Reginald O’Neal Searches for Inspiration From His Family and Overtown Neighborhood

Artist Reginald O'Neal sits surrounded by his paintings.
Artist Reginald O'Neal sits surrounded by his paintings. Photo courtesy of Spinello Gallery
Hidden amid lush green vegetation is a small iron door at the corner of NW Seventh Avenue and 29th Terrace in Allapattah. Enter beneath the lion's head and you find yourself inside Spinello Projects. Make your way up one flight of stairs, and down the hallway on the left is the space occupied by Reginald O'Neal.

O'Neal looks up from his computer, where he has been searching for an old photo of his mother that he wants to paint. The artist is surrounded by squeezed paint tubes and color-smeared palettes. He is preparing for his upcoming solo show, "They Dreamt of Us," which opens at Spinello next month.

On his neat desk sits a large book about the works of Vincent Van Gogh. O'Neal is dressed in shades of green, his signature dreadlocks tied back away from his face.

The 29-year-old's foray into the art world started with spray paint and murals. Through mutual friends, he met artist Alejandro Hugo Dorda Mevs, who goes by the moniker Axel Void. O'Neal credits Dorda Mevs for teaching him about the control behind using a paintbrush and the power of oils on canvas.

Although his demeanor is quiet and modest, behind every smile, he lets escape a morsel of a clue that's part of a larger mystery only those close to him will ever get to solve. While speaking to New Times, he toys with a mechanical pencil as he gazes down at his shoes.

"I didn't know you could express yourself through painting."

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"When I started learning about painting and going through the motions with my mentor, Axel Void, I didn't know you could express yourself through painting," he says.

Before painting, the artist would express himself through music, poetry, and photography.

"Before I was painting, I was taking photos."

O'Neal is best known for his still-life work. He recalls spending afternoons flipping through old family photo albums as a child. Now, as an adult, he scans his hard drive for images and connections to the past. He is inspired by what he sees around him — views of his old Overtown neighborhood, old family photos, his friends.

"When you give someone a medium to talk about their surroundings, they're going to talk about the things that are closest to them, the things that they see. And this is what I see on a day-to-day basis," he explains.

He has painted works featuring his mother, father, brother, sister, and various objects owned by his grandmother. When asked if there's a painting of his that holds special meaning, he says all of his paintings are special. Yet, the one he drew of his grandmother's eyeglasses, Minnie's Glasses, is among his most prized works.
click to enlarge A painting of O'Neal's grandmother's eyeglasses, titled Minnie's Glasses. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SPINELLO GALLERY
A painting of O'Neal's grandmother's eyeglasses, titled Minnie's Glasses.
Photo courtesy of Spinello Gallery
His artistic style resembles that of late Spanish impressionist painter Joaquin Sorolla, whom the Miami artist greatly admires. His upbringing, however, is more like that of late artist Purvis Young. Like Young, O'Neal is inspired by his childhood neighborhood. He gives audiences a unique insight into an often overlooked area.

"Overtown is a beautiful world that not a lot of people know about," O'Neal says, rocking softly in his chair. "Only [residents] know about it and how impactful it is, but I don't think a lot of people know."

From a distance, O'Neal's paintings may appear hazy, like an image reflected in a pool of water on a windy day. But as you get closer to, it's hard to tear your eyes away. There is so much emotion behind every brushstroke. Feelings may very well begin to stir within you.

On the wall behind O'Neal hangs a large unframed canvas of a golden trumpet tree. The brushstrokes are full of motion, giving the sensation that the yellow flowers are swaying in the summer breeze.

The artist expertly takes old photographs imbued with rich memories unique only to a select few — the artist and his subject — and turns them into works that contain multiple layers of meaning.

"My goal as an artist is to continue doing what I'm doing now: expressing my truth."

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The signature piece in "They Dreamt of Us" is a large untitled painting that occupies an entire wall in the gallery space. It was painted from a photo of two friends play-fighting. In the source image, one friend grabs the other in a playful chokehold. But in the painting, the colors are darkened, the faces unrecognizable, the meaning wholly altered.

"It's not about them," says O'Neal, staring at the piece. He remains silent for a moment. "I had the idea for this painting for a long time."

He explains that it's meant to represent how America treats the Black community — grabs its people with a not-so-playful chokehold, making it difficult for them to break free from systemic racism, racial bias, discrimination — the list goes on.

"It seems in some ways we're still gasping for air."

The piece is one of seven new works by O'Neal that will be featured in his upcoming solo show, opening in November and slated to run through January 2022 at Spinello.

In September, O'Neal's work was featured as part of Oolite Art's group show "Where There Is Power." Earlier this year, he painted a mural outside the North Miami Museum of Contemporary Art, and recently, the Pérez Art Museum Miami and the Institute of Contemporary Art added pieces by O'Neal to their permanent collections.

"My goal as an artist is to continue doing what I'm doing now: expressing my truth," he says. He rests his head on the inside of his left palm. "I just hope to be able to express myself as much as I can and continue to become a better painter."

"They Dreamt of Us." November 20 through January 15, 2022, at Spinello Projects, 2930 NW Seventh Ave., Miami;
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Carolina del Busto is a freelance writer for Miami New Times. She nurtured her love of words at Boston College before moving back home to Miami and has been covering arts and culture in the Magic City since 2013.