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Charlotte painter uses angels to benefit charities and bring people closer to God

The Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance is a consortium of local media dedicated to writing about the arts.

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  • About angels

    “Angels are spiritual beings – sometimes linked to the notion of fire – who act as intermediaries between God and man. Sometimes this occurs in a dream, sometimes as an encounter.

    “Because angels receive no physical description in the Bible, the question becomes: If you want to depict angels in art, how do you depict a spiritual being that acts as a messenger? You have to figure out how you get from God to people. The obvious answer is wings.”

    Lawrence Cunningham, University of Notre Dame Department of Theology

    “There is a pervasive idea in our culture that says humans become angels upon death. This notion is recent.

    “I think there’s been a sense in which angels have been sort of romanticized. Think of these beautiful, almost sensuous angels you get during the romantic period. Or the fat little cherubs that come and probe you. And what’s missing is, in the Bible, every time an angel appears, the person to whom they appear their first reaction is a sense of reverence, awe and even fear. They know they’re being confronted with a presence beyond the human realm.

    “As we’ve domesticated angels, that’s made it easier for us to think about human beings becoming angels. That probably would have been a very odd idea to any Biblical writer.”

    –Michael Petty, priest at St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Tallahassee, Fla.

  • Anne Neilson

    Anne Neilson Fine Art will open in October in Dilworth Artisan Station in Charlotte’s South End. The gallery will feature Neilson’s paintings, book and works by other artists. The gallery will host Neilson’s “Strokes of Compassion,” a show featuring local artists to benefit charity organizations with whom Neilson works.

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Ten years ago, Anne H. Neilson painted an ethereal figure with wings and multiple people told her she had found her voice.

Since then, the Charlotte resident has painted thousands of angels – patrons’ children or parents cast in the heavenly role, or guardian angels, or sometimes an angel just for the sake of its beauty. In October 2012, she published a collection of her paintings in a coffee table book, hailed as one of Kathie Lee Gifford’s favorite things on the “Today” show.

Soft, natural hues constitute angels whose backs usually face the viewer, their nondescript faces in profile. The narrow figures are reminiscent of Byzantine emperors and clerics – long, slender bodies that hover just above the ground – though their rendering is much less defined.

As Neilson paints, she listens to Christian praise music. The time she spends at an easel is a time of worship for her, allowing the music to inspire her thoughts and her brush. If she’s painting figures based on someone specific, she often references a photo of them for artistic detail, also praying for them as she paints.

“I paint with my praise music on and get into a worship mode where I am painting, praying, reflecting,” Neilson said, “and will allow the paint to flow to create the angels.”

Comfort in times of trial

Neilson’s paintings serve the struggling. They’re often used – whether given or purchased – as a reminder of peace and comfort for those facing trials. If the hardship is the kind that can be helped by money, Neilson donates a percentage of her sales or auctions her paintings for charities.

She is excited not by her growing value as an artist, but by the growing impact her donations can make. The more she sells, the more she gives.

“I just saw a painting at Sotheby’s go for $20 million,” Neilson said. “Can you just imagine what we could do with that?”

Testimonials from Neilson’s friends, patrons and customers are peppered in among stories of individual paintings in her book, “Angels in Our Midst.” More than 100 images of her paintings are accompanied by her favorite quotes from famous artists, or more commonly, Scripture passages. But the majority of the Scripture isn’t about angels, it’s about God’s promises.

“The images of the angels are just a reinforcement about God’s word and his promises,” Neilson said. “I think people are just drawn to the angels, and my ultimate goal is to point them to God.”

Beauty and peace

Neilson was feeling overwhelmed by her duties as a wife, mother of four, painter and volunteer. After working at the Harvest Center one day, she got in her car wondering if she could continue to pull everything off. She felt God whisper instructions to her: paint and give back. When she got home, there was a message on her answering machine from 3 French Hens – the first store to sell her work – saying they had just sold all of her paintings.

“And I thought, ‘OK, this is what I’m going to do,’ ” Neilson said.

Neilson often “steps out in faith” when she’s uncertain. She felt unsure about taking her work to Essex, Conn., for a show, but she went despite the doubt. So did Kathie Lee Gifford. The talk-show host’s promotion of the angel book on national television pushed it into its third printing.

Angel paintings hang in the homes of Oprah Winfrey, the Prince of Monaco, and soon, Gifford will have her painting – two angels with two lambs.

From crosses to angels

When Neilson began painting, she wanted her work to reflect the faith that plays such a big part in her life. She started with crosses – what she calls the center of her faith – but felt they were getting a little too abstract. She quickly settled on angels as a way to spread the comfort and peace they represent.

“She has truly found a way to live out her beliefs,” said Christina O’Dell, a Charlotte resident who commissioned an angel painting based on her three daughters.

“The painting really provides us with a sense of beauty and peace,” O’Dell said. “It’s hung in our kitchen, and I found myself lingering at my kitchen table longer. It gives so much hope and spirit, and it’s a reminder of the gifts you’re given.”

This article is part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, a consortium of local media dedicated to writing about the arts.
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