Art and the City - February 2017

Artist REvisit Profile: Bruce McNeil


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Photo by Linda Davidson of the Washington Post

Bruce McNeil photographs the Anacostia River. He is in love with the drifting, mysterious energy that both separates and unifies a city. It flows through the dreams of a people and the passions of the photographer. The result is the difference between a snapshot and a work of art.

I wrote that six years ago. The river, the land, and the sky still glow as one enveloping cloak of possibility in each photograph. It’s more than a picture of a place, it’s a state of mind: a subconscious bonding of the real and the mystical. It’s a euphoric trip to both the idyllic past and conceivable future.

Bruce uses his enhanced “painterly” photography to express the “extravagant poetic and lyrical beauty of the natural world.” He has been capturing the possibilities of the Anacostia River for over 30 years and has expanded his vision to its 13 tributaries, starting at the headwaters in Sandy Spring. Backyard streams feed the river that flows into the Potomac and, in a short distance, the Chesapeake. His message is that the water in each creek has the same value as the water in the main channel. To him that value is inherent in all of our country’s rivers and lakes.

Bruce says he is now “busting loose,” expanding to all rivers in the area, the Patuxent and Severn … and from the St. Lawrence to the lower Mississippi.

He’s not trying to shame people to change their ways. He never photographs debris or garbage to make you feel guilty. He wants you to envision how pristine the river was once, and how it might be again if we care enough.

Visit the permanent exhibition of his river photographs in the historic George Washington House in Bladensburg. Next month, you can see his work in the Art and the City show of “REvisit” artists at the Hill Center. That opening is on March 8, 6-8 p.m.

Jim Magner’s Thoughts on Art    

I once wrote that the only thing more important than water was information about water. I believed then, and still do, that if we could understand how and where we use it, we could better protect it. I said, Hey, we need to consolidate not only geologic and hydrologic data, but also include water law, local zoning, and the other major human activities. We need to look at the big picture and recognize water as an interrelated vascular system that feeds the earth.

That was 30 years ago. I drafted legislation and we had very prominent sponsors in the House and Senate. I got to testify before Congress. Alas, the bill didn’t get far. Too much turf-guarding and political nearsightedness.

Now I think the only thing more important than water is our attitude about water. Our belief system is a prelude to collecting information and acquiring knowledge, not just data. We have to be ready to admit some real problems. And hurry up about it.

That’s the message that Bruce McNeil is trying to get across by showing us what rivers looked like before the machine age, and endowing them with as much beauty as possible. It’s not an attempt to gloss over the damage humans have done. Nor is it about making pretty pictures, although they certainly are that.

Here is the message: aesthetics is critically important but usually takes a second, or third, seat to engineering. Why? We humans evolved with a sense of what a healthy environment looks like. That’s how we survived. Much of that was lost because we ignored our instincts, which are based on something we call beauty. We forgot that a beautiful landscape is a healthy one for both man and beast.

At the Galleries

Hill Center Galleries  
Old Naval Hospital
921 Pennsylvania. Ave. SE
Through Feb. 26

This terrific Hill Center event continues through February and features a group show of 37 artists from the Capitol Hill Art League, plus three solo exhibits.

“Phantasize” by Karen Cohen takes everyday images and creates “mythological visual stories” by employing digital manipulation tools, layering textures and colors. The recreated photographs “reflect what lies within, by viewing what is on the outside.”

“Time Tradition Exhibition,” Winston W. Harris’ newest show, combines three separate series into a conceptual theme to experiment in printmaking. He recognizes the importance of time as an event in itself. He “introduces two disciplines into one format, transforming two-dimensional prints, and reinventing the image by recycling past artwork into a new identity.”

“Searching for Home”is a journey in search of the source of the emotional feeling of home. Marite Vidales, a native of Costa Rica, features three series of acrylic and mixed media paintings: “Huacas of Peru”; “Transitions in America”; and “Costa Rican Landscapes.”

Capitol Hill Art League
545 Seventh St. SE
Feb. 4-28
Reception: Sat., Feb. 4, 5-7 p.m.

“Vessels” is the theme of the Capitol Hill Art League’s exhibit. You will see “2D and 3D vessels of all kinds – from ships to bowls to blood vessels!” As always, expect a wide range of ideas and themes, styles and techniques. The show is juried by potter Chris Cooley. The Feb. 4 reception is, of course, open to the public. And as always there will be wine and cheese and conversation with the artists.

Coming in March

“The Hill Rag’s Art and the City”
Hill Center Galleries
Old Naval Hospital
921 Pennsylvania Ave. SE
March 8-April 30
Opening: March 8, 6-8 p.m.

For the past year I have revisited artists whom I first profiled years ago. I wanted to catch up with what they have been working on and see how they have progressed in their ideas about art and life. What I found was wonderful. Works by these 12 artists will show at the Hill Center in March and April, opening on March 8. All are top professionals and recognized leaders in their fields: Alan Braley, Tom Bucci, Tati Kaupp, Matt Sesow, Jan Kern, Andrei Kushner, Anne Marchand, Ellen Cornett, Dana Ellyn, Patrick Campbell, Barbara Nuss, and, Bruce McNeil.

My “REvisit” profiles will accompany each artist’s exhibit, as well as my “Thoughts” about the themes and subjects of their work. The range of ideas, theories, and techniques is truly exciting. You won’t see a show of this quality and stunning professionalism again. If you are thinking about buying, get there early because each has an extended collector base and wide following. The show is sponsored by the Hill Rag.

Also in March, I begin the 15th year of this column. I will profile new artists and occasionally revisit a previously profiled artist.

Bruce McNeil. Bladensburg Waterfront Park, MD, 2013. Digital Paper Print. 24 x 38
Bruce McNeil. John Phillips Sousa Bridge.

A Capitol Hill artist and writer, Jim Manger can be reached at His award-winning book, “A Haunting Beauty,” can be acquired through

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