In 1999, Maggie O’Neill departed Holy Cross with a political science degree in hand and a plan in mind: She was going to law school. There was just one problem. “I didn’t really want to go to law school,” she confesses with a chuckle. “I’d always been creative — in fact, I spent a lot of time in the studio when I was at Holy Cross — so in the back of my mind was the lure of an alternative path.”
Today, it’s clear that O’Neill has found her way. She enjoys a thriving career as a visual artist whose works can be seen everywhere from the pages of Washington Life to the personal collection of former President Obama. She is the co-founder of SWATCHROOM, a design, art and fabrication firm that conceives and creates custom spaces for restaurants, bars, hotels and more, from Washington, D.C., to Dubai.
And she’s spearheading a movement, SUPERFIERCE, designed to empower, connect and advance female visual artists, who are dramatically underrepresented in museums worldwide.
The journey has been exciting, O’Neill notes, but hardly linear.
“My career has evolved through a very organic process over the course of the last 20 years,” she observes wryly.
After departing Worcester in the summer of 1999, O’Neill explains, she moved back to Washington, D.C., to contemplate her next step. After she set up a makeshift studio in her parents’ home, her mother, Patricia, then vice president of academic affairs and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Trinity Washington University, urged her to use the college’s facilities instead of the family’s living room.
“I ended up taking a couple of art classes at Trinity and when Gene Markowski, one of the faculty, saw my work, he encouraged me to attend art school,” she says.
Markowski helped O’Neill enroll in a graduate arts program at the University of Georgia on a three-month trial basis. “I didn’t have a formal portfolio, but they agreed to accept me as a graduate student-in-training to see if I could hang with the others,” she notes. After embarking on a summer internship in Italy, O’Neill knew she was onto something.
“It was intoxicating!” she recalls. “I was helping to restore frescoes and I had a unique moment of understanding — I could use my hands to create art and make a living.”
In the intervening years, O’Neill has done just that via her own art and SWATCHROOM. Her father, Robert O’Neill ’65, is an ardent fan and her keenest critic: “He always has an opinion, which he’s not afraid to share, and suggests many ideas to me.”
Several years ago, with a successful career established, O’Neill began to feel the need to pay it forward.
“You can’t go to Catholic school your entire life and have Patty O’Neill as your mother and not be motivated to give back,” she explains with a laugh.
As she reflected on her experiences, O’Neill realized that if she could change any aspect of her journey, it would be to actively seek out more counsel and mentorship.
“As a young artist, I would have loved to have someone who was my cheerleader, because oftentimes all you need is that one person in your corner offering encouragement,” she says. “But finding a mentor in the arts isn’t always easy.”
O’Neill was also keenly aware that although more than half of the visual artists worldwide are women, less than 5 percent of the work displayed in major museums is created by women. Suddenly, she knew how she could make a difference.
O’Neill began reaching out to other successful female artists across the nation, asking if they’d be interested in collaborating with one another, as well as assisting younger artists in building their careers. The answer came back a resounding “yes,” and in 2016, O’Neill launched SUPERFIERCE. The name, she says, was not chosen lightly.
“The purpose of SUPERFIERCE is not boohooing — we’re women artists and forces of nature. We’re collaborating, creating jobs and lifting one another up, and I wanted the organization’s title to reflect that strength and sense of purpose,” she explains.
The movement started with a bang in October 2016, with O’Neill and six other female artists displaying more than 40 works at an exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.
“That was a great kickoff, and then we followed up with a monthlong series of expert panel discussions and working events that brought a lot of talented people together in the same room to make connections and begin conversations,” she says. The event also contained a benefit component: EBeauty, a D.C. nonprofit that supports women undergoing treatment for cancer, was the benefactor.
O’Neill believes strongly in giving back and is adamant that artists pay it forward, not only for each other, but also for the communities in which they live.
“My time at Holy Cross instilled a tremendous root system within me that compels me to strive to make my own community better,” O’Neill explains, “and thanks to the College, I have the tools to do that. The social justice aspect of a Holy Cross education is a huge foundational component of who I am.”
With the foundation for SUPERFIERCE laid, O’Neill now excitedly awaits phase two. “The 2016 launch was intended to get people’s attention, and it did, but to realize our goals, we need a solid plan and major underwriters.” She hopes to announce a partnership very soon, but for now is grateful to be in what she characterizes as an awesome holding pattern.
“I’ve been insanely busy these last few years, but I’m excited to see what’s next,” she says. “I know when an idea won’t let go of me, I have to execute.”
What’s the most exciting result you’ve realized from SUPERFIERCE thus far?
I’ve seen an infusion or resurgence of energy take place in a tremendous number of relationships, careers and businesses. When I see two women artists working together to create business, I know it’s working.
Your organization is called “SUPERFIERCE” — what’s that about?
For me, artists like Judy Chicago are an inspiration, and Lana Gomez and Ashley Longshore — two women who helped me launch the organization — are superheroes. They’re brave women, and “superfierce” seemed like a great way to describe them and others like them.
What’s the coolest experience you’ve had as an artist?
Handing one of my paintings to President Obama — it was the most surreal day of my life. He’s the coolest cat and such a class act.
Do you see your liberal arts education as your superpower?
I see my painting and my ability to put things together creatively as my superpower, but my liberal arts education is a close second.
What future do you envision for female artists?
One filled with lots of profit and dynamic business deals. I hope that as women artists, we stay connected and collaborative. Competition is good, but the beauty of art is in collaboration.
Written by Lori Ferguson for the Fall 2018 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.
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