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Portrait of a Walmart With You as the Subject

04/30/2013 06:17 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2013

Wal-Mart and high-priced art aren't often mentioned in the same sentence. But artist Brendan O'Connell turns the discount shopping experience into upmarket culture. His Wal-Mart Series paintings, which have fetched up to about $40,000, feature the colorful displays, iconic blue-vested employees, and bargain-hunting shoppers at the ubiquitous warehouse store.

At Cheapism, our coverage of the retailer typically tends toward comparing Wal-Mart vs. Target or reporting on the best places to shop for inexpensive kids clothes. But we couldn't resist getting in touch with O'Connell to find out more about his unique way of looking at the discount giant.

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Interested in how people interact with their environment, O'Connell zoomed in on the grocery store and made Wal-Mart his setting of choice. No, he didn't sit with an easel in the middle of Aisle 5. Rather, beginning in 2003 he traveled the country taking pictures inside Wal-Mart stores and recreating the images on canvas later in his studio.

Sometimes he focuses on the abstract shapes and colors formed by dozens of cans or bottles, all lined up in columns and rows. It's hard to make out exact brand names, but as seen in "Fiber and Ketchup," the shapes and colors and label designs are so ingrained in our minds that the products are instantly recognizable.

Works such as "Deli and Shampoo" capture Walmart shoppers in their natural habitat. In a few decades, such scenes may no longer be part of everyday life, O'Connell says -- just look at how quickly the bookstore is fading into nonexistence.

Early on, O'Connell, who lives in rural Connecticut, was kicked out of many stores. A man taking pictures of shoppers and bottles of mayonnaise seemed odd. Eventually store managers came to accept his research methods (positive press didn't hurt) and welcomed him back, sometimes even supplying a forklift for panoramic shots. The company also bought a painting he made of the original Wal-Mart store. Now fans can submit their own photos on Twitter and Facebook for a project O'Connell calls Everyday Walart. Any would-be muse whose photo inspires a painting receives a free, signed print of the work.

The years of putting in-store tableaus to canvas are paying off for O'Connell, who has caught the attention of media outlets and celebrities such as Alec Baldwin. As a child, though, he grew up in a household without visual art and was told in school that his talents lay elsewhere. He told Cheapism if it wasn't for the imprint left in his mind by a third-grade friend's charcoal drawing, he may never have pursued a career as an artist. "There is a creativity gap," he says. "People don't see themselves as creative."

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In an effort to encourage children to explore their own artistic sides, O'Connell and a team of partners have founded Everyartist.me. "How do we make art available to everyone, and how do we democratize the art experience?" O'Connell asks in a video on the site. That mission crystallized in April 2012, when he spearheaded the so-called Wal-Art Project in Bentonville, Ark., home of Wal-Mart, where more than 8,400 elementary-schoolers​ filled a football field with their drawings.

O'Connell says the process of displaying the art fosters a strong bond between the children and their work. "You see the kids kissing the paper before putting it down."

O'Connell's best-known work may feature a mecca of American consumerism, but Everyartist.me focuses on creation rather than consumption. The next project, slated for November, is even more ambitious: "the largest art event in history." The group started a Kickstarter campaign to raise money, and in March it reached, and then soared past, its $30,000 goal.

This time, more than 35,000 kids will bring their art to the University of Arkansas and the hope is that hundreds of thousands more around the country will share their work on the Everyartist.me platform. Family members and friends will be able to search for any child's piece on the site and sponsor the children's efforts.

"The mission is to spark next-generation creativity," O'Connell says. "Creativity secures the future."

Louis DeNicola also worked on this story. Follow him on Google Plus

A version of this post first appeared on Cheapism.com.