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Musician finds new sense of expression in collage art

Starting Sunday, a local musician will be sharing a different creative side with audiences — a passion for visual art as revealed in her first solo exhibition.

Singer-songwriter Blue O’Connell’s introduction to painting came wrapped in a birthday gift. The guitarist, composer and certified music practitioner already was embracing a meaningful anniversary — the 50th anniversary of becoming a musician, as a percussionist in her school band — when a milestone birthday arrived.

Friends Mary Gordon Hall and Julie Gottschalk took her to a paint-and-sip studio event as a 60th-birthday experience they could enjoy together. Each friend painted her own copy of a snowy landscape, and O’Connell thoroughly enjoyed the thoughtful combination of creativity and camaraderie.

At first, she was pleased with her inaugural effort. Once she got home, however, she took a closer look at her new painting and realized she didn’t like it after all.

O’Connell considered throwing the canvas away until she happened to see works of collage art on display at University of Virginia Hospital. She realized that using collage techniques could help transform her first painting into a work she could love.

The visual art bug bit deeply. O’Connell discovered deep satisfaction in exploring colors and textures and watching random pieces come together to create fresh images. Before she knew it, art-teacher friends were giving O’Connell their students’ discarded works and paintings of their own for her to use in her collages.

Four years of experimentation and enjoyment later, O’Connell’s first art show will open with a reception at 12:15 p.m. Sunday at Unity of Charlottesville. O’Connell will be on hand to greet visitors and answer questions about her art. The exhibition can be seen throughout May.

Her collages’ vivid colors call attention to hope.

“Now, we’re going through some dark times, so I use a lot of bright colors,” O’Connell said. “I want to be one of the bright lights. It has some brightness to it, and hope and optimism. I feel like we kind of need these messages now in society. The opposite of creativity is destruction, and I think we’ve kind of lost our way.”

Her goal is to help tap into and recapture the optimism she observed in popular culture while growing up in the 1960s and 1970s.

“As a kid, I loved music, art and dance,” she said. “It really gave me a foundation for what’s going on in my life. My more whimsical side is my vulnerable side. It’s a joyful expression.”

Animals, particularly owls, figure prominently in O’Connell’s collages, so she decided to donate 10% of collage sales from the new exhibition to the Wildlife Center of Virginia.

Two of O’Connell’s collages are included in an employee art show at UVa Hospital, where she performs therapeutic music for patients, and a third is in an Idaho gallery — just in time for World Collage Day on May 13.

Her collage process is “satisfying,” she said. “I rarely plan it. It’s very intuitive. I look in terms of color and line and rhythm.”

O’Connell enjoys choosing colors for contrasts, such as purples with greens. Scale isn’t an absolute; “an owl can be purple, and bigger than the tree,” she said.

“It doesn’t have to make sense. That’s where you can be free,” O’Connell said. “It doesn’t have to be logical.”

O’Connell said she plans to keep on creating collages.

“It brings me a lot of joy. It really makes me happy,” O’Connell said. While so many of her works are in the exhibition, “I’m sort of sad looking at my empty walls [at home], but I hope people will be happy,” she said. “I’m just having a good time and wanted to share it with people.”

Behind what O’Connell calls the “childlike and joyful” effect of her collages, “the other element is that I started this at the age of 60,” she said. Her advice to aspiring artists of all ages? “Don’t be afraid to try something new.”

“Your creativity seems heightened as you grow older,” she said.

She also recommends guarding against perfectionism along the way.

“Don’t wait until it’s perfect. Collage is imperfect,” O’Connell said. “I find imperfection more like real life. We’re all works in progress, too.”

Unity of Charlottesville is at 2825 Hydraulic Road. Learn more at


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