Island history reflected in paintings of the Hancock-Mitchell House

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"Night Watchman" — Heather Neill

Ever since the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation took on the project of restoring and repurposing the historic Hancock-Mitchell House in Quansoo, all types of experts have visited the site to take a look and add to the growing pool of information on what is believed to be the oldest — or second oldest — home on the Island. Scientists, historic restoration architects, a dendrochronologist (expert in tree-ring dating) even a specialist in historic wallpaper have passed through the home to inspect this marvel of architectural preservation.

The home is in the process of being examined, restored, and meticulously preserved in as much of its original state as possible for future use as a study house. Among those who have had the privilege of exploring the isolated farmhouse, notable for the degree to which it has been kept in its original condition, is one whose interest lies beyond the scientific and academic to the more personal history of the house and the aesthetics of its very much lived-in state.

Artist Heather Neill had the privilege of visiting the home over a period of about four months in 2017, and the result of her exploration and some fairly extensive research into the house’s past is a series of seven paintings of the home’s interior, all of which will be on exhibit at the Granary Gallery through mid-August.

While the professionals have been peeling back layers of paint, plaster, and wood to expose some of the original details of the home, Neill has peeled back the years to show the more human side of the house’s history. Although she hasn’t added or subtracted any details in her striking realist paintings, Neill has managed to capture a sense of life and light in her work.

“The magic of that place is that everywhere you turn there is a mark of someone who has been there,” says the artist. “In the carvings in the wall or the choices of paint that’s been revealed.” She adds, “What they’re doing with the house is not bringing it back to perfect condition but sort of pausing it in the 1700s. The beauty of the house is that it was never modernized. There’s no electric wiring, no plumbing. As they began to take away layers of paint and wallpaper, you could see the original.”

Neill was able to imagine the lives that went on in the home throughout the years, and she has somehow imparted that insight to the viewer. One can clearly picture the home as it was when originally occupied in either the 1600s or 1700s (there is some disagreement among experts as to the actual age of the home).

While a simple photograph may have captured nothing but peeling paint, exposed boards, cracked and rutted plaster, and weathered floorboards, Neill has brought sunlight and shadow, glimpses of nature through uncurtained windows, and the welcoming presence of open doors and inviting staircases. In some cases, Neill strategically placed things found in the house to add humanizing touches, like a couple of maps hanging in the blue Map Room, an old chair, a broom, and a clay roasting pan filled with shells (just as it was discovered). Every find is treated as an uncovered gem by Neill, in the same way that the home itself has very obviously proved an unending source of delight to the artist.

Alongside each painting, Neill has included a bit of writing — information about the house and the preservation process, observations, and even snippets of poetry. For example, one scene inspired the following:

 

This one ticks all the boxes for me …

centuries of living on the island

talismans left for us to puzzle

maps to point the way

salt and brine soaked patina

on wood worked by hand

passages in

and passages out

and always and ever

our return … to the sea.

 

Heather Neill’s paintings of the Hancock-Mitchell house will be on display at the Granary Gallery in West Tisbury through August 15, along with new work by Ross Coppelman and Don Wilks, and a selection of historic works by African American artists.