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All in the Details

Artist Neal Personeus sculpts architectural marvels from driftwood

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While some artists peruse the shelves of art supply stores for brushes, paints, and papers, Neal Personeus scours the sand dunes for his materials, like driftwood, sea shells, kelp, and beach glass.

“That’s the only hard part of my art,” he says. “I’m at the mercy of nature.” Each year, Personeus travels to Cape Cod to collect what he needs: beautiful pieces of driftwood that have been washed by the Atlantic salt water and bleached in the sun. His interest in driftwood sculpture started when he was a child visiting the beach; he would create pirate ships in the sand and wharf scenes in his teens. Now, he is known for sculptures with architectural elements: precise renditions of real or imagined homes emerging from the unpredictable texture-scape of the driftwood. Attention to detail is what makes his work stand out, from wrapped wire fencing and delicate shrubbery, to miniature furniture and slivered wooden railings. It is this kind of intricacy that won the artist Newport Art Museum’s People’s Choice Award two years in a row.

In addition to driftwood sculpture, Personeus has expanded into multi-media painting and less architectural pieces, all of which he makes in the comfort of his studio. Three years ago, he traded his front porch for a former classroom for-rent in a renovated school building in Bristol. There, he can spend hours a day crafting his pieces, which can take anywhere from two weeks to six months to make.

Where others might see scrap wood for a bonfire, Personeus sees something much more: a house embraced by a root system or dunes formed from an imperfect surface. No matter what kind of driftwood he finds – spongy, hardened, split, or twisted – he simply starts with one question: “What story might it have to tell?”