In the case of Greenpoint artist John O’Neill, he was lucky enough to discover two lifelong passions as a child and developed them both side by side.
“I’ve always loved drawing and I’ve always loved cities,” said O’Neill, who now works as a transportation planner and independent artist. “I guess the actual planning and work element of it are a requisite of needing a full-time job, and it comes closest to matching my love of drawing lines and cities.
O’Neill was born and raised in Milwaukee, where he first developed his mutual loves for art and cities. He explained how he would draw on the back of papers his father brought home from his office job in the city center.
O’Neill was always fascinated by large buildings and city layouts, and spent his childhood scouring over maps of old American cities.
“Those old prospector images of Brooklyn or Chicago are incredible,” O’Neill explained. “Those drawings were the progenitor of my work.”
He moved to New York City to attend Fordham University, where he majored in urban studies. After moving between jobs and from the Bronx to Queens, O’Neill settled in Greenpoint, where he now lives with his wife.
The area has since become a source of great comfort and inspiration for him.
“I think it’s mostly the quality of life in Greenpoint that’s so appealing,” O’Neill explained. “My wife is an immigrant and Greenpoint is a very welcoming place. You can get a lot of fresh food and vegetables, there are a lot of small businesses and people are really friendly.
“It’s the architecture of the neighborhood, too,” he added. “There are a lot of beautiful churches, buildings, and parks. I’m always inspired by different things when I walk around.”
O’Neill produces two very distinct types of artwork. The first are large, two by three-foot poster boards that are aerial views of cities. The cities O’Neill depicts usually exist in real life, but are slightly modified to include architectural styles and cultural flourishes that capture his imagination. The large works utilize a mixture of pencils, pens, and watercolors, and typically take four to six months to complete.
The second type are smaller, nine by twelve-inch drawings of buildings and homes. Although they are just as detailed as the posters, these smaller pieces only take a couple of hours to complete and have allowed O’Neill to get more creative with how he shares his work.
“When COVID happened I felt people were down, so one good way to cheer them up was to do these drawings and send them out to people as gifts,” he explained. “I did so many of them as gifts and people started asking if I would draw them some for money, so of course I said yes.”
O’Neill now produces commissioned artwork and can be contacted for pieces through johnoneillcities.com. Even with the newfound attention, O’Neill continues to be enamored by Greenpoint, New York City, and urban design as a whole.
“I think it was during that year of walking around the neighborhood that I started thinking about how I wanted to document it in my own way,” O’Neill explained of the pandemic. “I have my obsessive tendencies, so I’ll look at things like sidewalk cracks, construction conditions, or whether a ramp is handicap accessible. I’m always admiring buildings though, and am thinking about it as an artist or a person just appreciating things.”
Yet as both a city planner and artist, O’Neill has been forced to reconcile with the uneven processes of change and gentrification that are taking place throughout North Brooklyn.
“On the one hand, I never interact with that new stuff really,” he said of the area’s new developments. “But I also recognize that I am a fairly new person to New York. I’ll go over to Domino Park, for example, because it’s a nice view of the bridge, but other than that nothing there caters to me. It’s not made for me.”
Nonetheless, O’Neill has found a home in Greenpoint, and knows exactly which neighborhood bars he can go to for a comforting and timeless feeling (Capri’s Social Lounge and The Palace, to be exact).
And in spite of widespread change, O’Neill has maintained the innocent love for drawing and cities that led to his career and art.
“I don’t feel like an artist,” he said. “I feel like I am what I am. I love to draw and I love cities, so it’s sort of my own thing. Nobody is going to stop me.”
For more images of O’Neill’s artwork, follow him on Instagram (@joneilldrawings).