Seven miles from the Oxford Square on a county road off Highway 334 is a property that spans fifty-eight acres. Upon it, Walter and Vivian Neill, have built their home, a chicken coop, a blacksmith shop, and a gallery. There is an ever-changing flow between the spaces. Still, few places feel so complete. The reason for that is the respect that Walter and Vivian have for the land, creativity, and each other.
Vivian moved to Oxford twenty-two years ago. “I was living in Grayton Beach, FL with my daughter, Zita, and the school system at that time would not have worked for us. Being from Jackson, Oxford had always been on my mind as an option, particularly because of the public school system. I decided to move here for the schools, proximity to our family in Jackson, and the friend base I had in Oxford.”
At the time Vivian and Walter were dating. “I moved here to be with her.”
They married the following year and lived in a pretty, wooden house on Highway 30. The property had a freestanding studio across the driveway. It was plenty-big for a painter, but Walter is a sculptor and needed more space for a blacksmith shop.
“We are cyclists and ride all over county roads in this area, so we were familiar with areas that most interested us,” Vivian explained. “Our friends, Julie and Billy Chadwick, alerted us to a parcel of land near them that was available. It was a complicated sale, but eventually worked out.”
Walter designed a modern ranch-style home with the help of Jonathan Maddox of Howorth & Associates. He then hired a crew of three and built the house, himself.  “He has a good eye for reclaimed material,” explained Vivian. “The cherry in our house (bookshelves, kitchen booth and counter) came from a downed tree in Memphis that he hauled back to Oxford and had milled. The wood had cured nicely when it was time to build the house. It took about one and a half years of extreme focus and was worth every minute. We love the openness all the windows and sliding doors provide. Every view from the interior is like looking at a life-size, landscape painting. There is one huge dogwood out our back windows that I sketch every season. The property is not landscaped, so we enjoy the fields, cedars and daffodils that were planted around the old homesites on the property. I plant a large zinnia garden every year.”
While the windows and their views dominate the exterior walls, the interior walls and shelves are enriched by the works of other artists, many who exhibit and are represented by Oxford Treehouse Gallery, which is a two-hundred-yard walk from the house. Walter originally built the space as a painting studio and office for Vivian, who joked that “Walter ‘Overkill’ Neill, as is typical for him, overbuilt it. We soon knew that we would share the space with other artists and open a gallery, which will celebrate its seventh anniversary in April.” In that time, they have cultivated an environment where over thirty artists, mostly from Mississippi, exhibit and sell their work. “Our curatorial process is not complicated. We look for a range of work that we both agree is a good fit. We offer very affordable original art as well as art for the serious collector. The work has to speak to both of us.”
That same agreement applies to the art that they bring into their home, which is fortunate, because in spite of the collection being blended, the works are compatible with each other, speaking to each other, creating a song that can rival the window views. There are birds and fish, angels and brides, landscapes and nudes. There is folk and formal, canvas and print, pottery and sculpture. “One of my favorite pieces is a black walnut female figure carving by Lewis West of Jackson” declared Walter. “My son and I cut the section of walnut he used from a pile of timber on a road construction site and took it to Lewis. He was a fantastic sculptor. There is a painting by Michael Maxwell that Vivian and I bought years ago. He is now carried in the Gallery. We have small ceramic animal head sculptures around the house by Sarah Teasley that always make me smile. Vivian’s sister, Carole Pigott, was a great painter, and we have several of her paintings. I could go on and on.”
Pigott also painted the large Walter Anderson prints in the two bedrooms with rich orangey-yellows and pastel violets that have a harmony with the patterns and bright colors on the bedspreads and quilts. Vivian said her oldest sister “showed me a path. Though her path was a tough one, she always encouraged me. I have been making art since I can remember.”
Walter’s artistic journey was also encouraged by a sibling. “My brother, Cooper, was into photography, so we spent a lot of time together shooting and developing photographs.” Several of those photographs hang in the bedroom hallway. Two of them are of his late father, Walter Sr, a neurosurgeon from Jackson. One is a close up of the doctor performing an operation. The other is a wide shot of the man deep sea fishing.
At the end of the hallway is Vivian’s studio, where she focuses on figurative and still life works in oil. She also enjoys making block prints and gouache sketches. “I love to see Vivian painting in her studio,” confessed Walter. “That is as inspiring as seeing the finished product.” While many of the canvases are taped to the walls. her favorite view of the house, at least in the winter, is the one she has when she walks out of the studio and into the hallway. There, past the two rows of photographs, the kitchen, on the far side of the den, stands what she calls, “the heart of the house,” a Pacific Energy wood stove from Canada.
As soothing as it is to gaze upon the wood burning behind the stove’s smoky, glass door, I must disagree with Vivian. The heart of the house is not the stove, but rather Walter and Vivian’s relationship, itself. The support each supplies to the other’s hopes and dreams is as strong as their mutual love for art and cycling. The respect they have for each other’s gifts and past adds up to a marriage that can thrive and endure. Or simply, as Walter put it, “Sharing life's experiences really lightens the load.”   
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