AN INTERVIEW WITH NEALY RILEY
Written by Kim Weeks from her interview with Nealy Riley
Wildlife artist Nealy Riley’s artistic journey has been both conventional and unusual, joyous, and practical, spiritual and tangible. And it’s all evident in her paintings, which make you want to touch the soft fur of her wildlife subjects and stare into their soulful eyes, while enjoying them dreamlike quality of their surroundings. She delights in the idea that she can help bring these qualities into people’s homes.
“I love it when somebody says that a piece of mine lights up a room in their home, because my home is very important to me, and I really felt from people, especially during COVID, that their homes, their spaces, became so important,” Nealy said. “When I know that a piece is doing them some good in their homes, that makes a big difference for me because that’s really what I want to do.”
Growing up, Nealy had two homes. Her mother lived in Missouri and her father lived in Utah, so she traveled back and forth between the two. She says she was raised with supportive, practical Midwestern values, as well as the rugged, outdoor lifestyle of the West, both of which influenced her art and her career.
“Growing in the Midwest was great. I had a great community and a really supportive school system, and it was wonderful. But my most favorite thing to do was to come out West. And I just always looked forward to it because of the mountains. And my dad is an outdoorsman so we would always be camping, and hiking and fishing,” she said. “I’d learn about [Frederic] Remington and Charles Russell and see some of that imagery and understand the experience of what it was like to settle the West.”
Nealy says her father’s side of the family has deep roots in the West, having emigrated from Holland to settle in Hanksville, Utah, where they enjoyed the true cowboy way of life. And while she wasn’t totally immersed in that life, her exposure to it significantly impacted her art.
“Because my mom was a Midwesterner and I was, most of the time, in Missouri, I sort of took an observer standpoint to this kind of cowboy culture,” she said. “My grandmother had 11 siblings and they were all cowboys and miners and that sort of thing, and so I didn’t really experience that first hand. My dad had horses, and I would ride them occasionally while I was there, but I almost felt like I was always taking pictures of it and really loving it and enjoying it. So maybe that’s why putting it into my artwork was kind of important, because I was taking a third-party perspective.”
As a child, Nealy loved art and spent many happy hours creating figures . She knew early on that not only did she want a career in art, she needed one.
“I think all kids are artists, but I just found myself sort of losing all concept of time when I was creating artwork, and so it’s something that I knew I wanted to continue. And I was lucky enough, through the public school system I went to, that there were some really excellent art teachers that helped me foster that love. So by the time I reached high school, I knew I had to figure out a way to pursue it,” she said. “I always found myself trying to draw, trying to create, trying to deal with colors and materials, and I just loved it so much, I thought, ‘Well, if I can’t live my life doing this in some form or fashion, I’m probably just not going to be very happy.”
As much as she loved it, though, Nealy found that a career in fine art was somewhat at odds with her practical side, so she opted for graphic design as a field of study for her undergraduate degree, which she started at Utah State University and completed at Central Missouri University.
“My upbringing was very much, ’You need a real job and you need to be employed by someone,’ and so I didn’t think that could be possible [to make a career of painting], even though I knew in my heart that’s what I really wanted to do,” she said. “So when I graduated, the prospect of becoming a graphic designer and just sitting in an office all day -- I mean I was terrified. I couldn’t even get myself to do it, and so I thought, ‘How can I just keep creating and keep learning?’”
Nealy decided that the solution was for her to continue her education. So, having earned a scholarship from Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), she began her graduate program in Savannah, Georgia, where she studied commercial art.
“I went in for illustration and I just loved that, because it kept my hands working with real materials, still painting and drawing, along with the computer work. I felt like that was a good mix, because I wasn’t completely giving up the stuff that I really wanted to do. I just wasn’t ready to settle into what I had pre-determined for myself,” she said.
While attending SCAD, Nealy, much to her surprise and delight, rediscovered dance as another way to express her creativity. She attributes her love of dance to her family in Utah. While not part of the Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS), Nealy said her family was somewhat influenced by the LDS culture in Utah, which included a lot of dancing.
“My grandmother told us stories about how she and her brothers would go around town and get a dance together every Friday night. So, when we would have family reunions there would be 200 or 300 people there, and there was a band, and everyone danced. And so dancing was just kind of part of me. I felt like I could never understand why someone would not want to dance,” she said.
Nealy said she had a wonderful experience at SCAD, and while she was there she met another dance-loving painter, who is now her husband and another member of the Montana Trails Gallery family of artists.
“I had already taken all of my dance lessons and done a little ballroom dancing, and then I meet this guy, David [Frederick] Riley, who was a ballroom dance instructor, previously, for a career,” she said. “We just had so many things in common that we were passionate about, and I thought, this is the most amazing thing ever. So then of course when I figured out that he was a dancer, I just immediately wanted to dance with him, because it’s hard to find a lot of men that want to dance.”
After achieving her master’s degree from SCAD, Nealy spent two years as a graphic designer, and “tried to be a responsible person.” But it wasn’t long before Nealy and David’s mutual passion led them to Grand Junction, Colorado, where they renovated an old ballroom space and opened up their own ballroom dance studio.
“We thought, naively enough, that we could own a small business and also do our artwork. We could do both careers,” she said. “We were just young enough that we didn’t really understand what small business is like, but it’s one of those kind of offshoots in my life that I think was something I just had to fulfill for myself.”
