By Davis Coen
Photos by Davis Coen
One of the great assets of living in Oxford is being able to ride just short distances from town to create an adventure for yourself, among the many nooks & crannies that Lafayette County has to offer, especially during nice weather.
One such destination is the Oxford Treehouse Gallery, a gem of a stopover just seven miles, or ten minutes from the downtown Courthouse Square, at 328 County Road 418, off Highway 334 (a.k.a. Fudgetown Road).
The owners, Vivian and Walter Neill have been in the Oxford area for 24 years, and the couple opened their space to the public to provide opportunity for local artists to show their work, while surrounding themselves in the environment and aesthetic which they love.
Walter’s shop was the first building the Neills put on the property, which has since become somewhat of a compound. Being a blacksmith and a sculptor, and with the big power hammers, forges and other machinery involved in his work, the couple sought out a sizable space. “We had to be out in the country,” said Vivian.
She said that between having a daughter going into the eighth grade, Oxford’s good school system, and it being close enough for her family to pay visits, that it “just seemed like a good place for us to settle,” after having just lived in Florida for five years.
Although Vivian described their ample-sized property nestled in the woods as an “unlikely location for a gallery,” she said, “it was one of those, ‘build it, and maybe-they’ll-come’ situations,” similar to the film Field of Dreams. “And they have,” she added, about the support of the Oxford community, and travelers alike.
After Walter’s shop was built, it was followed by the construction of a studio for Vivian nearby on the property, which is when they ultimately knew they would share the space with other artists and that the studio would become a gallery. “We renovated the basement into a little apartment, and we lived there while we were building our house,” Vivian said,” about their residence which lies in the next driveway over, just a couple hundred yards from the gallery. “Once we got in our house, we were able to get the gallery open full time.” The little apartment underneath eventually became an Airbnb.
“We’ve always been interested in art,” said Vivian. “He’s always done photography or metalwork and I’ve always painted, or done this, that, and the other…”
Although she began her artistic journey at LSU in the mid-70s, Vivian spent 25 years in the restaurant industry, mostly in Jackson, MS, where she originates from, but then eventually tasked herself with finishing her art degree, which she did at Ole Miss in 2003. (Her last semester was fascinatingly her daughter’s first semester at the university.)
She called her years in the culinary industry a “diversion,” and, “the long way around to get back to art.” Striving for the degree was also part of what helped spawn the gallery.
Maintaining the allurement of its hidden charm, the destination still takes little more than a hop, skip and jump, and a couple of easy twists and turns to reach from downtown. “It’s only seven miles from town but there are rural roads that get you here,” said Vivian.
She said that a common reaction from new visitors taking the short trip out to the gallery getaway, is “oh wow, this is awesome,” and then they’ll typically begin to get comfortable, “chill out,” and soak in the many works of art it has on display. Also, the huge screened-in porch in the back of the building, cozily engulfed in trees, creating scattered dappled light at daytime, not only lends itself to the name of the gallery, but is a big draw. A variety of occasions, meetings and events have occurred on the porch over the years, including book clubs, live music, or “people just bringing a picnic lunch,” said Vivian. “It’s just a really chill area.”
The couple also erected a chicken coop between the gallery and Walter’s shop, where oftentimes “if we’re not dealing with predators,” Vivian said, the fowl can be seen roaming around.
A bevy of local artists
Oxford Treehouse Gallery, and its satellite location at Chancellor’s House Hotel in downtown Oxford, both cater largely to the wealth of regional landscape artists from North Mississippi. These include industrious local painter Carol Roark; Delta-native Richard Kelso, who was recently honored with the Mississippi Governor’s Arts Award for excellence in visual art; and Dot Courson, who displays her work also at her own studio located off Highway 278 between Oxford and Tupelo.
The gallery collection represents about thirty different regional artists, unlike most traditional galleries that are more likely to feature one artist each month. “We keep a lot of work on hand, and it’s a really wide variety of styles and mediums and prices. So, when people come out they generally want to see a lot. They want to have a lot to look at,” said Vivian. “So that’s what we have focused on, rather than rotating solo shows.”
Among the many colorful eye-catching paintings at Treehouse are also a great selection of ceramic works, mainly receptacles of many dimensions and sizes (particularly bowls, vases, pots, cups and mugs), which might be popular among visitors looking for a casual buy.
Will McComb, a utilitarian potter who pursues a Master of Fine Arts in Ceramics at Ole Miss, has had his work among the inventory. And locally popular Andrew McIntyre, who also studied ceramics at U of M, often has pieces available at the gallery. Ashley Chavis and Sarah Teasley have recently had some on hand, although with the rotating stock it’s recommended to call or email first to keep up to date with fast-moving stock.
New beginnings for the satellite gallery at Chancellor’s House Hotel
Some of the larger works in the Oxford Bottletree Gallery collection are on display at Chancellor’s House Hotel, which number in the dozens. “They really like having people walk through the hotel and come through the gallery to look at the art,” said Vivian.
Also, she said the regional landscape artists are the ones that guests of the hotel most respond to. Particularly “people that are visiting or have moved from Mississippi and wanna take a piece of it back home with them,” said Vivian.
The idea of expanding their gallery arose when sales & marketing manager Clifton Odom had contacted Millie West at nearby Southside Gallery about putting artwork in the hotel. Millie suggested that he also contact the Neills, and they’ve been hanging pieces there now for four-and-a-half years.
Oliver Hospitality Group, who have mostly historic buildings around the southeast, recently acquired the hotel, and plans to do huge renovations in late-2022/early-2023. This will include new branding and reimagined spaces, which the Neills are very excited about. “This is kind of a departure for them because it’s not an old building, but they do it right,” said Vivian.
As far as what else is to come, Vivian said they plan on doing some more live entertainment at Treehouse. “It’s not what we’re here for, but we have done music on the porch which has been a really big hit,” she said. “We used to do a lot more events at the gallery but now we’re really kind of focusing on just the artwork rather than the event space.”
Visit OxfordTreehouseGallery.com or call 662-236-1667 for further information.