Laura Craig McNellis was born on September 8, 1957, in Nashville, Tennessee, and was the youngest of four sisters. McNellis’s mental retardation became apparent early in her life. Although there was some social pressure to institutionalize her, her family was determined that she should grow up at home. She attended day classes for mentally challenged children from age four to six, but was removed when the repetitiveness of the classes eventually frustrated her. McNellis’ family decided that learning at home presented a wider range of opportunities, both social and artistic. From a time when she was very young it was evident to those around her that McNellis greatly enjoyed painting.
Laura Craig McNellis has painted regularly, using tempera on blank newsprint as her medium, since childhood. For years her father brought home stacks of blank newsprint to keep up with the volume of her production. She still works only on this newsprint and has rejected any offers of canvas or better quality paper.
Because she is non-literate and because her speech is understood only by family members, McNellis’s paintings have become an extraordinary means of personal expression. Often a painting portrays an event from her day, and sometimes a series of works will develop from a particular event that fascinated her. Her acute powers of observation enable her to depict eloquently the people, objects, and events she encounters every day. Her art makes it clear that McNellis sees a different, though in no way diminished, world.
McNellis has always painted late at night, frequently after everyone else in the house is asleep. She employs bold, rapid brushstrokes, and the wall near her desk is splattered with the byproducts of this technique. She often draws the outline first with a color felt marker or a felt-tip pen, then fills in the works using inexpensive watercolor sets and tempera paint. She saves her empty paint containers and the shelves in her room are piled high with them.
When a painting is complete McNellis draws large letters across the bottom margin, sometimes cutting out the interiors of the “Os.” Cut out portions are occasionally part of the central picture. She generally trims each of the corners of a painting but is careful to preserve a fragment of the brightly rayed yellow sun that almost invariably appears in the upper right corner. Another recurring image in McNellis’s work is the small fluffy clouds that line the top edge of each painting. When a piece is complete McNellis folds the piece into quarters and stores it. She is quick about this archiving, and has put many paintings away while they were still wet, leading to some sticking together. McNellis appears to be less concerned about the fate of a finished picture than with the planning of her next.