Neal Personeus walks beaches like they are supermarkets filled with a constantly revolving stock – he shops certain types of shells, slate, fish skeletons, beach glass or dried brush. With so many beaches throughout New England, each furrows its own types of treasure.
Neal, 52, is a driftwood artist without rival. He turns an existing piece of nature – precious old wood, hollowed, dotted, pocked, sliced and bleached by years of sun, sand and surf – and augments its attributes into architecture. Born from the summers of his youth on Cape Cod and an artistic mother who brought him to every possible museum, his craft evolved from being a small child playing with pieces of wood on the beach. It was also a way to keep Cape Cod close and visible, even while living far away.
The married father of two and an environmental engineer at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management sold a piece of art 20 years ago, helped raise his children, then returned to his personal drift to “save a piece of [his] soul.”
Now working on half of his front porch, his walls hold shelves filled with driftwood, shells, all kinds of interesting beach items and little bits of his personality. The ceiling has bush branches from dunes where he plucks pieces for trees in his sculptures.
“I look for base driftwood pieces that are beautifully aged, preserved and sculpted by nature and then try to design a style of architecture or scene that compliments its base. Many times when I find a really good piece, its almost like it has a story it wants to tell about its past, where its from and the time it lived. Sometimes its instant, sometimes it takes years, but the funny thing is that once they tell me their story, my vision of the finished piece is clear,” says Neal.
A spectacularly intricate piece called Yeah… But the View is a great example of an original drift turned into an intricate story. The table for eight is smaller than a dime and the plates on the table are sea clam shells the size of a pinhead. “Sorting through hundreds of those shells to find eight that are the same takes time,” says Neal. The same can be said for the slate for the floors; each was selected for color, thickness and shape, yet they are all about 1/8-inch in diameter.
The artist may complete a log in a few weeks or many months. “Its like everything else in life. The devil is in the details. It all has to do with the scale and amount of interior detailing. If I’m creating buildings with regular windows and no real interior work (furnishings, etc.), then it only takes a couple of weeks. But if I’m making a three-story structure that’s smaller than a baseball, has more windows than walls and is fully furnished and decorated, it can take some time,” he adds.
Reactions to his drift are as various as shells on a dune. “Some people think it’s just beach firewood, which is really sad. For me, my love of driftwood is multifaceted. I love the various silver tones of sun-bleached wood, the texture of the grain that’s been sea-soaked and traveled, tossed into the dunes and polished by the wind and sand,” says Neal. “I love the work that nature has done before I even see it, which is one reason I really try to ‘hear’ its story before I do anything to it. I don’t want to diminish what nature did, but create something in harmony with it. I wish more human site development was approached in that manner.”
Currently, he is working on a commission of a scaled reproduction of an actual historical home.
Some people have told him his pieces belong in a museum. Others have said they want to shrink themselves down so they can live in one. “I think the thing that lights me up the most is when I hear younger people say that they will never look at the beach the same way, and that there’s more than just sand, sky and water,” adds Neal. “An older man at the Wick-ford Art Festival smiled from ear-to-ear for 45 minutes carefully looking over my work. I felt like it was the best moment of his life in many years, like he was a child again. It was visceral. That’s priceless.”