This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.
Close Up

Physician painter

Internist Catherine O’Neill's award-winning art has been all in the family. Photo: NANCY J. PARISI

  • “Working as a physician and the mother of four young children, I thought it would be a good chance for a weekly night out. It turned out to be so much more.”

    Catherine O’Neill
    Clinical Associate Professor, School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences
Published: August 25, 2011

While many people have a family album of cherished photos, Catherine O’Neill has a family canvas on which she has depicted several generations in brilliant watercolor detail. In the process, her work has been exhibited in dozens of juried art shows from New York to California, has won more than 30 awards and has appeared on the cover of a national magazine.

An amazing feat for the internist at Buffalo General Hospital and clinical associate professor in the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, who first picked up a brush a mere 12 years ago on the encouragement of her friend and babysitter at the time who taught beginner watercolor classes at a local arts center.

“Working as a physician and the mother of four young children, I thought it would be a good chance for a weekly night out,” O’Neill says. “It turned out to be so much more.”

Her goal was simple at first. There was a family gift exchange every Christmas and she—being a craft person—always liked to give something uniquely homemade. “When my paintings were coming out good enough that I thought I might be able to give them away, that really got me excited about it and I just barreled along from there,” she says.

She painted from old family photographs at first, choosing subject matter to which she had great emotional ties. Familiar scenes of the central Adirondacks, for example, where she and her family had vacationed since childhood.

As she gained confidence, she began painting people—the familiar figures of her grandparents sitting in their customary chairs on a typical late summer day in the Adirondacks.

“The scene was so familiar to me, so filled with warm memories and tradition,” she recalls. “I completed the painting as a gift to my mother the summer after my grandmother died. Since then, I have continued to portray our family stories in my paintings.”

The paintings came pouring out. Her father attempting to read the newspaper with twin nieces who had climbed onto his lap. An impromptu card game on the lawn with her children and their cousins. Young daughter Meg longingly looking outside with hands pressed against a glass door (which peered out from newsstands across the country last year on the cover of Watercolor magazine).

Each of O’Neill’s paintings is distinguished by dramatic light and shadows, with rich detail noted in surroundings and figures—from individual blades of grass to the whites of young fingers pressed against a windowpane.

She considers herself a very deliberate painter, beginning with careful planning before putting brush to paper. After using existing photographs of family members, she began taking photos herself of scenes with canvas potential. O’Neill likes to paint scenes that tell a story. The detail greatly appeals to her in conveying that story. Averaging four to five paintings a year, O’Neill works in the attic of her home in Hamburg, usually going for a couple of weeks in a row amid work duties and household chores. She credits a unique job-share arrangement for allowing her to be a physician, parent and painter.

After participating in the Internal Medicine Residency Program at UB in 1991, O’Neill engaged in a job-share partnership at Buffalo General Hospital proposed by fellow internist and UB clinical associate professor Janet Sundquist. The pair has now been splitting duties for the past 19 years, each having her own set of patients while providing clinical teaching.

“I think it’s a great example for students to see an alternative to working full time,” O’Neill observes. “Sometimes, it seems overwhelming how you would practice medicine, have a family and try to do all the things that you would like to do and fit it all in. This has been an ideal situation for us. The hospital and university have been fantastic as far as support.

“I feel we’re providing a service to the community and I really love the personal relationship I have with my patients. I also love working with the residents and I feel that teaching them what I know, how to cope with difficulties and how to reap the rewards of being an internist is a real privilege.”

As for her role as award-winning artist, O’Neill l is considering ramping up her efforts to gain wider interest. “I rarely sell my pieces. One of the first paintings I sold was entered into a show that required my piece to be for sale. I set it at a price that I didn’t think would sell and it did sell. It was a landscape and I was fine to part with it,” she says. “So I thought maybe I could at least meet my expenses. In order to do that, I have to put more time into painting things that I think would be more appropriate for the market, as opposed to these personal ones that would be hard to part with.”

O’Neill, with husband Kevin, an attorney, notes the change in their family portrait. The subjects of many of her paintings are grown now. Son Sean is a sophomore at Holy Cross College and daughters Maura, Meg and Emilie are, respectively, a junior at Nardin Academy, a freshman at Boston College and a senior at Geneseo State College, about to enter UB’s medical school.

Time to paint new horizons.