Local folk artist uses painting to remember

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 7, 2009

NATCHEZ — Childhood memories can fade over time, but one Natchez artist is doing her best to keep her memories alive with paint and brushes.

Deborah McNeal discovered her creative side as a child and has used a variety of different mediums — wood crafting, doll making, sewing and quilting just to name a few — through the years. And six years ago, McNeal decided to add another skill to her list — painting.

McNeal, who describes her art as folk art because she paints from her memories, said nearly every picture she paints is a scene from her childhood. She said the games she played outdoors with her friends and family are often the inspiration for her artwork.

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“Childhood games are what I paint mostly,” she said. “Catching fire flies, fishing — anything that we did outdoors.”

McNeal said that while the joy in her painting comes from the personal satisfaction of completing a project and seeing her memory in paint, she said the scenes she paints also capture a way of life that she believes is fading away.

“Kids don’t play hopscotch or jacks or marbles anymore,” she said. “And sometimes they don’t even know what those games are. Sometimes (children) will still skip rope but a lot of times they don’t even go outdoors.”

But of all her favorite childhood memories, one does bring McNeal special joy to paint — wash day.

“I love painting wash day scenes,” she said. “That was always a fun day. We’d have to heat the water up and we always used a No. 3 tub. And my grandmother had a machine out back that would wring out (the clothes). We’d wash the clothes, the dog, everything that needed to be washed. Oh, I just loved wash days.”

Another of McNeal’s painting shows two girls, with flashlights in hand, headed to the family outhouse. McNeal said that while the people in her paintings are just ordinary people and not modeled after people she knows, the girl depicted in the outhouse scene could easily have been her.

“That is ‘Girls night out,’” McNeal said of the scene. “We had an outhouse at our house until after I finished school.”

And even though the people in her paintings don’t have names or identities, McNeal said one person was a mainstay in her childhood memories — her grandmother.

“My mother worked all the time and my grandmother would keep the children,” she said. “She had a saying for everything like ‘A stitch in time saves nine’ about going ahead and doing something and saving time in the end. Those have just stuck with me and I’ve been looking for ways to capture those in my paintings.”

While the words of her grandmother echo in her head and might one day get put down with paint, there is one vivid memory McNeal said could easily be a future painting.

“My grandmother was like the candy lady,” she said. “She would come out of the house with this bag of candy and all the kids could come running.”

While all the inspirations for McNeal’s paintings are trapped in her head, she said she is not able to just sit down and paint any time.

“I have to wait for the inspiration to hit me,” she said. “But when I get started, I can paint for hours. Sometimes by the time I go to sleep, it is time to wake up again.

My family is on me all the time to get more rest, but I run on adrenaline all the time.”

And just like McNeal can’t control when she gets the desire to paint, she can’t control when the inspiration for her next project will hit her either.

“Sometimes a scene will just pop into my head,” she said. “I’ll have to sketch it on whatever paper I have. I have sketches and notes in notebooks and on all sorts of things.”

And one day, McNeal will get around to making all those memories permanent pieces of art.

“I paint all over my house, in the kitchen, on the floor, and I love to paint outdoors,” she said. “When I start painting, I’m spread out all over the place like a big mess.”