heather neill :: yours in flying paint brushes
Q: Admirers universally feel or remark on the intimacy of your relationship with light. Was this relationship in place in your early painting career, or did you grow toward the light?
A: I appreciate that sentiment deeply. The line from a Leonard Cohen song is taped to my easel, “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” I had to live through years of darkness to learn to love those cracks. Today, I watch in wonder as the flats of seedlings that have taken over every corner of this late winter studio are bending towards their light. I’m leaning in with them.
Q: Your work contains a particular sense of sound, what I would describe as quiet awe experienced most often only in grand civic buildings — museums, cathedrals, libraries. Do you have an awareness of this, or hold an unseen intention, when you paint?
A: Ooh, I like that. Never thought of the symbiosis of sound and composition. Good question. I can’t own any intention of trying to render sound, except for the accidental silences between things. But space, yes, I own that. Space, specifically, as it relates to the humans who have passed through. I come to the corner of a barn, or chair beside a window from a point of reverence, to elevate the human history and purpose housed within. So, if there were a way in which I could claim a connection to a sense of sound therein, it would be their voices.
I want to record the disturbances in the air that shimmer, the essence of people who have rested there long enough to leave something behind, the echo that says, “This place held me for a while. If you stop and look around, it will tell you something about me and, if you have the courage to listen, it might tell you something about you.”
Q: The intricacy of detail in your paintings requires extraordinary discipline and patience. Do these virtues come naturally to you, or are they the reward for long hours at the easel? What does it look like when you struggle? How do you resolve it?
A: Yes, you bet, it takes tremendous discipline just to show up at the easel every day. This comes naturally to me. The detail, yep, it takes patience, something for which I have all the time in the world. I LOVE rendering the fine lines and the subtle shifts along an edge. My work ethic is fierce and I’ve worked many jobs, for many years, to earn enough money to paint, never expecting I could make a living as an artist. I work very hard every day in keeping that dream a reality.
The gift of long hours at the easel is getting to build on the previous day’s work, but it can also be the struggle. I can throw myself full-tilt into a passage of color, only to face it in the harsher morning light, when I realize it’s a mess. Then I have to come at it another way, to experiment, to play, and to wrestle until it sings. From the inside this looks dark and stormy — a familiar meandering trail of slain dragons, broken lances, and tilted-at-windmills. I’m moments from turning sixty, so these days I’m easier with myself when struggling through self-doubt, technical mastery, and the slog of the business end of art. When the going gets tough, I go to the garden and weed.
Q: Do you consider yourself a visual historian? Documentarian? Storyteller?
A: Yes, I aspire to all three as part of living a curious life. I think about being a good visual storyteller, spinning a yarn worthy of a glass of port by the fireside on a winter’s night. And I enjoy learning the history behind places and objects and people that the muses throw in my path. I suppose that if my paintings are touchstones to those things I’ve gleaned along the way, “that’d be sorta fun,” to quote Ted Meinelt (the beloved Island art teacher).
Q: Can you describe your physical process of painting?
A: First there is the panel making process — humble grunt work — which takes the better part of three weeks and is done in batches of 20 or more, leaving me with a stack of gessoed panels ready for primetime. During this same period, I'm fine tuning the composition on my sketch before transferring it to the panel. I do this by tracing with graphite paper, or sketching directly, up on the panel. Then, the painting begins. Key reference points get highlighted and I build the forms with foundation color, knowing most will not be seen in the final product. But the way the colors are laid, in layers, is essential to creating a realistic object. A kitchen apron is woven loosely enough for light to pass through, so I start with the weft. A teacup is solid porcelain that reflects light, with the beautiful exception of those deliciously thin rims glowing from within, so I build a layer of opaque clay. A wood paneled wall, or floor, even after centuries of foot traffic, needs to retain enough of its youthful warm colors to radiate, so I start with a wash of transparent earth orange. If I carefully build those colors into the structure from the start, then I can convince the viewer to come with me into this kitchen or barn, to pick up this apron, and to see what I was really trying to get them to see.
