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Burke Artist Juggles Parenthood, Colorful Artwork

Helena O'Neill's work can be seen at several locations nearby.

Artist Helena O’Neill lives in Burke with her husband, their four children and the family dog. Just one minute from a busy shopping center on Old Keene Mill Road, in an almost rural setting, her picturesque house is secluded from traffic and congestion. Surrounded by mature trees and dense foliage, it is the perfect place for a busy suburban mom and dedicated artist.

O’Neill’s art reflects her vision of beauty. Her colorful collages capture the viewer’s eye and imagination. Perhaps you have seen them displayed at the Burke libraries or even farther away at the Clifton Café. Once you have viewed her works, you will never forget them:  a regal horse, lovable elephant, lively dogs, delightful birds and breathtaking flowers. What a joy to look at this art!

Helena O’Neill, whose father served in the Air Force, spent her early years abroad. Until she was six, she lived in Germany, which she remembers as “beautiful and flowery.” After that tour, her father was transferred to Spain. Living in a drab part of Madrid, Helena passed her time “looking for color and brightness.”

When she was 14, Helena’s family moved to Albuquerque. There, she got her first chance to learn what life in the United States was all about. To her, unfortunately, Albuquerque was a “parking lot,” hot, flat and covered with asphalt. Until her father was posted to Northern Virginia, she still sought beauty in her surroundings. At the age of 17, she finally found the color, the flowers, the bright gardens and green trees she had been seeking for so many years.

O’Neill began her undergraduate program at George Mason University as a biology student. At that point, she was entranced by the elegance of cells. She had never thought of being an artist, and she “had never done anything with art.”

Then she took a required art class with Professor Walter Kravitz, an artist who continues to change the lives of students. An eye-opening experience, the class showed her that art could become “an expression of appreciation for the color and beauty” she had missed.

“Becoming an artist was accidental,” Helena reflects. “Being in the right place at the right time” was the key to unlocking her future.

Art soon became her avenue of expression. “Without creativity,” Helena stated, “life is concrete, gray and brown.” Describing art as “psychic energy,” she uses a poetic metaphor to help explain her philosophy. “Through the dark universe we live in, there is a golden stream of light,” which is creativity. “The river is only as bright as those who dip their fingers into the water.”

Like many women today, Helena O’Neill juggles her family and her career. While studying at Mason, she met Reinaldo Lopez-Carrizo, the sculptor who created “Man Awakening to His Consciousness” outside the Patriot Center. During their conversations as he was carving the monumental piece, he warned Helena of what he considered a lifelong struggle for women:  the difficulty of having a family and art. “You can’t do both,” he admonished, but Helena proved him wrong.

Finding time for art was indeed a battle for Helena until her youngest child Sammy was six. Now, the hours her children are in school are hours she can devote fully to her art. Trying to be creative, she explains, she is “doomed to serve a fickle master.”

But what a fate! “It takes courage to create, but the more time and effort I put into it, the closer I get to the river.” As Helena O’Neill creates her captivating art, she brings her vision of beauty and color to Burke and to everyone who views her work.  

Lise Warmuth May 17, 2011 at 10:14 AM
I have seen her art in Clifton, and it is memorable and beautiful. Thanks for the great article!
Rafael January 16, 2013 at 11:21 PM
I have purchased her art and everyone who sees it is completely amazed.

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