Ode to Dolly

March 22 – April 20, 2019

Opening reception: Friday, March 22nd, 6 to 8 pm


Art making is the only means of communication Laura Craig McNellis has developed to connect with the world around her. Born in Nashville, TN in 1957, it was apparent early in her childhood that she had significant developmental disabilities that were compounded by autism. At the time, there was significant social pressure on her family to institutionalize her, but her parents decided to go against the grain and raise her at home, a move that was highly unusual in that era.

Laura remained completely nonverbal throughout her young adult life, but she demonstrated a love of painting starting at a very early age. Her family encouraged this creative pursuit, which eventually empowered her to communicate with her parents and three older sisters through objects, a very limited form of speech that only her sisters can understand and her painting practice.

It is impossible to know the true meaning of Laura Craig McNellis’s artwork, but it seems plausible she has chosen to create a dynamic parallel world for her most cherished possession, a tattered doll named “Dolly” (or “Old Dolly”) that she has cared for since she was little. As Laura’s sister, Lynn, notes, “Dolly is absolutely central to Laura’s world. Dolly is very powerful and very important. Laura loves Dolly and takes care of her, but she has to manage Dolly’s personality because, as I said, Dolly is very powerful.” There is an implied reverence and supernatural awe for this doll by Laura– Dolly is not a toy, she is a commanding presence that must be respected and placated.

Ode to Dolly pairs McNellis’s earliest works, executed with tempera paint on newsprint, with more recent paintings on scissor-cut sheets of paper representing patterned shirts, jackets and other clothing. Due to her limited communication skills, the intention behind these works will always remain a mystery– Are her oldest creations depictions of fantasy homes, plates of food and amusements for her doll? Perhaps gifts (or offerings) to her beloved Dolly? Could her later paintings be detailed studies for the doll-sized clothes she now obsessively constructs? These small garments are sewn together by hand, repeatedly deconstructed to make adjustments and then put back together again, a loop she is consumed by every day. We will never know the answers to these questions, but what is definitively clear is that Laura has developed a completely singular and intuitive artistic vision that is all her own.

This exhibition is in collaboration with Ricco/Maresca Gallery and the McNellis family.