Interview with Anne Neely, the painter behind “Water Stories”

July 2014 – January 2015, 
Museum of Science, Boston

I’m not the only one thinking about storytelling and water in an artistic context, and thank goodness for that. We need more artists tackling these big questions––no one person can make a difference on their own. “My hope,” Neely writes, “is that this exhibition will spawn a new sense of ownership about not only the issues facing us about water but how we use water on a daily basis.”

The Water Stories exhibition at the Museum of Science, running now through January 5, 2015, combines Neely’s paintings with audio recordings taken from over 200 interviews edited by Halsey Burgund. There are five sections, each about seven minutes long, that feature different voices around the gallery space on topics of The Future, Cherishing Water, Water Stories, Bad Things, and the Science of Water. As a museum visitor moves throughout this space, they are invited to interact with the snippets of stories as they weave together and diverge. The last section is an alcove playing the voice of water itself.

Alchemy Soup, 70 x 92″, oil on linen, 2014

“I construct a painting like a poem. I find the rhythm and essential movement by beginning organically to build a structure through a series of marks and colors that become more connected to one another and to memory as the painting develops. I work in layers, washes, heavy gestural strokes, sweeps of the palette knife, and scratches, dots, and rectangles. A new stroke is like discovering a new word. The more I work on a painting the more physical I become until it feels like there is little distinction between where I leave off and where the painting begins. Although painting is personal, these paintings also address the ecological and ultimately cultural issues of our time as we fight over, transport, over use, pollute, dry up and neglect water.” – Anne Neely 

At the suggestion of a friend, I reached out to Neely to see if she might answer some questions on the intersection between water and storytelling in her paintings. Her responses are below:

(See all of the paintings in the exhibition here.)

PEAK 60X80

Peak, 60 x 80″, oil on linen, 2014

What do you think the role of art will be in pushing for meaningful measures to address climate change?

Throughout the centuries art has provided a means for people to look at things differently. Now is no exception as artists use their craft to draw attention to environmental issues. Nature has become a backdrop in our lives. Whatever artists feel inclined to do can only help bring Nature back into focus. I have always felt a bond towards the natural world and chose painting as a way to express this connection. Painting allows me to respond to and reinvent nature through color and form, and to explore uncharted territories of imagined landscapes. I choose water as a theme because water is essential and it speaks to me.
Why do you paint? How can paint tell a story? 

What motivates my work is to tell a story in paint and be compelling about it. Painting allows me to use my imagination to tell that story. Revealing that story through the filter of beauty and foreboding not only fascinates me but is essential. Water has always been anneneelygallerybeautiful to me even at its fiercest. The foreboding part has to do with what we have done
to sacrifice (for our comfort and benefit) the health and well being of our water resources. I use mark making as a language, much like a writer would use words to develop his characters. My goal is to construct a complex world and in so doing a painting is built. My hope with the Water Stories exhibition, currently at the Museum of Science in Boston, is that these paintings and interviews convey a reachable message about water for all who choose to look.


Lost (River), 56 x 72″, oil on linen, 2014

What draws you to water?

I am drawn to water because of its movement and myriad, ever changing ways of being. Water repeats itself in pattern but can change at any moment. It is powerful and gentle, soft and harsh: in essence, a string of opposites. I like the inside and the outside of it, how it surrounds us when we are in it and makes us one with it, merging metaphorically with the 80% of our bodies that contain water. Water is essential to our lives so it seems that if it is in peril we should pay attention to that.

Water Stories is up through January 2015 at the Museum of Science in Boston. I highly encourage you to check it out if you are in the area! I wish that I was in town myself. There will also be a talk and walk with the artist through the gallery on October 1st at 7:00. Admission free.

Watch more on Anne Neely’s process here:


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