Galleries : A Brush With The Soul : Heather Neill
Pennsylvania painter, Heather Neill, has a dream: She wants to live on the Vineyard, and judging by the success she's achieved this summer, she'll soon reach her goal. The sale of "Strider's Surrender," her painting of the Menemsha fishing boat at The Granary at the Red Barn made news earlier this month for capturing in minute detail a visual statement about the decline of the regional fishing industry, and because an anonymous donor paid $75,000 to donate the painting to the Martha's Vineyard Museum.
"I'm deeply interested in the history of the objects I paint, where they've been and the stories they tell," she says.
Ms. Neill's distinctive paintings, most often still lifes, interiors, and often, idiosyncratic landscapes, are rendered with an unerring eye in meticulous realism. They include "A Shortage of Fishing Poles," where the eponymous rod hangs suspended in space with a Poole's fishing hat hooked on the line. Carved into the frame is a quote from Doug Larson: "If people concentrated on the really important things in life, there'd be a shortage of fishing poles."
The same humor turns up in the narrative composition of other paintings like "Squibnocket Brulée," which depicts a ramekin of crème brulée balanced on a cherry-red, high-heeled woman's shoe, while the wispy blue flame of a nearby blowtorch finishes cooking the dessert. In the background is the curve of Squibnocket Beach and the ocean.
A more traditional interior still life, "Raking Light," demonstrates the artist's mastery at using light and composition to infuse objects with an illusion of being tangible. Two rakes lean against a shed wall, and seem to hover in the light and shadow of the shed's open door.
Her subject matter and exquisite execution combine to make her work popular and powerful.
After six years at the gallery, Granary owner Chris Morse notes that she is working on a larger scale, doing more complex compositions with finer execution. And he mentions how thoughtful she is: "She sends chocolates and thank you notes when we sell a painting."
Surprisingly, the 50-year-old artist had her first show only seven years ago, a month after 9/11/01. In the years before, Ms. Neill did all kinds of things to make money, from working as a farmhand, bookbinder, vest maker, to chair maker in order to afford being able to paint. "I've had an easel in every place I lived," she says. Her partner, hospice worker Pat Lackey, encouraged her to make a full time commitment to painting, telling her they'd struggle as much as they had to.
After studying drawing and printmaking at Connecticut College, she moved to Boston where she worked at the Harvard Coop as a picture framer. A roommate, Lynn Langmuir, invited her to the family's summer camp in Chilmark. Ms. Neill fell in love with the Island and has been coming back for 25 years, most recently from the small Pennsylvania town of Manchester.
Ms. Neill has moved from the tiny space she was using as a studio; she cut a hole in the ceiling of her new, larger space that extends to a height of 12 feet and she can now have an almost 360-degree access to her work.
She uses photographs when she doesn't have access to her subject ("I get a lot of props on e-Bay"), but Ms. Neill distinguishes her brand of realism from the photorealism of a Steve Mills (also hanging at the Granary) that entails sharpening the image and defining edges. She prefers to identify herself as a contemporary realist. "There's more of a soul there," she says. "I aim to be three-dimensional. That's where the soul comes in. I like having several layers in a painting. You have a whole narrative going, then you step back and look at the title and get a whole other idea. There's a sense of mystery.
Because she did not have a classical training, Ms. Neill sees herself as a poor technician, and says most artists would cringe at her palette. She admits she uses up to 40 different colors on a single canvas, and has hundreds of paint tubes. "I go through hundreds and hundreds of brushes," she adds.
Her role models are the Dutch Baroque painter Johannes Vermeer and members of the Wyeth family, N.C. Wyeth in particular. "I'm drawn to the rich colors," she says. "His bold, bold colors gave me permission not to be my mother." (Ms. Neill's mother painted in earthy egg tempera colors.)
A quote taped on her easel is modified from mythologist Joseph Campbell: "Paint from your authentic self." She has been following her bliss ever since she discovered his writings.
"I believe in dreaming your biggest dream," she says. "Now I keep having to raise the bar."