Life, Collected: Megan O’Connor at Home

This Raleigh painter and collage artist fills her small space with personal, curated finds.
by Ayn-Monique Klahre | photography by Taylor McDonald

“I’m definitely a maximalist! I want to have inspiration and memories everywhere,” says Megan O’Connor. Known for her commissioned oil portraits and watercolor homes, the painter has filled her apartment with vintage finds and DIY projects, creating comfortable vignettes within her minimal square footage. In one room is an ode to old Westerns in tones of sepia and ochre; in another, citrus hues, postcards and quirky souvenirs combine for a retro-tropical scheme.

This is the first time O’Connor has lived by herself, and she was ready for a space to be fully her own. “I’ve had 14 Craigslist roommates and none of them were murderers, but this is much better,” she laughs. “I hope I don’t get so used to it that I can never live with anyone ever again!” O’Connor has lived all over — a couple places in Virginia, in Maryland, even in Italy during grad school — and landed in Raleigh in 2014.

She moved into this one-bedroom apartment inside a WWII-era building near The Village District two years ago, attracted to its deep window sills, vintage cabinet mirrors and hardwood floors. But she’s always gravitated toward older homes: Before this place, she’d rented in Historic Oakwood, and before that, in another turn-of-the century building in Raleigh. “I liked the fact that this was a little aged,” she says. “I’ve always been a fan of anything old-school. I’m attracted to the character and charm.”

She did make some compromises in her current space, like no dishwasher or central A/C. “When the office manager gave me the tour, the first question was, what can you live without?” she says. But otherwise, it was the perfect space to make her own.

In the living area, O’Connor created an area for work through her “proudest DIY moment.” Here, she hung a length of copper tubing from the ceiling to hang a curtain to section off her painting area. There, she can work on her art and plan for classes she teaches at art camps, the Pullen Arts Center and the Cary Arts Center. “I wanted to have a dedicated studio space that was a different vibe than the rest of the home, but could be closed off when I wasn’t working,” she says. She also painted her piano and decoupaged its piano bench over a decade ago. “I made this before anyone was buying the things I made,” she says. “Now I’m busy with commissions for paintings, otherwise I’d still be making weird things.” O’Connor made use of existing picture-rail moldings throughout to hang her ever-changing collections of paintings. “I love to just switch it up,” she says. “I’ll sporadically rearrange the furniture, and as soon as I fill the walls in one space, I’m ready to start in a new space.”

In addition to her painting, O’Connor has turned collecting vintage items into a hobby-slash-side hustle. “I have caches all around the apartment of vintage ephemera and papers,” she says, including the blue filing cabinet in the office area, half of the wardrobe in her bedroom and the trunk in the living room. All of her treasures are filed by color or theme: “The Rugged Explorer,” or “Retro Girly-Girl.” “I just can’t stop making the sets, it’s one of my favorite things to do,” she says. “I gravitate toward those elements of the material culture that are still available to me.” Some of the collections make it onto her walls, and others end up being sold through her Etsy shop. “When I have favorites, I’ll pull them out and put them on the bulletin board,” she says.

Throughout the home, she furnishes spaces with a mix of passed-down pieces and vintage finds — everything has a provenance. “A huge passion is retro and vintage decor,” says O’Connor. The trunk in the living room was her father’s when he was in the Boy Scouts, adorned with bumper stickers he collected in the 1960s; her decorations include a typewriter that belonged to her grandfather and a window ledge full of seashells her mother collected (“She is obsessed with collecting shells!” laughs O’Connor). The bureau in her bedroom is from the late 1800s, a wedding gift her German ancestors brought with them when they immigrated to the United States. She even has an “Italy corner” of one wall with mementos from her time there.

Just as she likes to group her vintage finds by theme, each space tends to have a specific point of view: she curated a Wild West theme above the dining table, her bedroom is a “Bohemian Caravan” and the kitchen has a loose summer camp theme. Though, she laughs: “I guess there’s no theme in the living room, just warm vintage things.”

Recently, O’Connor has started using collage in some of her artwork, combining found items and paint in a practice that, much like decorating her home, is always organic and always evolving: “It’s part and parcel with my creative impetus, my drive to make things and put things together that I find beautiful and meaningful.”  

On the wall next to the dining table, Megan O’Connor arranged art and found objects in a Wild West theme. “I just love the sort of nostalgic Americana feel,” she says. She included some of her father’s first art purchases when he was a bachelor, a shadow box of mementos from a road trip after college, as well as some of her own work, including a rough draft of a sidewalk mural you can find near Marbles Kids Museum. That one, she says, was inspired by drawings and fonts she saw in her father’s old Boys’ Life magazines — a sort of nature-trail-guide vibe. O’Connor painted the stripes on her free-from-Craigslist piano. “I just went for it,” she says. “It was already scarred, so I didn’t mind adding to it.” 

In her living room O’Connor hosts friends, tossing pillows on the ground if they need more space. She used produce crates found in her grandma’s attic as a TV stand. Her father, whose old ragtime albums are on display, built the bookshelf, and the tapestry was something her uncle brought back after being stationed in India in the military.
She adorned her cowboy boots with vintage ribbon she found in her grandmother’s attic to cover holes from years of wear: “I loved them so much I couldn’t throw them away.” 
O’Connor uses an antique vanity her grandfather built in her studio space for her oil paintings, which are usually 8-by-10-inch portraits. “They’re really small, and it has a glass top, so I can just scrape the paint off if it spills,” she says. Above the desk, she hangs anything that inspires her, like souvenirs, notes from clients and vintage finds. “I like the feeling of there being a lot going on, like when you work at a cafe and there’s bustle and hubbub,” she says. “But I’m also happy to close it when I need to.” 
In the bathroom, O’Connor painted the walls and decorated with a fun map shower curtain and souvenirs from trips to Hawaii to visit her sister.
O’Connor made the wall decorations in her bedroom out of favorite old t-shirts and embroidery hoops. “I really can’t sew, so this was an easy way to display them,” she says.

This article originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of WALTER magazine.