Artist Spotlight: David Connell

by Samantha Thompson Hatem

photographs by Missy McLamb

Most people know him as the lanky bass player in the popular Raleigh-based band The Connells. But if you ask David Connell, 51, how he wants to be remembered, it isn’t for the song Fun and Games or the album Boylan Heights. It’s for his gently rendered landscapes and cityscapes, paintings in which light and shadow play as important a role as the buildings, fields and trees that form their subject.

Connell, who has been painting about as long as he has been playing bass, keeps a low profile as a local artist. Working out of a studio in the back of his home off Saint Mary’s Street, he’s unfailingly humble, and surprisingly honest about his understated talent.

He’s so honest, in fact, that he realized almost four years ago he needed a break from his work, quite simply, because the joy was gone. “I’d figured out to a way to make a decent painting, but I wasn’t progressing,” he says. “I felt that the work I was doing was a lie.”

Five months ago, Connell emerged from the hiatus with renewed passion, and much of the credit goes to his 3½ -year-old daughter, Ivy. Ivy’s child-size easel is a focal point in living room of the house Connell shares with his wife, Christy, and their daughter. A few of Ivy’s paintings are framed around the house, near several of dad’s. Connell is rightfully proud of one in particular: a bear’s den painted in swirls of reds and browns that seem years beyond a 3-year-old’s ability. What’s more, she was able to give Connell details about her painting, such as where the bear was in the painting, where he slept and where his food was.

Connell says when he watched Ivy paint, he saw her joy and lack of concern about what anyone else thought. “When she works, she doesn’t fret over it, as I was doing,” he says.

He figured if she could have that kind of approach to art, he could, too.

Painting tension 

Now painting full time once again, he has found joy in his landscapes and cityscapes, some of which are for sale at The Mahler Fine Art Gallery in downtown Raleigh.

Inspiration comes from back roads, old barns taken over by trees, or in the beauty of an old downtown building. With oils and sometimes watercolor, he likes painting the tension between solid forms and nature, he says.

“That’s why I put both in a painting, the battle between the two, the intrusion of man on the environment and nature fighting back to reclaim what man put there.”

One of Connell’s favorite pieces is inside the album cover of Ring, the album the band released in 1993. The pale-green building in the painting is Raleigh’s legendary no-frills restaurant the Roast Grill, which has been serving hot dogs on West Street downtown since 1940. The real painting is on the wall in his living room. Nearby is another favorite: the old Pine State Creamery, (shown at right), before it was renovated in the ’90s into Sullivan’s Steakhouse and law offices on Glenwood Avenue.

Both paintings offer a snapshot of Connell’s Raleigh, the town he grew up in before Glenwood South exploded and downtown needed restoring. He was born in the old Rex Hospital on Wade Avenue, just blocks from his home.

Connell took his first art class while at UNC Chapel Hill – about the time his brother Mike convinced him to learn the bass so they could form a band (and play at fraternity parties and meet girls). He was encouraged enough to continue, earning degrees in art and history.

But music soon took over. The Connells went on to become a regional favorite in the ’80s and ’90s, known for their jangle-pop style. Their ’74-‘75 was a No. 1 song in several European countries, including Germany, Connell said. The Connells still play, only now instead of five to six shows a week, it’s 10 to 12 a year.


Peaceful escape 

Connell says painting became his escape when not touring. Studio time was peaceful, an alternative to the hectic life on the road where he was surrounded by band mates and fans. “I wanted that introspective time of quiet and solitude,” he says today. “I didn’t do it with the thought of being commercial.”

Word got out that he painted, and fans at concerts would approach him about buying canvases, something that initially surprised him. “I wasn’t at all secure about my work,” he says. “I didn’t think it was sellable.”

Connell admits it took a while to put a show together. In 2001, David Walser, who owned Red Pin, the eclectic art gallery and home furnishings store in Seaboard Station, approached him about gathering his paintings for a show. “He prodded me, and I reluctantly went along,” Connell said. The show sold out.

He has since had five more shows, the last in 2007 at The Collectors Gallery. Two years after that, he lost momentum. Things were busy at home. Ivy was born, and his studio became her bedroom.

The family has since built an addition for his new studio. At the same time, Connell built a 90-foot, dry-stack wall made of Pennsylvania fieldstone in the backyard – a work of art in its own right.

“I was more fascinated with watching Ivy grow up than anything,” he said. “I thought the (time off) would be beneficial.” His friend, artist Tony Rivera, who has become a mentor and teacher, has helped Connell see solutions to problems in his work, and reassured him that time off would reap dividends.

“Tony taught me that it’s OK for a painting to fail,” Connell said. “It’s just a painting. Painting is a joyful thing. If it isn’t, then I need to stop.”