53rd Annual Wickford Art Festival Artist Spotlight – Neal Personeus Booth #224 on Main Street

In our continuing series of articles about the 53rd Annual Wickford Art Festival, the North Kingstown Blog recently caught with first time exhibitor Neal Personeus.  Neal is a very unique artist who uses driftwood and materials found along our beautiful seashores of Southern New England to create his artwork.   I had an opportunity to learn more about Neal and his sculptures this past week and here is part of my interview with him.  To learn more about Neal Personeus, you can visit his website at www.capescapes.weebly.com.

Where in New England have you found the most material for your sculptures?  Have you been more successful finding driftwood pieces on the Cape?  Rhode Island Beaches? too random to note?

Most of the materials I utilize in my sculptures are from Cape Cod, primarily due to my family history of vacationing on the Cape no matter where we lived (we moved every 3-4 years). I have some secret places where the likelihood of driftwood being burned by beachgoers is minimal. I have branched out to include beaches of RI and Maine too. 

What is the process once you select a piece?  Is there a drying period so you can work on the piece? What about cleaning/sanitizing the elements of the sea off the driftwood?  Or do you simply work around anything that might be attached to the driftwood?

I almost never take wet wood unless it’s something I absolutely need for a sculpture under progress. With the base piece of driftwood, part of what makes them so perfect (for me) is that they have been submerged in the salt water for however long and then seasoned in the sun and clean sand for a couple seasons. It’s almost like a natural preservative and what gives them their beautiful sun-bleached silvery colors. I’ve had pieces that I’ve put from one to the other and back again, just to leave them and come back in a couple years. If there is anything living on or in the wood I will usually store it in a sealed bag for a while to eliminate light, water and air. Then I clean them off with a soft artists paintbrush and perhaps some vacuum action. Most of the driftwood is already pretty clean and bug free when I pick it up. I tend to be picky in what I take too.

In terms of pieces to work on, do you prefer to be selective or do you grab larger pieces and scale them down?

I’m usually limited mostly by size, as in whatever I can carry for a mile or two. I’ve been tortured many times by incredibly beautiful pieces that I had absolutely no way of getting back with me. It’s a horrible feeling. Sometimes I’ll build a little impromptu sculpture in place for the local fauna to enjoy instead. I’ve only altered a base piece once, and that was for “Yeah…But the View”. The original log for the base was slightly more than double what I used for the tower base. I have plans for that remaining piece also.

Driftwood sculpture by Neal Personeus

Any particular piece of driftwood that you have found that stands out in your mind? Something with an unusually odd shape or design?

There are several pieces of driftwood that stand out in my mind, but many are the aforementioned non-retrievables. With respect to my stock there are three that come to mind. One is the base for “Smugglers Cove”, which I had originally seen as an animal head, almost a horse. The vision for the sculpture came when I noticed that one half of the piece had a hollow core that ran into the hidden cove in the middle. I never looked back. The second is the body for “Wolfe’s Fish”. For years I had it in my stock for use as a building wall or roof segment. I loved the knot and texture of the wood, as well as the coloring, but it was fairly thick and too large for the small scale projects I’ve been doing, so it was just hanging out. I had limited my vision of its use to a simple rectangle, but then one day walked past it and saw it turned askew, and all of a sudden it was a fish. It had the eye, the mouth, gill slits and scales. I could believe I had missed that all those years. It then took another three years of searching to find matching driftwood suitable for the fins. The third one has to be the base for a commissioned piece currently under construction entitled “Setting Down Roots: Love on Brewers Hill”. It’s as the name suggests, a root system, but beautifully polished by sand, wind and sun, and sinuously twisting and stretching down from the base of the house.

I see on your website that you do commissioned work.  As someone with a background in drafting, is it easier for you to work off floor plans than an actual photo?

I prefer to have both. The plans provide the technical aspect while the photos provide the feel and emotion. However, if I had to choose only one it would be pictures because with art I believe the heart trumps the mind, at least in what I want to create. I also think that that is what the client would prefer to have depicted, not just their house, but their home.

How long, on average, does it take to complete one of your pieces?

That is probably the hardest question I deal with. There are so many variables, the most significant being that I’m not a full-time artist. I have a day job. I also have two children, which is why I had a 17-year hiatus from my art. My kids are older and more independent now, which has allowed me to get back into production for the past two years. “Yeah…But the View” was actually started about 20 years ago (about ¼ done), and was the first piece I completed when I got back into creative mode. Besides all that, the time to complete has to do with scale, level of detail, and sometimes availability of the proper materials. The materials issue tends to be less disruptive when I do a commission piece because the design of the structure has been provided, so I can allocate the materials before starting.

