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Anne Neely
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Artist Statement

 

Anne Neely

Photo by Christine Chilcott

 

A Necessity: Fearful Symmetries

Today, 321 miles separate me from a remote fishing village in Down East Maine, an hour and a half beyond Acadia National Park and the same distance from the Canadian border.

This coastal town in Washington County, Jonesport, is filled with families of lobstermen, shellfish and seaweed factories, trucks loaded with produce from the sea, old people living in older houses, a marine supply store, a lumber yard, a hardware store, and a Post Office where
the conversations are about septic systems, loam, and the weather. I share a cottage there with my husband and have a summer garden, tools, my father's wheelbarrow, and a studio with a view, eighty feet from the water.

For the first hour of my journey—driving back from Boston after a funeral—I keep the radio on for news, then listen to music. But soon after Portland I turn off all sound and go rogue in my mind for the remaining four hours. This prepares me for the silence and beauty at the end of my trip and opens me to all the small acts of nature I bear witness to. As I round the last bend on the country road, Roque Island looms across Chandler Bay, in the near distance and in partial fog, and where it ends the ocean goes to the horizon, then I imagine on to Portugal. I pull into the dirt driveway of my adopted home and come to a stop two hundred feet from the water.

In the last thirty years most of my paintings have begun or were imagined or conceived of in this place. Whether I am scanning and scraping the insides of my life, or facing outward to the ocean and horizon, I move through whatever it takes to make a painting, here.

Tired after the long drive and frustrated by a fruitless vigil to see a Perseid shower spoiled by fog, I wake early to the rumble of boatsmoving flotilla-like across the bay, checking their traps, countered by the loud call of crows. It must be low tide, and an eagle must be on the rocks, eating a duckling. It happens here. On the porch, it's a cool, still morning. The wind doesn't usually breeze up until eleven. Two hummingbirds are fighting violently over a feeder that has plenty of room for both. Last night is still haunting me—the early promise before fog rolled in and covered the show. But as I look at the hummingbirds, another memory takes its place: the back seat of our wood-paneled station wagon, me at thirteen sandwiched between my enthusiastic older sister and my larger-than-life younger brother, struggling to get myself heard. It's a ragged memory, torn and put into a drawer, yet it pops up and becomes the scaffolding for
my next painting this afternoon. It starts in me now with the color green—something groping to be expressed, a regeneration after adolescent envy.

Everything is a flat gray today—the sky, the clouds, the tidal waves licking the shore. On flat gray days, every sound becomes louder, the trees turn greener, and grasses brighten. The horizon has dissolved into the sky, leaving the ocean without definition. Large shapes are swallowed up easily here.

When I first came to Jonesport, all I wanted to do was paint what I saw, the immense beauty and space surrounding me. Within a few years this urge to represent began to chew my insides so much, made me feel so inadequate, that I decided to internalize what I saw instead, and save the joyful, restorative act of just-looking for just looking. I began to work more from my imagination and to think of my brushstrokes as part of a visual language for emotions and ideas. Everywhere I looked there was life, and within life, stories from the land: the ever-changing thirty-year-old perennial garden, the dense firs that wanted thinning, the dying birch trees that needed to be cleared away. Stories became more important than appearances. Moss creeping over a fallen tree, the slow continuous march of deconstruction, reminds me that everything is alive, rich with color and form, even as it decays into hues of rust and ochre. In late summer
the crickets pitch against the stillness, joining the lobster boats' roar, alto and soprano. They are my personal symphony, calm and urgent simultaneously. This month, on the edge of the blueberry barrens, colored cartons lie alongside the road for the berry rakers, mostlymen and women (sometimes children) looking like the Millet painting of the gleaners.

In my studio, the work I left behind while visiting Boston hasn't changed of course, but somehow it looks different to my eye. If it looks better, I am relieved only momentarily, because sooner or later I'm compelled to re-enter the conversation between my inner voice and the marks I've made. With each brushstroke, ferocious or tender, I want the color to surprise me with a form that suddenly makes the painting right. To return to a painting is—like trying to come to terms with a death—a renewed experience of seeing what the absence of something means.

The afternoon is young, so I decide to do the kind of pour that provides the base for most of my large paintings. I mix up a bunch of colors and, mulling over this morning's idea, put them into my favorite after-dinner decaf Bustelo cans, then drag a canvas onto the deck of the studio to begin splashing paint. Plastic is down under the deck to catch any that gets through, to appease my environmental conscience. But this time, when I step back, I am more struck by the beauty of the paint on the deck than on the canvas. Tomorrow will be good weather to try again. A little disappointed with myself, I take solace in a late-afternoon kayak. The horizon is clear, the midmorning wind has calmed, and the ocean looks like silk now, separate from the sky.

Between Roque and Ballast Islands is open water. It forms the horizon that stretches into a pastel-white smudge with a thin, pale, blue-gray line underneath. I start paddling, toward where I'm convinced Portugal must exist. I know I am going out too far for my lake kayak, but the vastness, the wholeness, the fullness draw me on and make me euphoric. I'm farther out than ever before, and, seeing a loon ahead of me, I follow it, mesmerized. The sensation is very
strange. Suddenly and clearly, I feel I am witnessing my own mortality— not my death, but my smallness. I could disappear into the sea, gazing into the infinity of this opened sky. T he loon is solo, unusual for them, as they like partners. It dips under the water, then surfaces, and after a time, it heads back toward the now-distant shore. I follow.

[first published in the BU Literary Journal AGNI, Issue. 88, November 2018]