The Real Change Portrait Project

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John O'Donnell

"John O'Donnell" Oil on Canvas by Judith Morales
There are two kinds of work John O’Donnell definitely likes doing. One is selling Real Change. The other is art. He started painting when he was 13. “You know those little match books that say, ‘Draw me’ on them? When I was a little kid I was bored, so I drew off the matchbook. I’ve been doing artwork off and on since then. I painted a buffalo on the gym floor in high school. I do cartoons, representational, pastels, water colors.” John took courses to try to become a commercial artist. “I could get a lot of work. You get a lot of money for it, but I want to work when I want to work.” John’s never been comfortable with “a boss on my back.” He started feeling like that as a kid in Butte, Mont. He had a hearing problem. When the teacher was turned to the chalkboard, “it’s like Charlie Brown or Linus — ‘Wanh wanh waaanh,’ that’s all I’m hearing. I’m not hearing words. She used to ridicule me because [she was] too ignorant to understand.” John didn’t stay in Butte. “There’s nothing there to do but get in trouble.” He was a driller’s helper in Montana, but finally “got stuck” in Seattle. He worked moving city offices and even the police when they were relocated to new buildings. “I was loading, unloading for ten years. There’s no room for you to move up.” Instead of staying another 10 years to get a pension, he quit. He spent six years as a cook at Boeing in Everett but got laid off in 2001. He found a job with a house painter but got disillusioned. “He didn’t use any primer on the houses, just pressure washed and caulked and puttied and then just painted one coat. By the time he got through, the other house was cracking.” He found jobs through Labor Ready, but one day they refused to pay him because he’d lost his safety vest. “I waited until this other guy came in and threw [his vest] on the shelf. I picked it up and told the guy, ‘I’d like to get paid’ and he said, ‘Did you bring a vest?’ and I said, ‘Yeah!’ So I got paid and got the hell out of there.” “That’s why I came here [Real Change]. You can talk to a different kind of people and learn different things. They get to know you, and you get to know them. I get little kids, 5 or 6 years old, [giving me] five dollars, with a smile on their face because I’m known to them. And the store respects me.” John says selling Real Change helped him communicate better with people. “At first, I didn’t know how to talk to these people. I smiled, started saying goofy shit to get some humor going.” After he got customers to say good morning, he’d come back with his own line: “Well, I woke up alive this morning.”



Artist: Judith Morales
Judith Morales is a student at Northwest College of Art and Design. She enjoys making portraits and cartoons. You can find her at Poulsbo or Shelton. The artist was inspired reading John O' Donnell's story because she could relate to how he started to become an artist. She enjoyed painting John's portrait and believes painting will be part of her career.


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