Mo. artist paints hundreds of state landscapes

Sunday, November 25, 2007
Billyo O'Donnell completed a painting shortly before sunset in October at a cliff's edge near the Katy Trail in rural Montgomery County, Mo. (Erik M. Lunsford ~ St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

ST. LOUIS -- Billyo O'Donnell is an artist on the move.

For the past seven years, O'Donnell has traveled 160,000 miles and has painted landscapes from all 114 Missouri counties and the city of St. Louis. He finished his last painting this past summer.

While that was no small feat, O'Donnell also participated in art events around the United States, conducted workshops in Europe; organized the St. Louis Artists Guild's annual Forest Park Paint Out; and painted portraits of the St. Louis and Milwaukee symphony orchestras.

So this O'Donnell guy must be a hyperactive, type-A mess, right?

Wrong. But he's definitely a perfectionist.

O'Donnell, 51, of Eureka, Mo., burns paintings that don't live up to his standards, and he returned several times to many of the counties.

"It wasn't unusual for me to go back five or six times to a county, then I would find something that visually excited me as an artist," he said, flipping through canvases in his studio at the Foundry Art Centre in St. Charles.

But contrary to first impressions, only a calm, patient man could do what O'Donnell has done, said Julie Dunn-Morton, curator of fine art collections at the St. Louis Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.

"It's an incredible amount of work," Dunn-Morton said. "So, yes, he's very energetic and very driven. But he's so friendly and genuine."

O'Donnell won't sell the Missouri landscapes yet. He and writer Karen Glines are finishing a book, "Painting Missouri," set to be published next year. Then he'll exhibit the collection around the state.

His wife, Peggy O'Donnell, laughs at the prospect of another long stint with her husband away.

"I was hoping he wasn't taking all 115 paintings, because maybe there would be room for me. But now I don't think there will be," she said.

Dunn-Morton said the "Painting Missouri" project is important for artistic and historical reasons.

"Anything we have -- a photo, a print, a painting -- it documents the way our world looks, how it's changing, the way people choose to live.

"And Billyo is very dedicated to doing that for Missouri."

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