Nealy and David ran the dance studio for several years, and though operating a small business did not allow for the blossoming art career in art they had anticipated, it did bring much joy to them and their community.
“All these stories about the dance culture in my grandmother’s life when she was a kid, and getting people together and dancing, and the experience of my family reunions with all these cowboys always dancing, and people being able to play instruments, and just the joy that it creates for people. We were able to offer that to the community in Grand Junction,” she said. “You saw people’s relationships get better and you saw so much good come out of that. It was totally worth it, even if it wasn’t the most profitable thing we could have done.”
When Nealy found out that she was expecting a baby, she and David decided that it was time to close the dance studio and take a more serious step toward developing their art careers.
“When you own a brick and mortar business, that always takes precedent over anything else that you’re doing, and so it became apparent that we just weren’t going to do anything with our art careers if we didn’t shut it down and refocus. And the prospect of having a family now … it started to seem so unrealistic for the lifestyle we wanted to create,” she said.
So, the couple moved to Springville, Utah, where David took day classes at an atelier-style school. And while Nealy took as many classes as she could, having chosen to devote her time to her new daughter, Cali, she found it difficult to balance motherhood with art. She discovered, though, through artist, mother, and blogger, Carol Marine, that she could paint small works every day to continue creating and honing her skills, even with the addition of their son, Ellis.
“It was this little by little kind of methodology and that was something that was so inspiring to me at the time, because it actually fit into my life,” she said. “I also joined her web community and started selling my pieces as I was going along. That was a help during that baby time period. That was kind of how I kept myself being an artist.”
Nealy woke up at 5 a.m. to get a few hours of painting in before the kids got up and then grabbed any time she could during the day to continue her daily work. Now that her kids are school-aged, though, she has freedom to spend more time on her painting.
“I always say that I chose [to spend] a lot of time with my kids, because I really did. That’s something I really wouldn’t trade. And so I feel like it’s been just a touch slow going, but I’m grateful for all of the time that I do get with them,” she said.
Nealy says developing her painting process was a bit of a process in itself. She wanted to employ elements from her graphic design background while utilizing techniques she had learned in the atelier classes, so it took her some time before she could fuse the two into the process she uses today.
“I had all of these combinations of things that I really wanted to do, because sometimes as creatives, we aren’t necessarily as focused as we should be. You can get a little lost in the
woods sometimes,” she said.
She started painting with oils, doing portraiture and focusing on eyes, while softening or blurring out the less prominent aspect of the subject. While working with oils was a better way to achieve that look, it did not allow her to incorporate the other elements that she wanted to, simply because of the drying time of oil paint.
“I felt like I was a bit more functional with oil paint, and then I realized that when I wanted to combine all of these things together, oil paint takes a really long time to cure. So if you’re going to put other materials with it, you’re just asking for such a long processing time. So, I ended up using acrylics instead and that was sort of a learning curve,” she said.
Eventually, Nealy learned to use acrylic paint to achieve the same effects as she had with oil paint, and was then able to incorporate other media. She says she primarily paints on wood panel, rather than canvas, because she prefers the firmer surface and will often incorporate the wood grain into her pieces. She also incorporates gold, silver or copper leaf into her animal portraits, giving them a transcendent quality.
“There’s just this magic that happens -- nature mysticism -- when you’re out in nature and you’re hiking and exploring, and there’s this magical quality that sometimes I wanted to capture in my pieces in some way. I felt like the gold, that extra sparkle, is just that feel. When you go past all space and time, and you’re just in that space of joy in nature,” she said.
While her processes and visions continue to evolve, Nealy says that, at least for now, her days of experimenting with media and technique are behind her, and she is feeling settled in her process. That said, though, she said she would love to try encaustic painting or other, more textural, techniques.
“I love seeing how people use found materials, or build up resins, or really put on thick layers of paint with different kinds of acrylic media, and [they] stamp things in, and create that textile element to their work. Those are things that I would definitely be drawn to as I move forward,” she said.
Nealy said she is very happy with her current gallery representation and says MTG has been wonderful to work with. Gallery owner Steve and Maria discovered both David and Nealy’s work at another gallery and asked them both to join the team of artists.
“I had a couple of pieces that Steve and Maria felt like they would like to have in the gallery, and that’s really how I made the connection, and I’ve loved working with them,” Nealy said. “I feel like they go above and beyond the call of duty as gallery owners, and they’re very fair to their artists, and they’re exceptionally professional. So, it’s a nice relationship for sure.”
"We are thrilled to represent Nealy’s work and are excited for the upcoming show, “Together,” which will showcase both her paintings and David’s," said Maria.
“We love having Nealy as part of the MTG family. Her paintings have such a beautiful light and softness to them. Clients just love her work, and she is a pleasure for us to work with,” said Sydney.
All artists love hearing praise for their work, but for Nealy, she is most excited when someone makes her painting part of their home and, through it, she brings them a “sense of peace” or “nature mysticism.”
“That’s what we get when we see animals and we connect with nature, and so I feel like that’s really how I’m trying to offer my expertise to the rest of the world and I feel that’s the
importance of it from my perspective,” she said. “I hope people get a joy out of it, and it’s a joy for me to do it.”
Now that she has more time to devote to her art, Nealy is excited to for the future and hopes to participate in even more shows, auctions, and other gallery events.
COPYRIGHT MONTANA TRAILS GALLERY, INC 2023