Laura Craig McNellis American, b. 1957


The youngest child and fourth sister in a close-knit family that always encouraged her artistic gift, Laura McNellis was born in Nashville, Tennessee. From an early age she was prolific in creating art, habitually painting late into the night. Although developmentally disabled and autistic, she was never institutionalized. With abiding commitment her family raised her and provided her a variety of social stimuli in the large house her parents bought when she was an infant. She lived with them until they both passed away in the late 1980s. Until then most of her work remained there, stuffed in drawers and bags or stored in the attic.

McNellis’s work depicts a range of treasured objects and buildings. She prefers painting on blank newsprint paper that her late father, who worked as a post office sorter, would bring home folded in stacks. McNellis usually draws before painting—either from memory or going back and forth between object and sketch until she is satisfied. Her works are fundamentally two--dimensional, yet they regularly present three-dimensional subjects. As she applies paint (typically tempera) to create a picture, it often takes on a life of its own, covering a lot of the drawn minutiae and giving her works the character of improvisation.

McNellis’s architectural works depict existing buildings rendered in a way that could be considered archetypal but that she makes her own through her fluency with color mixing and her play between symmetries and asymmetries. Seen through McNellis’s depictions, these structures suggest the familiar tenderness of old friends and a sense of sanctuary and security, physical and spiritual.

While McNellis does not engage in creating backdrops, she has often painted a sun, its rays poking out, perched on the upper right-hand corner of her paintings, fronted by a row of small, lumpy clouds. This visual rubric, often unrelated to the scene or other elements portrayed in the work, seems a symbolic anchor to the world that McNellis strives to comprehend and portray. Likewise, her recurrent inclusion of a jumbled succession of letters at the bottom edge of the composition, which vary from work to work, form a spellbinding but unknowable statement, and seem an expression of a desire for verbal communication. Finally, when she has finished a work, swiftly and with great deliberation -McNellis often cuts the corners and trims the edges of her paintings.Over the years -McNellis has acquired a spoken vocabulary (generally understood, however, only by those close to her), but McNellis is on the whole nonliterate, unable to make connections between sound and written language. Her inclusion of letters is evidence of the earnestness of her pursuit of communication despite her limited access to language.

McNellis’s work is in private collections in both the United States and Europe and is in the permanent collection of the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland.