For Alison MacNeil, sculpting is a labour of love.
Her passion for capturing human connection in clay creates profound art that has been accepted in exhibitions held far from Nova Scotia’s borders, but it’s not worldwide recognition this modest artist is after.
“I don’t think that that has the same importance for me as to have the feeling that something you made for somebody really is something that they can relate to and love,” explains a smiling MacNeil, her gaze fixed on the sculptures tucked in every nook of the cozy, well-lit studio in her Wallace Point home, near Belmont.
More often than not, adoration is the muse that inspires the 77-year-old to dig out the clay and immortalize a touching moment through her sculpting, a talent she came to realize 60 years ago as a student of the King’s Hall boarding school in Compton, Quebec.
“I’m attracted to expressions of a love between people.”
Upon moving to England in the mid-1950s, MacNeil studied portrait sculpture at the Goldsmith College in London and the Portsmouth Art College.
Some of her favourite pieces take her back to moments of sheer admiration — when her young daughter fell asleep while sucking her thumb as she was reluctantly posing for her mother, the moment her father gently wrapped his arm around her mother and pulled his bride close to his chest at the joint celebration of their 80th birthdays, and interactions between her husband, Hugh, and the family dog.
And, some sculptures take her back to a time when the adoration was directed at her.
Her father learned of her exceptional talents when she was commissioned to create busts of Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Currie and General H.D.G. Crerar for the Royal Military College of Canada in 1968.
“This was the first time that my dad saw work that I had done where he really knew the people and he could say, ‘Gee, that really looks like so and so.’”
Her father later arranged for MacNeil to sculpt a portrait of the late Governor General Georges P. Vanier, whom he had worked for in a fundraising capacity.
MacNeil says Vanier’s widow displayed the original sculpture in her home and bronze casts were sent to the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria in B.C., the Quebec Residence of the Governor General and the Rideau Club of Ottawa.
Her work has landed in homes in Belgium, Denmark, England, France, Germany, the United States and Canada.
She says she has been “wonderfully proud” of many pieces, but one sculpture does not stand out as her proudest accomplishment.
“It’s very hard to say because each sculpture is so individual and each circumstance is so special,” MacNeil says.
“It’s something that you love to do at the time that you are doing it and then you move on. You can see something that you did years later, and you can admire it, and you can almost not even be aware that you were involved in the doing of it. It’s a very strange thing.”
MacNeil, a mother of two, chose to make her living as a teacher, rather than as an artist.
“Because it was something that I so loved to do, it was very hard for me to equate it to dollars and cents and having to charge for something like that.”
She believes this decision enabled her to continually find immense joy in her art; it is this joy that has given her the strength to step out of her comfort zone and provide the keynote address at the opening night of the 14th annual Great Little Art Show at the Avon River Heritage Museum in Newport Landing, Avondale, on April 27.
“When you meet somebody that your art touches, it’s a very lovely feeling.” - Alison MacNeil
The show, spanning from April 27-29, will begin with a wine and cheese reception and MacNeil’s speech on Friday, from 7-9 p.m. Money raised at the event, which showcases work by artists living in the West Hants area, is used to keep the doors open at the Avon River Heritage Museum.
“[The show] was just a happening at the museum that… has turned into something that, in later years, has been good for me because it pushed me to do something. If I hadn’t been doing any sculpting, I’d think ‘Oh, I’ve got to get something done for the Great Little Art Show,’” MacNeil said of her dedication to the local art exhibition.
“When you meet somebody that your art touches, it’s a very lovely feeling.”
MacNeil has been involved with the museum since its inception.
“It’s utterly amazing all of the talent that is in this wider area,” MacNeil says.
“It’s just really pretty thrilling to see the show each year because there are always new and different works of art.”
The exhibits are open to the public April 28 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and April 29 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission is $7 on opening night, and $2 on Saturday and Sunday. Children under 12 can get in for free.