Pittsburgh may still be known as a steel town, but it is developing into a cultural hub thanks to a groundswell of artistic talent from the region. Dave O’Brien, a Pittsburgher born and raised, is helping the city add to its artsy reputation. “This is a city that inspires me. The people, the places, the bridges, all of it,” O’Brien said.
That inspiration started at a young age. “I won an art competition at South Park Shops when I was four years old. I was youngest kid there and I actually won it.”
Currently living in Dormont, O’Brien attended Seton-LaSalle High School where he quarterbacked the football team. Not exactly what you’d think of when you think “artist.” But O’Brien was always scribbling. “I would putz around with drawing when I was in high school, but it was nothing serious or any good,” he said.
It was in college when his art began to stand out. After a successful high school football career at Seton-LaSalle, O’Brien moved on to Waynesburg University to continue playing.
Art provided a much needed respite from the rigours of being a student athlete.
“I took a drawing class and it was one of my favorites because it was between football meetings and workouts,” he noted.
O’Brien excelled in the class, eventually receiving a high grade despite missing his final. “I slept through the final, so I emailed my professor and she basically said I passed with over 100 percent grade because I made some of the best art she had seen at Waynesburg.”
O’Brien began teaching, what he actually went to school for, but the following Christmas, once again, art returned to his life. Like any 20-something fresh out of college O’Brien was looking for the cheapest, yet most heartfelt Christmas gift he could find to give his family. He eventually settled on creating original, custom paintings for them.
“They all said ‘you can make money off of this’ and so I decided to give it a try,” O’Brien said.
Like any great band or chef, O’Brien learned his art through trial and error. Spending hours of free time at the easel painting away.
Eventually he got so good, one of his designs was chosen for the official Pittsburgh St. Patrick’s Day Parade t-shirt in 2016. A high honor for an Irish Pittsburgh kid.
The parade shirt garnered O’Brien more attention and created a demand for his other art. However, he wasn’t necessarily ready for the business aspect of selling art. “I didn’t know anything about selling or pricing my own product so I met with business owners and other artists to get an idea of how they do it.”
However, O’Brien was still looking for something to set him apart. In September of 2016 he was invited to an art showcase to sell and display his work.
“There were around 300 people there and some other local talent seekers sought me out and invited me to other events. But my booth wasn’t getting a lot of attention otherwise.”
It was then that O’Brien had an epiphany. “I realized that I was surrounded by artists doing live paintings.” So like any good artist, O’Brien stole the idea and began doing live paintings himself.
Business went up and O’Brien began filming his live painting sessions. The videos finally led to paid commissions.
O’Brien’s style is a mix of bright colors, mostly intermingling throughout skylines of Pittsburgh, even some of Pittsburgh’s most famous citizen’s like Mister Rogers and Roberto Clemente are featured.
His direct focus on Pittsburgh stems from a desire to improve the city.
“I worked in the inner city teaching out of college and putting these students in a classroom is not the solution for the future,” O’Brien said. “So eventually I’d like to start murals where we can get the kids out of the classroom and let them express themselves through art.”
He also works with multiple charities in the region, like Light of Life Rescue Mission on the North Side and the Mario Lemieux Foundation, donating both his time and art.
On Sunday, O’Brien will be doing a live painting hosted by Pittsburgh Beautiful. The painting will be auctioned off, live on Facebook, with 100 percent of the proceeds going directly to Light of Life Rescue Mission.
Log on to Pittsburgh Beautiful’s Facebook page at 7:30 pm on Sunday for a chance to bid on the original painting by an original Pittsburgh artist.