Although many artists prefer to work in solitude, they often turn to others on occasion for insightful discussion and critique. Over time, a valuable camaraderie develops that offers mutual support and critical insight. Port Clyde resident Gillian Sloat and her sister, Gena Neilson of Thomaston, were lucky enough to forge a strong camaraderie in the fine arts as small children. Close in age, the sisters were born to British parents living on Long Island, New York, but who soon moved to a saltwater farm in West Bath, Maine.
Sloat and Neilson’s mother was once a professional dancer in New York and took up painting and drawing as a hobby. Their father was a draftsman and carpenter who also had a strong appreciation for the fine arts. The sisters were equally encouraged to be creative not only in their youth, but also in their adult years. The girls grew up in a household without a television or computer, so their mother provided them with paper and watercolors to occupy their free time. Both girls embraced the opportunity to create and experiment. In Bath, their parents became involved with the local fine arts community. It was not uncommon for their family to welcome into their home notable artists such as Dahlov Ipcar and Marguerite Zorach. It was in this lively communion of artists that both girls were influenced to become makers of fine art in their own right.
Sloat earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Southern Maine, but soon realized that she couldn’t find a job that would support her. So, she entered the banking business and eventually worked her way up to the position of Senior Vice President in charge of small business loans in Portland. In 1989, her husband, Rob, encouraged her to return to painting and bought her oil paints and lessons. Inspired by the world around her, Sloat began to paint her surroundings. She retired from banking in 1999 and the couple moved to Port Clyde where she continues to paint in her studio overlooking the harbor.
Neilson chose a different path and began formal studies in painting in 1969 at the Portland School of Art. There, she studied sculpture and graphic design before graduating in 1973. Forming her own company with a partner, Neilson worked as a graphic designer for 28 years before retiring. Among numerous projects, she also created designs for publications from the Portland City Hall, and also designed rubber children’s puzzles. After retirement, she drew upon the carpentry skills she learned from her father as a child and began to construct sculptural fine art boxes from wood.
In 2000, the sisters formed a business called “Piggywig Woods” where Neilson built sculptural tables and Sloat painted them artistically. But Sloat eventually changed her focus and joined her sister in the fine arts as a portrait painter. Wanting to be closer to her sister, Neilson and her husband, Jon Bonjour, moved to Thomaston.
The sisters share a wonderful and unique relationship in the fine arts. They phone each other every morning to discuss art, take painting classes together, and also meet to critique their works. “Because we’re sisters,” says Sloat, “we can be brutally honest with each other.” Their subjects, styles and tastes are completely different, which adds to the exchange between sisters. Sloat prefers classical oil painting techniques in still life and landscape, but creates a narrative with mystery that encourages the viewer to speculate about what isn’t depicted in the scene. By contrast, Neilson is intensely interested in people’s faces and their personalities. She prefers to paint in “an athletic way,” as she describes it, with bold expressive brush strokes.
Although these artist sisters find different sources of inspiration and employ different techniques for expression, they are single-minded in their passion for the fine arts and their dedication to each other. The paintings of Gillian Sloat and Gena Neilson may be viewed at the Port Clyde Art Gallery, where they have been members for over a decade.
—Katharine A. Cartwright
PHOTOS: Katharine Cartwright