They’re “just too colorful for words.”

It’s no wonder we’re big fans of Steel Magnolias down here: There’s a lot to love, after all, about strong women, laugh-till-you-cry one-liners, and really good hair. This year marks the 30th anniversary of Robert Harling’s beloved play. To celebrate, Savannah-based artist Jessica O’Neill painted a series of colorful works based on the play’s equally colorful cast of characters, who were based on real women from Harling's (and O'Neill’s) hometown of Natchitoches, Louisiana. Keep reading to learn more about the artist and to see her whimsical renderings of our favorite Southern women.

Kelli Boyd Photography

How did you become an artist?

I have always loved art and am blessed to have been born into a family that supports and encourages the arts. At the age of five, I received my first artist's table for my birthday. Rather than getting dressed for church, I sat and colored naked in my underwear...if I wasn't dressed to go, they couldn't make me stop coloring! Wherever we traveled, my parents made certain an art museum was squeezed into the agenda, and it was at their urging that I decided to attend Savannah College of Art and Design and pursue a career in the arts. After experiencing health complications with pregnancy and not being able to return to work, I began painting again as a way to fill my creative void. I adored being a new mother, but something was missing. Six months after the birth of our daughter Georgiana, fondly called GiGi, Art By O'Neill was born.

Kelli Boyd Photography

“If you can't say anything nice about anybody, come sit by me.” (36"x36," $650)

Why did you choose to do a series based on Steel Magnolias?

Mandy Kellogg Rye, Waiting On Martha founder and owner of Waiting On Martha Home, requested a collection of my abstract figurative portraits for her store's artist-in-residency rotation. I thought, "Who inspires me? What message can I share?" My mother and her friends, the real women of my hometown of Natchitoches, Louisiana, the personalities who inspired Robert Harling's work flooded my head. When I moved to Natchitoches as a young girl, everything and everybody was a novelty. By the time I left for college, the people and way of life were my norm. For twelve years, strong Southern women paired with the dynamics of a small town informed the kind of woman I desire to be. Their sayings and snippets of wisdom were a part of our everyday vernacular. When I told Mandy my idea and began sharing childhood stories of neighbors shooting crows from trees or Christmas Festivals past, she agreed it could be the perfect fit for Waiting On Martha Home.

Kelli Boyd Photography

“I'm just too colorful for words.” (36"x48, $700) 

Which of the Magnolias do you identify with most?

I adore Clairee's sense of humor and poise; however, after experiencing health complications exacerbated by pregnancy, I identify with Shelby's will to be a wife, mother, and experience the joy a family can bring. You could say I have Clairee's sass paired with Shelby's stubbornness.

Kelli Boyd Photography

“The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize.” (36"x48," $700)

Do you have a favorite quote from Steel Magnolias?

"The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize." – Clairee

Truvy’s Cuppa Cuppa Cuppa cake or Armadillo Cake?

Truvy's Cuppa Cuppa Cuppa cake, forever and always.

Kelli Boyd Photography

“Blush and Bashful” (36"x48," $700)

Blush or bashful?

Blush. Life is too short to be Bashful.

If you were to do another series inspired by a Southern movie or book, what would it be?

How fun it would be to explore the characters of Gone with the Wind! Or possibly Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil — I could pick the brains of my Savannah friends and family for additional inspiration.

Shop the Steel Magnolias series at shopwaitingonmartha.com from now through October, or check out more of Jessica’s work in Savannah at boutique Number Four Eleven or online at artbyoneill.co.

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