ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Brian O’Connor has spent his life creating art.
Visions manifest inside his head waiting to be placed on canvas.
The brush serving as the tool to complete.
Yet, these days, the simple act of painting has become different.
The brush strokes that came easily, are met with varying degrees of difficulty.
O’Connor, 62, is redefining himself in his Veguita art studio, as he battles a progressive brain disorder – Posterior Cortical Atrophy or PCA.
PCA is a rare, degenerative brain and nervous system (neurological) syndrome that results in gradually declining vision. Common symptoms include difficulties with reading, judging distances, and recognizing objects and familiar faces.
“The symptoms are really strange,” O’Connor says. “I can’t write or read very well. Everything that you see is not there. You see a lot of stuff and then nothing.”
O’Connor’s journey is the subject of the documentary, “Painting Gray.”
Filmmaker Ann Bromberg is at the helm of the project and says it focuses on the stigma of the disease – personally and professionally – within a vibrant art community.
“Originally, we started this piece to show his major works,” Bromberg says. “You can’t get around the fact that he has PCA. When you talk to him, it’s noticeable. He’s a prolific painter and the diagnosis has really shifted collaboration with his wife.”
“Painting Gray” can currently be screened at guildcinema.com by donation. The donation will support the filmmakers, artists, Guild Cinema and the PCA Foundation.
The Guild has been collaborating with local filmmakers to screen films online.
“We’ve launched an online portal to watch locally made movies that’ll both help us along in these challenging times for independent movie theaters plus part of the viewing fees will also go to the filmmakers themselves,” says Kief Henley, Guild Cinema owner. “It’s a win-win situation for all via a safe at-home viewing option.”
Bromberg traveled southeast of Albuquerque to Veguita for nearly two years to visit O’Connor’s studio.
She chronicled how O’Connor pushes his boundaries to learn how to paint again.
“He is one of the most prolific painters of this century,” Bromberg says. “In his paintings, he uses human figures to tell a story. Each character represents part of the sociopolitical narrative.”
For O’Connor, “painting is a vehicle for grappling with the world and make sense of a beautiful mess.”
His works are a kind of theater where the acts are played out simultaneously, the sequencing drawn out not through the medium, but through the imagination, memory and experiences of the viewer.
“The paintings are about people living everyday lives, dramatic, cowardly, vicious, graceful, funny, stoic, whiney, tragic, dignified, inconsequential and heroic lives, sometimes all at once,” says O’Connor about his creations.
While filming, Bromberg was humbled by the growing artistic collaboration and relationship between O’Connor and his wife, Iva Morris.
Morris is a prolific artist on her own.
She says in the film that she never thought of O’Connor and herself as artistic partners until his diagnosis.
“I never thought of it in a concrete way, it was like breathing,” she says of their professional relationship. “We would critique each other. Sometimes he would help me with a painting and I’d help him with his. We were extremely honest with each other.”
With each passing month, everything changes.
A new normal sets in.
The couple adjusts and moves forward.
“Brian needs help all day now,” Morris says. “He would be (in his studio) whistling and painting. I miss that so much. I can’t imagine not being able to draw. I can’t imagine not being able to paint.”
Bromberg is used to traveling the world to create documentaries.
Though she wanted to stay put in New Mexico for her next project.
“I was motivated to do a local film here,” Bromberg says. “Iva and I were working together and I saw the dynamic of how she was shifting into her role as not only his wife and best friend, but his caregiver.”
Bromberg likens the relationship between the pair to Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz or Jackson Pollock and Lee Krazner. Both couples saw great success in their own mediums of art.
“To be innovative and creative on top of being married. It’s very profound,” Bromberg says. “There’s this intense collaboration between Brian and Iva that’s going to give way to some amazing art.”
Bromberg hopes the documentary will educate an international audience, helping viewers to appreciate the roles of families, caregivers, and the courage of an artist living with a fatal brain disorder PCA.
The film will support public health awareness and the development of outreach programs for PCA patients.
“It is both a specific local story and the voice of a global artist who is very much a part of the growth and stability of New Mexico’s art community,” Bromberg says.