With seventeen years of painting under my belt, I’ve settled into a comfort with the tools and techniques. This allows me to devote time to the challenges of interpretation, and deeper understandings of subject and narrative, which translates to longer sittings with each painting. Depending on the size and subject matter of a painting, I can count on spending 60 – 200 hours on a medium sized piece, and 400 or more on a larger piece. Ten years ago, that would have translated into a week or two of straight 10 plus hour days. Nowadays, eh, my mind wanders, and I need to stretch out the old bones, so I’m happy with eight or nine hours with a brush in my hand.
Q: Your work conveys a strong sense of place. Is your studio a sacred space, meaning that you’re selective as to whom you welcome?
A: Absolutely. This is especially true during the winter months when I enter a deep creative hibernation. I yank hard on the drawbridge and Pat, my partner and seasonal gatekeeper settles into her comfy chair with Finnegan, our ferocious Bernese Mountain dog. Together we aim to carve out a swath of days uninterrupted by nettlesome humans and their germs. I’ve adopted my friend Peter’s philosophy, “with fewer days left on this planet, I’m getting very picky about who I have fifteen minutes for.” Crusty old woman persona aside, my brushes will happily rest for a few spectacular humans, for whom my door is always open.
Q: What would a visitor first notice about the space?
A: One more teacup and I may trip over the hoarder line.
My first studio here along the Little Conewago Creek was a 12 x 18 foot garage room built twenty feet up in the air to avoid the flood plain. When I outgrew that, we bought the place next door and turned the bungalow into the current studio, which has all the luxuries of running water and electricity, and I opened up the attic to allow space for my easel to extend to its full 12-foot height. The old garage and original studio is now the “prop room.”
The open loft space is a wow factor for a first-time visitor, but it’s the “stuff” that's the true eye candy. Old cameras, maritime detritus, feathers, tools. People who have a passing acquaintance with my work have said walking into my studio is like walking into one of my paintings. This makes me smile.
Q: Many artists are able only to create within the comfort and familiarity of their studios. Does this describe you?
A: Kind of. This was a fun question to ponder, because yes, I’m a studio artist, so working on the actual paintings happens there, at the easel, but a significant portion of getting that composition to the easel happens everywhere else.
All day long, wherever I am, there is a constant flood of visual stimulation. Okay, that’s true for everyone, but as an artist, the hardest part of my job is editing that stream.
The muses play a vital role in filtering out what might be a painting idea by asking me to take a second look. When this happens, I grab whatever scrap of paper and writing instrument is handy to record ideas. The scraps that don’t get blown away or shredded at the Laundromat end up tucked in sketchbooks, which are a more permanent link in my workflow. Think of my sketchbooks as off-site storage for notations and references that might be worth a third look.
Final answer...for me, the act of creation is happening everywhere, all the time, and my studio is the most comfortable place to step out of the stream long enough to get some of the best bits down on the canvas.
Q: Who are your trusty studio companions, other than Alexa and the Muses?
A: I have an update. Alexa and I have been on a trial separation. She refused to play nicely with the new speakers, reacting with typical playground pouting and pretending to not understand my Jeopardy answers, especially when they were right. So, she got unplugged and I am enjoying the peace and quiet, thank you very much.
My trusty studio companions…
One for each of the souls we have loved and wish to remember. They each check in, on their own time, when I need them the most.
The birds that remind me to fill their feeders. The bunnies that come in the late afternoon to remind me to stretch out that stiff neck and shoulders. The ladybug, who is decidedly Ted, who lands on the end of my tiniest brushes, and reminds me to stop taking myself so seriously.
There’s a tiny band that marches along the windowsill by my easel. Yoda, Sir Bernard, my father’s watch, a green plastic sheep, a stone from Santa Fe, and a pinecone from Ted’s graveside. They are close so I can pick them up and they can watch out for me.
The portrait of Ted and his tea cozy. And Finn.
Q: Is there an artist(s), or piece of work, that’s resonated with you from childhood into the present?
