An artistic life

Artist Joan O’Neil draws a pastel portrait in Waterside. She has been a fixture at the festival marketplace since June 1, 1983.

Steve Earley

— Waterside has changed a lot in its 30 years. Its only constant just may be Joan O’Neil.

The portrait artist has been a fixture at the festival marketplace since June 1, 1983, when jugglers and clowns greeted the throngs who turned out for opening day of the city’s waterfront crown jewel.

Since then, her pastels have captured countless faces, and Waterside’s fortunes have fallen. Crowds became a memory. Shops went dark. And O’Neil became a rare thing: an original attraction that hangs on, aging along with the building that surrounds her.

“How long have I been here?” she asks, sounding a bit astonished. “I can’t believe I’ve been coming in here for 30 years!”

Now 74, she sketches at a food-court kiosk and has cut back her hours, mostly because of a lack of customers. In the good old days, she had a second-floor shop and employed five artists.

“People used to line up,” she says. “I remember doing one portrait right after another. Things were good for about 10 years. It just slowly went downhill. I can’t afford to hire anyone now.”

It doesn’t help that O’Neil plies an old-fashioned trade in a mall that echoes with emptiness: “Everybody’s got a camera now,” she says. “Those darned things.”

But a camera can’t do what an artist can: trim off a few years or pounds.

“People ask me to do that all the time,” she says. “They’ll say ‘Can you leave out this double-chin?’ ”

O’Neil grew up in Niagara Falls, attended art school in Florida and has lived in Norfolk since the 1960s. For a time, she worked as a substitute art teacher in public schools, then answered a help-wanted ad placed by a woman opening a portrait shop at the new Waterside. O’Neil bought the business in 1988.

The years haven’t slowed her hand. She can whip out a portrait in under 30 minutes, a chalk likeness that sells for $20. Still, days can pass without a single customer.

The management gave her a break long ago on the rent: from a flat rate to a percentage of sales. Social Security helps keep the lights on at her house, where life gets lonely as a widow.

“I like to draw,” she says, “and this gets me out with people.”

Except there aren’t many of those at Waterside anymore. To fill all those quiet hours, O’Neil sketches celebrities. Every now and then, someone buys a Dale Earnhardt or a Michael Jackson or a Marilyn Monroe for $40.

What’s next? Probably a parting of the ways by the end of the year.

Waterside Live is in the works, a $28 million overhaul aimed at making the old venue young again.

Unfortunately, there’s no option like that for people. And even if there were, O’Neil doubts she could swing the rent.

“This place is like a second home,” she says. “It’s really going to shake me up when I have to get out of here.”