Artist Heather Neill adds magic to ordinary objects

"The Basket Weaver," an oil painting by Heather Neill.
Photo courtesy of The Granary Gallery

"The Basket Weaver," an oil painting by Heather Neill.

The worn shingles, weathered woods, mellow head-board, peeling paint, delicate teacups, antique pocket watches, and the familiar waters of the Vineyard form the basis for painter Heather Neill’s unique vision of Island life. While at first glance many of her works appear to depict a nearly photorealistic sense of her subject matter, closer examination yields surprises: the juxtaposition of unrelated objects, the masterful use of light to pull the viewer’s eye, or a touch of whimsy.

Less than a decade ago Ms. Neill’s name was unknown to the art world. Yet today, according to Chris Morse, owner of West Tisbury’s Granary Gallery at the Red Barn, she is one of the gallery’s most important artists. With an opening scheduled this Sunday, July 17, Mr. Morse is optimistic that fans of Ms. Neill’s highly idiosyncratic work will turn out in force. “People visit her work and are humbled by it,” he says. “She’s a remarkable talent.”

Now 53, Ms. Neill didn’t begin painting full-time until she was well into her 40s, following stints as a fine art framer, chair maker, carpenter, bookbinder, farm hand, and vest maker. She received her only formal art education in high school and in college, concentrating primarily on drawing and printmaking. Compelled by very detailed representational work, she came of age during the Color Field era of bold work, Andy Warhol, and, as she puts it, “psychedelic, trippy stuff.”

Embracing instead the more traditional painterly styles of both N.C. Wyeth and Andrew Wyeth, Vermeer, Rembrandt, and other realist painters, Ms. Neill focuses on detail in each of her works, hoping, she explains, that her paintings “provide as much excitement up close as they do from far way.”

Born in Hawaii, her father was a minister and her mother a still-life painter. Until she began high school her life involved moving every two years. One might speculate that peripatetic nature of her childhood may have led to Ms. Neill’s attraction to the timeless traditions and relatively unspoiled landscape of the Vineyard, a place where change is often hard-fought.

Her favorite subjects to capture in oils are “well-used objects.” Old-fashioned handkerchiefs, pocket watches, clothespins, delicate teacups, and baskets make frequent appearances.

“I feel or see or imagine someone’s hand picking them up,” she explains. “Time after time after time, people remark that my paintings remind them of their grandmother’s kitchen or elicit other comforting memories.”

Her paintings are often evocative of richer stories. “It’s not just a landscape,” she says, “but a footprint in the sand as well. A person has interacted with the place. There might be missing roof shingles following a storm. I look beyond the literal.”

Many of her paintings are accompanied by painter’s notes that are included on her website and displayed at The Granary. They offer detailed explanations of what inspired the work. “But the story I’m working on is not necessarily the one I expect the viewer to experience,” she is quick to add. “It’s not meant to be the story of the painting.”

A resident of Manchester, Penn., Ms. Neill tries to spend a month or two in the fall on the Vineyard each year. Her hope is to some day relocate here. Until then, she spends much of her Island time in Chilmark, capturing vistas as they might have appeared long before people inhabited them. And, though she is drawn to the natural beauty of the land, she rarely paints plein air.

“I develop lots of sketches and shoot thousands of reference photographs,” she says. “I’m not a photorealist. I’m not trying to paint like a photograph. I rely on my visual memory and look for common threads to connect my work to people who view it in a way that is also magical.”

Drawn to the Vineyard by its “completely unique quality of light,” Ms. Neill also says she relishes the Island’s sense of “sacredness and peacefulness, unchanged for centuries.” And, while her subject matter has remained relatively consistent over the years, she is focused more clearly now on the use of light as a powerful tool in her work.

During the last several years, Ms. Neill has achieved two major milestones in her relatively short career as a professional artist: In 2008, her painting, “Strider’s Surrender,” an homage to the retired commercial fishing boat owned by Jonathan Mayhew, sold for $75,000 to an anonymous purchaser who donated it to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s private collection. And this past year, Ms. Neill’s expansive painting, “Menemsha Basin,” depicting the scene before the fire that destroyed the Coast Guard boathouse and pier, became her first work to sell for more than six figures.

Encouraged by Mr. Morse to create paintings that tell a story, Ms. Neill happily complies. From the quiet calm of a summer cottage on opening day with its interplay of light and shadow, to the bustle of a windy day on the water in Edgartown Harbor, her works illustrate the spectrum of Island life. But back in her cozy log home in Pennsylvania, Ms. Neill says that she never takes her success for granted. “I get to knock on wood every day,” she admits with a chuckle.

Artists’ Reception featuring Heather Neill, Jeanne Staples, David Fokos, and Don Wilks on Sunday, July 17, 5 to 7 pm at The Granary Gallery. There will be an Artist Talk on Tuesday, July 19 with Heather Neill and photographer David Fokos, time TBA. The Granary, 636 Old County Road, West Tisbury. 508-693-0455.