One day last spring while scavenging for driftwood on the causeway to Little Deer Isle, Claude O’Donnell found a piece of weathered wood that was in a sort of zigzag shape. Sticking out of one of the zags was a little piece of wood, with a small knob on it.
O’Donnell, a Holden resident and longtime banker with several institutions who did business statewide and made connections with some of Maine’s most powerful companies and served on some of the state’s most influential boards before his retirement four years ago, knew he had to do something with the odd-shaped piece of wood.
He examined it. In the knob, he saw a bird. Moreover, he saw the bird sitting on the tongue of a much larger animal.
O’Donnell took the driftwood to his home, where the zigzag piece of wood became an alligator, with the bird sitting on its tongue. He called it “Trust Me,” and it’s one of the 10 creations in O’Donnell’s exhibition “Evolution,” currently on display at the Blue Hill Public Library.
“The way I look at it, you pick up [a piece of wood], you look at it, and it’s pretty much telling you, let me out,” said the 61-year-old O’Donnell, standing in front of the sculpture. “That’s when you work on them and kind of add pieces, and before you know it, it tells you what it wants to be. You think, I didn’t know you were there!”
Before O’Donnell could release the animals within the wood, however, he had to release the artist within himself.
Before his retirement at age 57, O’Donnell became a well-known figure in banking circles and rose to executive-level positions at companies such as the former Depositors Trust, now Key Bank, and the former Fleet Bank, which has since merged with Bank of America. He painted a little on the side, just for fun.
Yet something simmered inside O’Donnell — in his banking days he sometimes called himself a hippie in a gray flannel suit — and retirement allowed that persona to burst forth. He started to create the fantasical, whimsical sculptures such as “Trust Me.”
“I’ve never given any paintings away to anyone other than [family], just because I’ve never felt confident in my paintings,” he said. “I was never ready to show that part. But I felt good about this other stuff I’ve got.”
O’Donnell, a native of Van Buren, grew up in a large and artistic family. His father, Pierce, whom everybody called P.C., was in insurance but painted for pleasure.
It’s probably no coincidence three of O’Donnell’s siblings became artists, including his brother Mat O’Donnell, a well-known artist based in Wiscasset.
“There was a lot of encouragement to express yourself,” O’Donnell said of his childhood. “We didn’t have many rules. It was a big family and everyone had their own way of seeing the world.”
Claude O’Donnell didn’t choose that route, however. After the family moved to Bangor, O’Donnell graduated from Bangor High School and attended Husson College. He then went to Rutgers University in New Jersey, where he studied finance, business and accounting. O’Donnell paid his way through school playing drums with the Jesters, a popular local band in the 1960s and ’70s.
O’Donnell returned to Maine and began working in banks, rising to senior and executive levels in the state. He also painted when he could, working mostly in oil to create realistic landscapes. O’Donnell showed them only to family members, including his brother. The two occasionally trade paintings and talk art, and sometimes visit museums or galleries together.
During one such day the two looked into a gallery and saw a sculpture which neither of them liked. Claude O’Donnell thought he could do better, and the brothers decided they would each make two pieces of sculpture and decide whose was better.
Claude O’Donnell picked up two pieces of wood and sculpted a pair of sharklike creatures he called “Jackson” and “Pollock,” after the influential American abstract expressionist painter. Mat loved the fantastical, whimsical work, Claude said, and encouraged him to do more. Claude did so, displaying the creatures in his home, where they got a warm reception from visitors.
The comments were so encouraging that O’Donnell called Rich Boulet, the director of the Blue Hill Public Library, about displaying the sculptures. Boulet told O’Donnell that the library’s gallery schedule was set, but when Boulet realized the free-standing pieces could be perched on top of shelves and bookcases, he told O’Donnell to bring in his creatures.
“We just have a lot of fun with it and we’re not looking for anything specific,” said Boulet. “Eclectic is great, whimsical is fun. It’s just nice to have three-dimensional objects instead of stuff hanging on the wall.”
It was a journey, but suddenly O’Donnell had his first solo art show.
