The Hidden Beauty of a Walmart Store

A short documentary follows an artist as he paints the inside of the supermarket chain.

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From its iconic supercenters to widely-publicized wage disputes, there is no doubt that Walmart, like it or not, has become a ubiquitous part of our culture. There are currently over 11,000 Walmart stores around the globe, making it one of the most visited interior spaces in the world.

But it is possible that in the future we’ll feel nostalgic about the supermarket chain?

Brendan O'Connell

Brendan O'Connell

In the short documentary Brendan O’Connell Is Blocking the Bread Aisle, artist Brendan O’Connell goes into Walmart stores to paint the aisles he strolls and the people he sees. O’Connell notes that “whatever your views are, positive or negative related to Walmart, it just is. From an artist’s perspective, addressing this environment that is an undeniable component to contemporary life is exciting.”

In an interview with The Atlantic’s Video channel, filmmakers Julien Lasseur and Jamie Thalman discuss art, Walmart, and the making of the film:

The Atlantic: How did you come to make this documentary?

Julien Lasseur and Jamie Thalman: Julien had been in touch with O'Connell about doing a film project around his Walmart series. The New Yorker had just run an article about O'Connell's project and Walmart gave us permission to shoot in a Connecticut store. We were not exactly big Walmart shoppers, but suspected it would be a different opportunity and something we'd rarely get to experience — shooting a film in a Walmart.

Has your own perspective on shopping changed since making the film?

We find ourselves thinking about how to “elevate everyday moments into acts of beauty” more often. When we're in the drugstore for toothpaste, it's less of a chore now and more a part of our everyday experience. If we let those moments fall into the mundane, they're lost in some way. Toothpaste shopping still isn't something we love, but it's not something that bores us to tears anymore; it can actually be kind of nice.

Brendan O'Connell
Brendan O'Connell

What was it like shooting inside a Walmart? What was the reaction of passersby?

We had a very different experience shooting in Walmart than when O'Connell first started taking photos there; they actually let us roll video on our cameras. Employees were curious about the project at first, but as the day progressed we blended into the backdrop of the store. We used a shopping cart to move our equipment throughout the store and were assigned an asset preservation associate to look after our equipment.

We were generally so low impact shooting with only two Canon 5Ds that people barely noticed us. Brendan's painting setup attracted some attention, as an occasional shopper would stop to watch for a minute. Children were curious about the filming and painting; their parents would quietly explain we were shooting. We also blocked a few aisles with our Dana Dolly for some shots; as it's not something they experience everyday, shoppers found it amusing to have to wait while we got a shot off.

What do you hope the impact of your film will be?

We hope that viewers challenge their assumptions about seemingly mundane and everyday moments. Further, we want people to think about Walmart differently. We're not condoning the retail giant with this piece, but we are suggesting that it's a part of our everyday culture and plays a subtle role in our lives.

How has O’Connell’s Walmart series evolved since 2003, and what's next for the project?

O'Connell's Walmart series has gone from something he did on the fringe, having to evade Walmart to capture the images he worked off of, to mainstream acceptance. His relationship with Walmart and his appearances in The New Yorker and The Colbert Report catapulted the series' profile, but he's still working out of the same Connecticut barn where he started. He also gets to paint in Walmart stores more regularly.

Brendan O’Connell is Blocking the Bread Aisle is a documentary by Julien Lasseur and Jamie Thalman. To see more work from them, visit: http://www.tatgeprod.com/breadaisle

To view more of O'Connell's paintings and purchase prints, visit: https://brendan-oconnell-xw77.squarespace.com/shop/

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Sam Price-Waldman is an associate video producer at The Atlantic. More

Price-Waldman's documentaries have been featured by Vimeo Staff Picks, on PBS, and at film festivals including AFI SilverDocs and Full Frame.
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