Story and Photography by Karen Ott Mayer
Creating a sculpture garden is the latest project for artists Walter and Vivian Neill of Oxford Treehouse Gallery.
Driving southeast of Oxford, Mississippi, the county road winds and dips more the farther away we get from town. On this evening, we’re hunting a place – talked about by friends – but still unseen. I turn down one last road and spot the sign for Oxford Treehouse Gallery. The subtle rustic sign points us to a dirt and gravel driveway that leads through a short patch of woods. In the dusk, the art gallery shines bright and reminds me of an A-frame cottage.
The setting is as much a part of this story as Walter and Vivian Neill who have carved, or rather forged, an artful layered life on the 58-acre property. Like many artists, their life here has been an evolution as they’ve built and established a new home, an art gallery, a guest Airbnb, and Walter’s 3,000-square-foot blacksmith shop.
“I call it the Lafayette County Boys Club,” says Vivian about the shop and with a good-natured laugh. Laugh or not, a first visit to Oxford Treehouse Gallery may be for any number of reasons; maybe it’s just to chat with Walter or shop for art or just wander the property.
Artists at heart, the couple’s Oxford life began more than 20 years ago following different career paths. A plumber by trade, Walter’s early creative pursuits focused on photography for many years. “I got disinterested because a dark room can be depressing,” he says.
Vivian spent years in the restaurant business. Both were located in Jackson, Mississippi. After a series of moves, they each landed in Oxford separately. “Oxford was supposed to be temporary until Walter began moving his shop up here,” she says.
It’s easy to see why the shop became a determining factor. Filled with forges, blacksmith equipment, tools, and more interesting salvage than one imagination can hold, the shop could be considered a gallery as well. “People drop in all the time, maybe to get Walter’s help or to get something repaired or just to visit,” Vivian adds as Walter stands nearby. “He’s a good teacher.”
He’s also a salvager with an eye. What most people haul to the recycler, Walter is busy reclaiming. As we chat, he points to a stack of fire truck brake drums that he intercepted from a trip to the local salvage yard. “I was an early dumpster diver,” Walter says with a smile.
His creative path began 35 years ago when he worked in a tool and die shop for a couple of years. From there he joined the Mississippi Forge Council for artists and blacksmiths. The line between plumbing and forging is fairly straight in Walter’s mind. “There’s welding in plumbing and working with copper. I first started working with different metals,” he says.
One of his earlier lines focused on culinary pieces such as cheese chisels, knives, and bottle openers and knives. Forged culinary knives may be on the more practical side but he’s also incorporated exotic elements like walnut or antler handles. He’s also forged andirons, fire screens and even the bed in their Airbnb. While the art gallery has regularly scheduled events and hours, the shop hosts more sporadic events, including knife demonstrations.
The couple’s current project involves building a sculpture trail throughout the property. The idea grew from the couple’s desire to share the land and property with visitors. “We want something you could see by walking on the grounds here,” says Vivian. Walter’s currently on the hunt for a metal ball for his latest idea.
“I have this long metal pole and I want to position it in the ground and hang a red and white ball…you know, a huge fishing pole,” he says laughing. Walter loves doing sculpture because each piece is different and requires a bit of conceptual mulling on the front end. “I like to do something different every time.”
The gallery opened in 2014 and represents up to 30 artists at any time. The rotating works include print media, wall art, pottery, jewelry and Walter’s works. “This is a destination gallery and our main intent is to share the space with other artists. It’s not like we had a grand business plan; it’s more of an evolutionary process,” says Vivian.
Since the couple lives on the property, Vivian points out that they are happy to open anytime. “The gallery phone rings to my cellphone so we’re almost always available. We really just want guests to come and see and experience the art.” And that approach seems to fit the Neills. A creative life can’t necessarily be mapped out or measured as each moment or day brings another idea. Or in Walter’s case, another piece of salvage just waiting to be forged into art.
oxfordtreehousegallery.comRead More in DeSoto Magazine online.