Driftwood sculpture by Neal Personeus

What was the toughest sculpture you have completed?

I’m not sure about the “toughest to complete”. Each one (of the modern era) has come with its’ challenges. I like to push the envelope with architectural design, but try to keep it believable to a certain extent while still trying to excite peoples’ imaginations. My newest piece “Retreat at Sharks Bluff” was definitely challenging in those regards.

How about the most gratifying or personal to you?

I think “Yeah… But the View” was the most gratifying to complete. I had to live with a vision of the completed work for nearly 20 years before seeing it happen. It relit my artistic fire. I feel I have a purpose again beyond my regular life of a day job to pay the bills. My soul is alive again, and it likes what I’m doing and wants to do more of it.

Were you inspired by any artists?  from a book or magazine or maybe from a show you attended when you were younger? Or a parent or teacher?

Inspiration’s a funny thing. I feel that an artists’ entire life experience is their true basis for inspiration. Art is a sharing of ones’ soul. It can be both exhilarating and intimidating at the same time. I imagine it to be similar to an actor who is walking onto a stage for the first time in a role that requires full nudity. You’re exposing yourself to the whole world without knowing how you’ll be received.  Definitely my mom. She was a painter, as the walls in my house will attest (as well as many other peoples’ houses). She used to take me to the Toledo Museum of Art when I was younger, and then to all the NYC museums when we moved back to NJ. The first “capescapes” sculpture I created recently came back to me when she passed away last November. It is over 30 years old and looks the same as when I made it. I’ll have it at the Festival.

In addition to driftwood, do you use other coastal findings such as sand, seashells, etc. in your art?

Absolutely. Everything from the beach with the exception of plastics. There is usually at least one piece of beach glass in my sculptures with finished interiors. Low tides can reveal some really cool stuff. You just have to take the time to look. What looks like shredded dead seaweed in the bottom of sand ripples is often thousands of tiny sea clam shells the size of the head of a pin, but most people never take the time to notice that kind of stuff. I hope my sculptures entice people to take more time connecting with the world around them. Perhaps they’ll see more value in the environment around them, that it’s not just sand, water and some dune grass. Beaches and dunes are very complex microcosms.


Neal Personeus - My Place- Driftwood sculpture
Neal Personeus “My Place”

Any local or national recognition you would like to mention?

As I’ve said I’m relatively new to all this, so my accolades are rather slim. My very first time showing was at the RI Home Show at the Convention Center a couple years ago. It was their first time having artists at the show, and I did it to just to see peoples’ reactions and if I should pursue my work any further on a commercial basis. I didn’t expect the incredible positive feedback, so it encouraged me to pursue the endeavor further. At the suggestion of another artist, I submitted an entry to the Warwick Museum of Art’s “The Elements” show, and was thrilled to have a photo of my sculpture chosen for the advertising flyer for the show. I’ve also been one of the featured artists a couple of times through the Bristol/Warren ArtNight series. This fall I will be having a one man show at the Block Island Airport Gallery from late September through January 2016. And of course there is the Wickford Art Festival, in which I’m incredibly honored and thrilled to be exhibiting.  I would be remiss not to acknowledge the Bristol/Warren ArtNight, and Cardi’s Furniture for hosting the ArtNight Special Event that provided me the opportunity to meet Judy, which has led me to the Wickford Art Festival.

What is the best way for interested buyers to contact you?

The best way to contact me is through my email, capescapesart@gmail.com, or by filling out the contact form on capescapes@weebly.com, or even through Facebook and LinkedIn.

What does it mean to be showcasing your talents at the 53rd Wickford Art Festival?

I’m somewhat familiar with Wickford, but mostly day job related. I was in the area where the Festival will be held just a couple of weeks ago. It’s a fun area and I’m looking forward to being, albeit temporary, a member of their community and sharing their vibe. Let’s hope the weather cooperates for everyone.  It is, without a doubt, the biggest moment of my artistic career. I’m looking forward to the increased exposure to fine art collectors and feedback. I’m hoping to have “Retreat at Sharks Bluff” completely finished for the show. I’m very excited and nervous.


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