and in the past marathons or all races in fact, you may think you look great but you see that just ahead of you is an old man, a plump woman or a guy in a clown outfit.  I had .2 miles to go but I looked for healthy, strong runners.  I ran diagonally to be right in with them and then pumped my fists as I crossed the finish line with a big smile.

The race was great and I did not see the clock so I only had my GPS to gauge my time.  I figured close to my personal best.

At the end of the race you walk with thousands of other runners with your medal and a foil cape and shuffle your feet for a half mile to your gear.  Next to me a man from Germany swooned towards me and I kind of caught him.  I grabbed his hand and put it over my shoulder, holding him up.  He was passing out but I carried the guy and distracted him by asking him questions.  It was his first marathon and his first visit to New York.  Hopefully he will forever love New York and  the race.  I did my part.  Right next to me was a beautiful woman, a little older than me and I asked her how she felt.  She was fine and this was in fact her 54th marathon.  She was a REAL runner.  All I could think of was would I run another one?  I qualified for 2010 but I need a little time off.  I will find a reason at some point to do it again.  
Anyway after getting to my sister and brother in law's apartment, I checked my time.  Thankfully, it WAS a personal best.
3:32:13.  My previous best was my first race, at 40 years old at 3:32:22.  That's right, 9 seconds faster.  I'm so happy that it was not 9 seconds slower then I would have regretted the start, regretted the Ellen stop, regretted the shoe removal.  Even with those stops I did it.
Was it 9 seconds faster for helping 9 women in line at the porta potty?  

Thanks everyone for all the well wishes and I will now return to Tim O'Brien, artist.

This is the song that I was listening to when I thought about how good I was feeling.  Pearl Jam helped me through all my long runs this year.  Eddie Vedder's voice and the powerful duel guitars kept me motivated.

This is me in the morning at the start. All items are tossed and are donated to various organizations. The chair was 13 dollars and a good investment.
For those who have a GPS and use Ascent, here is the race. The first column is the time of day, the second is the lap, or mile. The third is the pace of each mile and the fourth is the speed. The last is the elevation.
This is from Ascent too. It shows how even or uneven the race was. The green is my pace and it stays pretty even until my shoe change and is off the charts for the family kisses. This is a valuable energy boost that is worth the time lost doing it.
Elizabeth holding up a "GO TONKA" sign.
Want to kiss a sweaty Irish guy?
Two and a half miles to go.
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