Artist Anne Neely Evokes the Mystery and Magic of Water

A view of Anne Neely’s paintings on exhibit at the Museum of Science in Boston, Massachusetts. Photo credit: Stewart Clements

Motivated by concern over growing threats to the world of water, Boston-area artist Anne Neely undertook a decade-long search to understand and interpret what is happening to rivers, lakes, oceans, glaciers and aquifers.

“I approach painting by asking questions, just as a scientist does,” Neely writes in Water Stories, the companion book to the exhibit of her work at Boston’s Museum of Science, “and it is through my investigation of these questions that a painting is built.”

And build them she did.

With titles such as “Splash,” “Spill”, “Lost,” “Run Off,” and “Drought,” Neely’s paintings literally immerse you in the many dimensions of water.

Some weeks before the exhibit’s opening in July, David Rabkin, the museum’s director for current science and technology, asked if I would consider writing a short essay for Water Stories.  To help with my decision, he and Anne sent me digital images of the paintings.  After my own immersion, I wrote back: I think and write about water every day, but in experiencing your work, I’m taken to the emotional core of it all.

The remainder of this post consists of the words I wrote for the companion book to Water Stories: Conversations in Paint and Sound, on exhibit until January 2015 at the Museum of Science in Boston.


Water is always on the move – falling, flowing, swirling, infiltrating, evaporating – and all the while knitting the vast web of life together. Thanks to the solar-powered hydrological cycle, water is the great connector across space and time.  My morning coffee might contain water molecules the dinosaurs drank.

We talk of water in the most utilitarian of ways, as a “right” and as a “resource,” when in fact it is so much more: it is the planet’s greatest gift and the source of life itself.

Viewed from space, Earth is an incredibly blue planet.  But only 2.5 percent of all the water on Earth is fresh.  And two-thirds of that freshwater is locked up in glaciers and ice caps.  Less than 1 percent of Earth’s water is both fresh and accessible to us.  And that supply is finite, but our population and consumer demands keep growing.

Everything we use, wear, buy and eat takes water to make – sometimes surprisingly large amounts.  A simple cotton shirt can require 700 gallons, with most of them consumed by the cotton crops growing in the field.  We don’t think much about water when we fuel up our cars, but each gallon of gasoline takes some 13 gallons of water to produce.

And so today, in our world of nearly 7.2 billion people and $78 trillion in yearly goods and services, we face an existential conundrum: we are running out of water when and where we need it.   Rivers like the Colorado, Indus, Nile and Rio Grande, to name a few, are drying up.  We are depleting the aquifers beneath our feet, in effect using tomorrow’s water to meet today’s demands. And as the planet warms, dry areas are getting drier, and wet areas are getting wetter.  The future will not look like the past.

Against this backdrop, Anne Neely’s stunning images take me to my emotional core.  She conjures the mystery and magic of water, but also confronts us with its seemingly discordant duality: floods and droughts, harmony and conflict, life and death.  Each of us is about two-thirds water.  Anne’s water stories are our stories.

The decision to exhibit Neely’s beautiful and engaging works of art in a museum of science is a stroke of brilliance.  If we are to create a future in which we live in harmony with Earth’s life-giving water cycle, we must apply the best of our human ingenuity – and science and technology – to the task.  To bring the inspiration and depth of feeling of Anne Neely’s art together with the intellect of our inquiring minds promises to bear fruit of a new and needed kind.


*Note: The book, Water Stories, which includes this essay, as well as writings by Anne Neely and others, will be available at the end of September 2014.   For more information, contact

Caption: Lost, (river), oil on linen, 56" x 72", 2014
Caption: Lost, (river), oil on linen, 56″ x 72″, Anne Neely, 2014



Meet the Author
Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and author of Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity. From 2009-2015, she served as Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society. Sandra is also co-creator of Change the Course, the national water stewardship initiative awarded the 2017 US Water Prize for restoring billions of gallons of water to depleted rivers and wetlands. The recipient of several honorary degrees, she works to bridge science, policy, and practice to promote innovative ways of securing water to meet both human and ecosystem needs.