A: By far the most influential from day one through this very afternoon: early drawings by Kathe Kollwitz, the paintings and drawings of Van Gogh, and the works of Andrew Wyeth and NC Wyeth.
Q: You’ve written that one of your favorite quotes is from Willa Cather, “The end is nothing, the road is all.” Can you say more?
A: Early on, I needed to hear this. I’m sure now that back then I didn’t understand in a gut level way. It was a lesson so strongly in need of a student, that I had to literally carve it by hand into the wooden slats of dozens of ladder back chairs like I was repeating lines on the chalkboard. I will listen better in class. I will listen…
Stop. Slow down. Listen.
No, really, just look around.
This moment, right here.
Not where you are trying to get to.
Those eyes looking at you across the room.
Not what they’re spewing on the TV.
The bluebird that landed on the raspberry cane,
Just like it did yesterday morning.
The pile of shavings left after a day on the shaving horse.
Not the posts.
The stubbly brushes and blobs of drying paint left on the palette after a day at the easel.
Not the painting.
The story you tell about asking Louie for fish heads to bury under the tomato plants.
Not the tomato.
The tales she tells from the Laundromat.
Not the folded shirts.
I think I’ve got it now.
I hope so.
All the way down to my gut.
Godspeed to all those who have reached their ends.
I’ve got my own road to be getting along with.
Q: Beautiful. Can we shift gears and go big picture — off canvas? What's your favorite veggie?
A: Asparagus. I just peeked. No spears showing in the garden…yet.
Q: Top Ten on your Alexa playlist?
A: Again, not Alexa. On my ipod. When I paint, I listen exclusively to audiobooks and Oriole games. In the spaces between painting, my go to music is…
Keith Jarrett, The Koln Concert
Cris Williamson, the older stuff
Irish music I can practice my Bodhran to
Bob and Ray, Best of
Faure Requiem (for the struggling days)
Bob Marley, and most of his followers, but only when I’m working in the garage
Suede, when I’m framing and need to belt out the relief of being almost ready for a show
Good 70’s folk, Joan Baez, and early JT
**scroll down to listen to Heather's STUDIOPLAYLIST
Q: Which printed books are you currently reading, or do you like to have around?
A: There are stacks and stacks. I have very little time to read since I am listening to books all day long. Lunchtime is usually about it. Here’s the current kitchen table stack…
A Revolution in Color by Jane Kamensky (great book about Copley, and I’m not just saying that because she’s my cousin)
Hidden History of Martha’s Vineyard by Thomas Dresser
The Kingdom of Ordinary Time by Marie Howe (thank you Krista Tippett)
Carrots Love Tomatoes by Louise Riotte
Scott Fraser’s new art book (can’t believe I haven’t cracked that yet)
Readings from the book of exile, Padraig O’ Tuama
Something Permanent with poetry by Cynthia Rylant and photographs by Walker Evans
Q: Dinner for six, including yourself and your beloved — who’s on the guest list (living, or not)?
A: Geez, this is the one I have been laboring over. I’ve had a running “All time best dinner guest list” for most of my adult life. But that table was large enough to accommodate twelve. I have tried to play fair with your question, and Pat and I have been tossing ideas back and forth for days now. We keep teasing your tease to interpret that as dinner for six in “addition to we two" so I can add more.
But, I will stick with the original query and offer four: Julia Child, Rachel Maddow, Mary Follansbee, and Brad Weigle. Julia, because…hero. Rachel Maddow because Pat has been offering to be her food taster for over a year now. Mary because what I wouldn’t give to have one more dinner with her. Plus I’d love her to give Julia her popover recipe and I’m sure she’d love to tell Rachel her spin on all things political. And Brad because what I wouldn’t give to hear him and Pat laughing together again.
If you offered me two more seats, I’d fill them with Georgia O’Keefe and Christiane Amanpour, but then, seriously, I’d start angling for thirty more so I’d better stick to the original six and dream that Babette is in the kitchen preparing her feast.
Heather Neill's work is on exhibit at The Granary Gallery in West Tisbury. Join us for an opening of her new paintings on Sunday, August 5th from 5-7pm.