For Heather Neill, Martha’s Vineyard has always been a constant amid a life of changes. “I moved every two years of my life, but I always went back to Martha’s Vineyard,” she says.
Neill has been visiting the Vineyard since the 1980s. “I used to rent this little cottage in Chilmark. The Vineyard very quickly became a home for me, a refuge, and also a source of income,” she says. As a lover of history, in her visits to the Vineyard every year, she has become captivated by this place where time stops.
She gets excited over a recent project in which she explored a marine hospital built on the island in 1895, abandoned and privately owned until last year, when it was bought by the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Museum. “It literally looks like the patients and the nurses just walked out and left,” she says. “Long hallways with stairways, the tiles half way up the wall. The transoms above the windows, the way the light goes through the architecture—you get this crumbling, cracking patina of the lives in these rooms.”
That description also fits Neill’s paintings. There are often open doors or windows that create a feeling of anticipation and of movement—that something has happened, someone just left the room, or that something is about to happen. The specificity of the light in her work is also a trademark. Realist in style and technique, Neill’s work feels whimsical and symbolist in content. “History is important in the props that I use. I like to take those things and tell new stories,” she says. Neill constructs vignettes of seemingly unrelated items that tempt the viewer to create a back story. The objects she chooses almost seem like modern allegories, symbols from her own life. “I’m not telling a specific story and I don’t have one in mind when I’m painting,” she says. “It’s synesthesia—things coming together.”
Neill’s own personal history is one of trying new things. “I always wanted to be an artist. All through high school, I had a fantastic teacher who was very inspiring,” she says. While she knew she loved art, it took her a long time to commit herself to painting. At Connecticut College, she majored in both art and psychology. Along the way she farmed, worked as a framer, and became an expert chair maker, selling her hand-built Shaker-style chairs at places like the Smithsonian gift shop.
In 2001, she finally decided to focus on painting. “I thought, if you don’t try it now, when are you going to try it? I really didn’t start doing this until I was in my 40s. I’m telling stories in a way that’s probably a little different than someone just coming out of art school,” she says. “I’m very conscious of that and how a mature artist approaches subjects. As I move forward, I really want to be doing this for the rest of my life. And what will the paintings look like 20 years from now?”