Born in 1957, the youngest of four girls, Laura Craig McNellis has painted prolifically since childhood.
McNellis’s developmental disabilities were diagnosed very early as severe mental retardation. Autism was identified through more diligent observation by Dr. Travis Thompson, director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development. Dr. Thompson admired the vibrant creations that emerged from McNellis’s dexterous hands. The paintings revealed a strong connection to the world around her and conveyed a need to explore the depth and breadth of the environment with which she had so little communication. The early works detailed important aspects of the trappings of her daily life and documented her surroundings at home, in the neighborhood and, eventually, beyond. Dr. Thompson identified repetitive elements in her works that became signature icons and spoke to the autism that drove her inexhaustible need to paint.
McNellis uses water-based paint on paper to chronicle treasured objects, people, and places. The surface she used exclusively for many years was discarded newspapers, which had been folded by an offset press after escaping the ink rollers—and were therefore undeliverable waste at the post office where her father worked. He brought stacks home to his struggling daughter and she quickly delighted in the usually blank newsprint. McNellis was able to draw and paint, then quickly refold the paper “canvas,” thus secreting her creations and eventually hiding them away. She painted late into the night, every night, at the family home where she lived until her parents passed away. The energetic painting process includes cutting with scissors, which opens or frames the image, and sometimes collage. Her works on paper are the foundation of a lifelong process of exploration. The artist visually describes her surroundings and important objects, expressing and satisfying her relationship with them. Periodically, she creates colorful, textural works in clay.
“Her unique method of cataloguing life—an unremitting exercise in capturing the gist of things and pruning the rest—transports us to a charming locus somewhere amid her mind’s idiosyncrasies and the more ordinary coordinates of the ‘real,’ a sophisticated dance between the noble intention to represent things faithfully and the innate inventiveness that knows no boundary.” – Alejandra Russi.
Frank Maresca and Roger Ricco recognized McNellis as an important contemporary artist. They curated her first solo exhibition in New York City in 1992 and included her in the book American Self Taught: Paintings and Drawings by Outsider Artists (Alfred A. Knopf, 1993). Ricco/Maresca Gallery continues to represent the artist internationally.
McNellis’s work has been shown at The Newark Museum, New Jersey; The Museum of Everything, London, Paris, and The Maria Gugging Psychiatric Clinic, Vienna. She has had solo exhibitions at Galerie Karsten Greve, Germany; Intuit, Chicago; Ricco/Maresca Gallery, New York (2016, 2012, 2009, 2001, 1999, 1995, 1992); The Kennedy Center, Nashville, and is included in many private collections, such as Warner Bros. Records and the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne.