Retro House Tour: Carolyn O’Neill, Visual Artist

mid century retro sitting room

Carolyn O’Neill is a visual artist, working in oil on canvas, and mixed media. Married with three sons, she began painting in 2003, after being inspired by a mural painted by some of the parents at her son’s kindergarten in Melbourne. Over time her work has developed into an abstract expressionist style and is largely inspired by the mid-century modernist aesthetic. She exhibits regularly and sells her work via her website Carolyn also has a passion for vintage homewares and collectibles, and the environment. Her two storey brick home, built around the 1980’s, sits on a 672 metre square block. It is situated on top of a hill, with a lovely sloping rockery garden out the back, “Whilst the front is framed with towering palm trees and a small grassed front yard, it also features a wide balcony above and verandah below, giving us an amazing view of the beach and the surrounding town and bushlands,” says Carolyn.
mid-century retro lounge roomCarolyn, her husband Stuart, two of their sons Julian and Luka, as well as their dog Missy and cat Max, have been renting the property for about 18 months. She says she fell in love with the house due to its large size and proximity to the beach and town, not to mention the large balcony with clear ocean views. She does wish it had a working dishwasher and that the divided single garage was a tad bigger for her  art studio requirements. Since they are renting, it is difficult to make changes to the property. However, if she was able to, she would repaint the terracotta/apricot walls in white. If the sky was the limit, then they would install solar panels and enlarge the garage/studio space.

Can you share something you like about your local area or region?
We live in a mining town with a population of approximately 20,000 people. It is four hours drive from Adelaide, located at the Spencer Gulf and often described as ‘where the outback meets the sea.’ It is surrounded by red dirt, vast arid grasslands and salt bush, which make for an interesting landscape, not to mention the steelworks which are the life blood of the town. We tend to prefer the slower pace of country life.
What are your thoughts on sustainability and how is this part of your home?
I believe that sustainability is an important undertaking and that everyone should make some effort towards that goal. We ensure that we compost and recycle as much as possible and open the windows and screen doors to allow for the cool breeze on summer evenings.
What is your decorating style?
It is eclectic modern I guess. Our home is filled with things that reflect my style. I don’t tend to follow trends and work with what I have on hand. Styling a home need not be expensive – most of our furniture has been purchased from op shops. These purchases range from our Namco 1980’s circular dining suite with mission brown swivel chairs, to our recently acquired modular lounge suite – both coming from different Salvo’s stores. Pretty much 90 percent of our furniture is second hand.retro cat collection

retro mid century home decorIndoor plants such as monstera, cacti and succulents, fill our home. Not only do they purify the air, but they add life and sculptural elements to a space. They can also be moved around the home with ease. The warmth of timber in the form of sideboards, coffee tables and slatted cacti planters, also breathe life into our home. Soft lighting such as lamps, my art on the walls and floor rugs, complement the space.
What is the inspiration for the decorating and design of your home?
The mid-century modern aesthetic inspires my decorating choices for its timeless designs. I am becoming more selective about what I bring into my home. Sometimes I do get a bit impulsive and buy things that I have no space for, which requires quite a bit of rearranging! My growing collection of telephone tables tend to be used as indoor plant stands and side tables. I do enjoy being resourceful and upcycling.
Your favorite part of your home?
The landing and the balcony would have to be my favourite parts of my home. These spaces are like a sanctuary where I read, journal, relax, and gaze out at the ever changing ocean views. Also my indoor studio office are where I tend to spend most of my time.
Biggest Challenge in decorating your home?
The biggest challenge in decorating my home would have to lack of space. Because I keep buying stuff and there is never enough space to put everything, then I have to decide what stays and what gets donated to the op shop. I am much like a bower bird constantly feathering our nest.
What do people say when they come to visit you?
Most people really love our home and feel very welcome. They often ask me where I purchased our furniture and homewares and are often surprised when I tell them it was from an op shop or second hand find.

Through The Looking Glass


How did you get into upcycling? Was there anyone in your past who got you started?
Ever since I can remember I have been exposed to op shops. Being the youngest of 5 and from a low income family, I guess it was my mum who first introduced me to op shops. My oldest sister also volunteered at one for a few years and my mum continues to volunteer. Our clothing and furniture were often purchased from op shops and in those days I felt embarrassed to be seen in one. There was quite a stigma back in the 1970’s – 80’s and only ‘poor people’ shopped in such places. Thank goodness that this has changed. I think op shops have improved as a result,  in that they rarely smell like moth balls anymore! And they are more organized in general.
retro loungeroom
retro collectiblesWhat inspires your art?
I have a passion for the mid-century modernist aesthetic and collect everything from West German vases, ceramics, colored glassware and furniture. Op shopping has become one of my weekly rituals, although it is unpredictable. Sometimes there are treasures and sometimes not. I do try and donate unwanted goods on a regular basis to keep clutter at bay and as a means of recycling. It has taken me quite a while to realise the link between my collections and my art, but I definitely see that my surroundings inspire my creative process. Old tv shows like ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ and ‘The Brady Bunch’  also inspire me ( I want a Brady bunch house! ), as do old Audrey Hepburn and Doris Day movies and most recently, the slick tv drama ‘Madmen’.
mid century display cabinet

1970s style dining room
Books are a passion of mine and I have a vast collection of old interior design, craft, art, and genre books. Not to mention the 1970’s Child Craft set and our sons’ Dr Seuss collection, which I can’t bear to part with.  I collect old linen printed tea towels, Pyrex, Tupperware, 1970’s Japanese stackable glazed mugs, cat figurines, and whatever catches my eye and budget. Vintage homewares are really cool too. So far I have an orange cake keeper, bread bin, plastic wine goblets, picnic set and hostess trolley which I use to sort the laundry. Clothing such as faux fur and leather jackets, frocks, patterned blouses and silk scarves also fill my expanding wardrobe. Oh and metal vintage pendants of which I have many! Lately, I have been adding to my collection of colorful crocheted nanna rugs and gathering treasures for our beloved 1980’s Millard caravan which acts as a spare room for visitors and camping.

Mysterious Ways

What are your favourite materials to work with?
Definitely oil paint for it’s versatility and richness of colour and texture. I have also started experimenting with charcoal, graphite, oil pastels and hi-flow acrylics when working on paper.
What do people say when they see your work?
People’s reactions vary, depending on their perception. Some feel overwhelmed with emotion, others prefer something representational like a landscape or still life that they can connect with. Some think that their 4 year old child could paint it, while others simply spend time staring in silent contemplation.

Town of steel

Would you like to share a favourite piece of work and how you created it?
Town of Steel – this piece was painted last year. It is inspired by Whyalla and it’s uniqueness, dominated by the steel works which are contrasted with the sea, and the rich tapestry within those aspects. It was a finalist in the Life Abstracted art award at Cambridge Studio Gallery in Melbourne in 2018. It marks a departure from my usual bright and sometimes jarring colour palette, and focuses more on it’s construction, tonality and subtle burst of colour.
You can find Carolyn and her art over at her website

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