'A real gem' - Liverpool art teacher's unique work to feature in new exhibition at Kirkby Gallery

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The work of iconic artist, Tony O'Connell, will display alongside four other local creatives.

Art institutions such as the Tate Museum, or the Lady Lever gallery may come as a first thought when thinking of creative outlets in Liverpool. However, one gallery has recently risen to success, displaying the work of fantastic locals artists.

Located on the first floor of the Kirbky Centre, Kirkby Gallery prides itself on showcasing 'the best contemporary art', including the works of local, regional, national and international artists. Now, it is set to host a brand-new exhibition - 'Five'.

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The exhibition showcases the work of five fine art painters, mainly based in Liverpool, but also across the northwest region. Opening on January 22, 'Five' will include the works of Scouser, Tony O'Connell, which explore themes of grief, loss and rejection.

Tony's work shows a modern spin on traditional religious paintings.Tony's work shows a modern spin on traditional religious paintings.
Tony's work shows a modern spin on traditional religious paintings. | Laura McCann

Tony described Kirkby Gallery as 'a hell of a community space' and a 'real gem' and said he was approached by email to take part in 'Five'.

Currently living in Toxteth, Tony is of Scouse-Irish decent and spent his childhood growing up in Tuebrook. He has been teaching art to students in Liverpool for nearly 30 years, with his list of ex-students still currently influencing the creative scene in Liverpool. But, his incredible story doesn't stop there, with a pretty iconic 'coming out' story.

A true extroverts dream, Tony decided to come out as gay on live television at the age of nineteen, after growing up in a Catholic household and protesting the Section 28 Act, which prohibited the promotion of homosexuality.

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Explaining the decision to make such a bold move, Tony said, "It wasn’t going to be like mum, dad sit down I’ve got something to tell you. It was going to be 'oh my god have you seen what’s on the Telly'.” 

The Section 28 Act prohibited the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities in England and was in place between 1988 and 2003. Since then, Tony has continued to be an advocate for the LGBTQ+ community through his service to the art industry.  

One of Tony's pieces for the exhibition. One of Tony's pieces for the exhibition.
One of Tony's pieces for the exhibition. | Tony O'Connell

Tony said his work 'has always been a response to being queer and growing up in a Scouse-Irish Catholic community.

He explained: “The sense of rejection I felt from the church was the most profound damage I've ever experienced - this work is about that and layered with other types of grief like losing my amazing mum and a wider grief for the world - like the Covid pandemic and the ongoing conflict in Gaza and Yemen. There is a-lot going on we need to talk about.” 

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Tony decided to convert to Buddhism in his mid-twenties and told LiverpoolWorld 'it happened totally be accident'.

"I met this Buddhist nun who made more sense in an hour than anyone had in my entire life. I was so anti-religious at the time. A mate of mine had invited me to come to this meditation night, I assumed it was just a hippie thing with bean bags. She was completely life changing, I had been suffering from depression for years and within about six weeks of knowing this woman it was gone," he said.

Laura McCann

Tony intertwines both his artwork and religion together and believes both are closely linked.

He said: "In Buddhist thinking there is often a hidden element to devotional art - things like flowers and jewels and rolled up dedications and mantras inside statues- almost like a hidden spiritual battery powering the image. They are not for the viewer but built in offerings for the deity.”  

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Through incorporating this way of thinking into his art Tony wanted to put similar energy into his art. Mixed in is real-powered Lapis Lazuli, holy water, his own blood and gold. These materials may not be noticeable to the viewer but allowed Tony to include a performative element in the making of his pieces.  

Though the amount of Tony's blood featured in his art is minimal, a tiny finger prick, he said it symbolises sacrifice.

Tony's unique artworks will feature alongside the works of Sophie Elsden, Paul Gatenby, Natalie Gilmore and Alun Roberts from January 22 until March 30, 2024.

'Five' is set to be one of a kind and admission to Kirkby Gallery is free, so why not take a trip to Knowsley and admire the work of local creatives.

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