Hugh O’Connor and his daughter, Iyla, stand behind some of the heart sculptures they created for the Grosse Pointe Chamber of Commerce’s 2021 public art project, the Heartbeat of Grosse Pointe.

Hugh O’Connor and his daughter, Iyla, stand behind some of the heart sculptures they created for the Grosse Pointe Chamber of Commerce’s 2021 public art project, the Heartbeat of Grosse Pointe.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran


Father and daughter put their heart into art for GPCC’s Heartbeat of Grosse Pointe

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published June 24, 2021

  To honor his late mother, a Grosse Pointe Farms resident who died this year from COVID-19, O’Connor named a freighter on his Lake St. Clair and fish-themed heart sculpture the Mary E. O’Connor.

To honor his late mother, a Grosse Pointe Farms resident who died this year from COVID-19, O’Connor named a freighter on his Lake St. Clair and fish-themed heart sculpture the Mary E. O’Connor.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

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GROSSE POINTES — You could say that art is in the O’Connor family blood.

Grosse Pointe Farms native Hugh O’Connor, of St. Clair Shores, is an artist, as are both of his children, Iyla and Finn, also of St. Clair Shores. All three of them have participated in previous Grosse Pointe Chamber of Commerce public art projects, and this year, Hugh and Iyla have both created multiple works for the Heartbeat of Grosse Pointe, 68 heart-shaped sculptures in two sizes that have been creatively reimagined by dozens of local artists.

“He trained me well,” said Iyla, an aspiring fashion designer studying that field at Western Michigan University. “Everything I know, I learned from him.”

“It makes me very proud of her that she does such a good job and her art is getting recognized,” Hugh said.

The hearts were distributed to sponsor locations June 11. They will remain on display throughout the summer, and will then be auctioned off during an event Sept. 23 at the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House in Grosse Pointe Shores. The project is a fundraiser for the GPCC’s nonprofit arm, the Grosse Pointe Chamber Foundation.

“We wanted to have hearts everywhere in Grosse Pointe so everybody can enjoy the art,” said GPCC Executive Director Jennifer Palms Boettcher.

Hugh created three large hearts — one inspired by an art deco jazz record cover and old sheet music for the Dirty Dog Jazz Café in Grosse Pointe Farms; the fish and Lake St. Clair-themed “The Heart of the Great Lakes” sponsored by the Grosse Pointe Chamber Foundation and located outside of Park Market in Grosse Pointe Park; and one influenced by the use of “dazzle camouflage” on World War II lakers ships for Ray Laethem Motor Village in Detroit.

Iyla created a Michigan-themed large heart for Small Favors in the Village, and a small heart with an intricate pattern of multicolored dots for Higbie Maxon Agney Realtors in Grosse Pointe Farms.

Although they didn’t paint together, Iyla said they bounced ideas off one another, and her dad said they called and sent texts and photos back and forth as they worked on the sculptures.

“I just had so much fun with it last time, and I loved that we could do it together,” Iyla said.

The public art project is in keeping with the GPCC’s unofficial schedule of doing one every three years. Previous projects were dog sculptures in 2018, butterfly benches in 2015 and fish sculptures in 2012. Palms Boettcher said the COVID-19 pandemic had put a question mark on this year’s effort, but they decided to go forward with it.

“We just really wanted to raise the spirits of the community,” Palms Boettcher said. “We wanted to help out these local artists, too.”

Like businesses, artists have been struggling over the last year and a half because the most common ways for them to sell their works — at festivals and through galleries and art shows — were largely shut down due to COVID-19.

“I was just excited that they were having it again because it’s always such a big community event,” Iyla said. “A community’s still a community, no matter what’s going on. The hearts were a good symbol of that coming together.”

Hugh was also glad to see that the project was happening.

“It showed that things were opening up and getting back to normal again,” he said.

For the O’Connor family, the pandemic has taken a personal toll. In January, Hugh’s mother, Mary E. O’Connor, died of COVID-19. His “Heart of the Great Lakes” sculpture has a tribute to her: It features a freighter that he named the Mary E. O’Connor.

“She grew up in the Farms, and she loved the lakes,” Hugh said of his decision to honor her this way.

A map to all of the heart locations is on the GPCC website, and paper copies of the map are also available from the GPCC office or from sponsoring businesses.

“It gives everybody an opportunity to do something together,” Palms Boettcher said.

To see more of Hugh O’Connor’s work, visit his website, https://oconnordesigns.org.

For more information about the Heartbeat of Grosse Pointe, visit www.grossepointechamber.com or call the GPCC at (313) 881-4722.

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