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.
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.
"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.
"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; spinelloprojects.com.