The Delivery Room
“Trust Me,” like the rest of O’Donnell’s work, was created in what O’Donnell calls the Delivery Room, which off the finished lower level of O’Donnell’s house.
The Delivery Room is where works emerge from the pieces of driftwood O’Donnell collects. What emerges from the room, however, is often more alien than natural.
O’Donnell said he intentionally looks for pitted, cracked chunks of wood that have been tossed by waves and exposed to plenty of salty seawater for a worn, weathered look. If the wood is studded with old rusty nails or bolts, all the better.
O’Donnell often embellishes the pieces, but never in an attempt to make them look real. The creatures have eyes, but they’re made from marbles and not glass, which would look too close-to-nature for O’Donnell’s taste.
“I don’t want them looking perfect,” he said. “I’m not trying to replicate [nature], but I use whatever it takes to assemble something that needs to come out. I don’t in any way consider it artistic. For me, I’m not trying to simply make a copy of something that’s alive. I don’t want to be too influenced by realism.”
O’Donnell also uses oil and acrylic paints, and lacquer to achieve his colors, then a layer of shellac to finish and seal the wood. There are other embellishments — for “In The Beginning,” a green wooden turtle is perched over a pile of yellow billiard balls possibly meant to be eggs — and O’Donnell also does some welding to attach metal pieces to the wood. Occasionally he’ll do a little carving to help the creature to emerge from the wood.
The turtle is recognizable, but other creatures are much more ambiguous. Don’t bother asking O’Donnell, however, what a certain creature is meant to be, or the meaning behind his work. He won’t tell you, he said, because he wants the piece to be whatever it means to the viewer.
“They’re just kind of like a surprise, even to me,” he said. “Some people would say they’re monsters, some people would say they’re funny. I don’t know why, but they make me smile. It’s like, wow, you should see what’s coming out of the Delivery Room.”
Seeing things differently
O’Donnell’s creatures, with their marble eyes and billiard-ball eggs, are a huge turn from the art O’Donnell made while he was still banking.
It’s the kind of turn that could only have been sparked by a major life change, such as retirement.
The act of taking a step away from business seems to have inspired some of O’Donnell’s art. In the case of the little bird sitting on the tongue of an alligator in “Trust Me,” O’Donnell saw something of his own professional experience.
“I’ve known people like that in business,” he said, “when a big company is looking at a small company, when a big CEO is trying to put a deal together with the small CEO, and the big guy says, ‘Trust me.’”
O’Donnell has also given up his positions on the boards of local nonprofit organizations to let others step forward, he said. His controversial decision to leave the Acadia Hospital board of trustees after 10 years of service, however, came before his retirement.
Looking back on the conflict between Acadia and its parent company, Eastern Maine Healthcare, O’Donnell said his decision to speak out about the role of health care in Maine and how profitable the industry should be is similar to the trepidation he had about displaying his work.
“When I said something about [health care issues], it really turned the place upside down,” he said. “It was lonely for a long time. In art, that’s like saying, I think I’ll put [the work] out there and live with what comes.”
O’Donnell said he was a lot more liberal-leaning than many of his bank customers probably would have liked, but his friends, he said, knew about his painting and musical past, which earned him the hippie-in-a-suit reputation.
With retirement came the freedom to put away those suits.
It took some time, O’Donnell said, for his motor to run down and to become comfortable with a quieter life. He hasn’t lacked for things to do with family, including four grandchildren and his wife, Dianne, with whom he enjoys playing Irish music. The family spends summers at a camp in East Orland.
The O’Donnells also like to picnic on the Hancock County coast. During these expeditions O’Donnell scavenges for driftwood, which he calls his search for “inventory.”
“I’m as surprised by what I’m doing here as anyone, and that’s what makes it so neat,” O’Donnell said. “I kind of knew I had something [artistic] cooking, but I didn’t know it would come out this way. So many things are an adventure.”
“Evolution” will close at the end of June; O’Donnell said several pieces are moving on to a display in the Northeast Harbor Library. To contact O’Donnell, e-mail CPMOD@msn.com