On the front end of thirty years, a painting career of this length seems unimaginable. On the back end, it seems a wise decision. It’s hard to truly put into words just how wonderful a life of painting has been. It is as if a doctor prescribed a life and lifestyle right at a time in a life where change was deeply needed. Along with this prescription came a wonderful wife and business partner, great friends, a nestled community and a wonderful sense of place. The Piedmont has inspired me to no end, and while I have certainly painted other areas, “the box”, as I lovingly refer to it, has been the spine of my landscape portfolio. The box refers to the area north of I-66, south of Snickersville Turnpike, west of Rt.15, and east of Rt.17. Like pitching a stone into a pond, the ripples dissipating outwards fairly quickly.
It was complete serendipity that brought me to Middleburg in 1988. Actually, to the small, largely unchanged village of Rectortown. In 1987, after moving back from California to my home state of Maryland, I attempted to go to an art show at Leesburg Gallery of Art. Turns out I didn’t make it but followed through by eventually visiting the gallery and meeting the owner Linda. A transplant from Fort Collins, Colorado, Linda had founded Leesburg’s first art gallery. Her move to Virginia had been motivated by horses and she had left behind fifteen years of tech management to fulfill that lifestyle and open her art gallery. My move back to Maryland was similar, but I had left more than a decade-long automotive career, was somewhat burnt out and in search of my creative core. We were two peas in a pod and we hit it off quickly.
I was painting as a hobby then, fully intent on it becoming a career, but Linda was the one who first represented my work. There was also a deeper relationship brewing with my wife to be. So instead of making the frequent White’s Ferry crossings over the Potomac River, I moved to Virginia, somehow missing Leesburg and happily ending up in Rectortown. I wish I could recall how exactly I found my way to Bob and Betty Morf’s small but delightful tenant home for rent, but it was supposed to be. Places are important, the people of places are even more so. The Morfs were like getting dear friends, parents, and grandparents all at once. They were both so down to earth, smart beyond measure, wonderfully worldly, yet as kind as any two people could be. I miss them both to this day.
Stories are important and my landscape paintings have told the story of my sense of place, surrounded by scenic seasonal beauty and the peacefulness of rural life. I was born in Washington, D.C. and grew up in the nearby Maryland suburbs. The only other places I had lived was Atlanta for a short time as a child and two times in LA during the 70’s and 80’s. Rectortown was not like any of those places. It captivated me at a time when a needing to be captivated was high on my list. It wasn’t as though I hadn’t spent time in the country, I had. But living in the country and visiting it are two very different things. Frankly, I can even say that painting the countryside you live in is different than visiting the countryside you wish to paint. You are a product of each other. The Piedmont has been transformative to me as a person, a painter, and a writer. I left LA a ball of stress, arriving back in Maryland at a transitional period in my life. I also grew up in a dysfunctional home with parents that divorced back when such a thing was rarely done. Art and creativity was my savior then. In a sense, it saved my young life and has been with me ever since. But it was once again shining brightly as an absolute focal point. A non-glaring one. More like a bright star, easy to guide yourself by and I followed it to where I am today.
My business background was instrumental in my success. Also, losing my father nine years prior when I was 24, had taught me two valuable lessons. First, life can be short, and second, it’s up to you to set your compass. I had already done so much with my life until this point that making a living as an artist did not seem like an unclimbable mountain. The summit was in sight, one foot in front of another, be the best you can be, and care about your customers. A simple but well-proven formula. One thing I didn’t need was motivation. Linda though, cannot go unmentioned here. Smart as a whip, she’s a master at details and details really count.
In my 30 years, I have painted my way through three recessions including the big one, four government shutdowns, five Presidents, eight US conflicts. Oh, and at least twenty major inventions such as the digital camera, flat panel TV, the smartphone and seedless watermelon! When I started no one had a website, email or texting. There were social occasions, but no social media. There was shopping, but not online. Middleburg was different too. The Coach Stop, B&A Grocery, Dominion Saddlery, Devonshire, The Finicky Filly, and Mosby’s Tavern are just memories now.
So there has been change, some less than perfect, some really good. Thirty years ago, The Hill School was a fraction of its size and you could count area vineyards on one hand. Today Hill is more than a school, it’s a community treasure, and there are more than a handful of wineries between Middleburg and Aldie alone. It’s a bustling industry. I can remember when the only way or reason people living to the east made their way west onto Middleburg farms was for the Garden and Stable tours. Today, they are here every day of the week. The once homegrown Christmas Parade was a small town thing. Today it’s a regional powerhouse event. Then there’s Salamander Resort, once a controversy, today an economic contributor. In my motorcycling travels throughout the state, I have seen small towns still devastated by the last recession and struggling to stay alive. They would drool to have the vibrancy and health of Middleburg. Still, growth is a balancing act and how we shop is ever changing.
As an artist, times have changed too. I can remember when I first arrived, Middleburg was the hotbed for sporting art and the two popular contemporary artist names I most recall was Lloyd Kelly and Wally Noll. Me now among them, I went through changing artistic styles. Once much more nationally known for my Whimsical Realism paintings, I refocused my attention on mostly Piedmont landscape paintings and a variety of commissioned subject matter including automotive, equine, aviation, animals and so much more. In town, there’s little question that the mural done for Salamander’s Gold Cup Wine Bar would be most notable. But then there is also the many creative collaborative projects with renowned chef and Inn at Little Washington Owner, Patrick O’Connell. Painting both his 30th and 40th-anniversary paintings for me is only topped by the miniature Inn treat box I did for him which is given to each dinner guest. My now 12-year relationship with Creighton Farms, 8 of which have been as artist-in-residence, has brought Linda and me cherished relationships, Jack and Barbara Nicklaus among them.
In 2009 Linda and I opened Live An Artful Life Gallery in The Plains. I remember some family and friends asking if we were crazy? After all, we were in the middle of the worse economic recession since the depression. Our thinking was it always makes more sense to open at the bottom and work your way out of it than to open up heading into one. The pendulum always swings. Our plan was to do retail one last time for no more than 10 years. We did it for almost 8. When we closed the gallery it was kind of funny, because half the people asked me what I was going to without the gallery? I told them, the same thing I did for the 21 years before having it! The other half thought I retired! Not true. I’m certainly not retired. An investment guy asked me once, when do you plan to retire? “Retire?”, I said, “I do for a living what most people do after they retire!” And so life goes. I must admit, I am writing as much or more than painting these days. Live An Artful Life lives on as a creative inspirational website. It’s a place, along with my blog and Middleburg Eccentric column The Artist’s Perspective, to share what I’ve learned with others.
So 30 years in, I can share that I’ve never really been an award seeker. While I’ve judged many shows, I’ve never placed any real importance on awards with respect to my success as an artist. It actually may surprise some of you that I’ve honestly never won an award for my art of any kind. I have though, been awarded something better, incredible clients! My proudest moments have been working with customers, many of which have become dear friends. When I look back on being commissioned to paint for a couple celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary, or a 50th-year retirement gift, or a new couple’s very first piece of art, I am nothing short of honored. It is an amazing feeling to be part of something so special, and it for me, personally surpasses possessing a ribbon by miles. Customer service and wonderful relationships have meant as much to me as the art I create itself. I’m lucky to live an artful life! I must honestly close by thanking this community for its support and The Piedmont for continuing to be a constant source of inspiration.
For more information please visit ThomasNeel.com