A photographer who followed Neil Heimsoth’s canoe inspired Floating the North Fork.

Brimming with talent, Neil Heimsoth remains an eager student of his art.

This article originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of Missouri Life magazine.

Should you be so lucky as to meet Neil Heimsoth at his studio in Cole Camp or at one of the events hosted there, especially one showcasing the town’s German heritage, you may notice he is always smiling and telling a joke. He will tell you they are old German jokes from the area, and that they are funnier in German.

Here are two:

  • One of the old shopkeepers here would tell you, “A piece of candy is eight cents, or eight pieces for eighty-eight cents, but I’ll let you have eight pieces for sixty-five cents.”
  • There was an older couple who lived on a farm nearby. They had ten children, and the husband said, “This can’t go on. We have a child every May, which means it happens in August. So every August, I will go sleep in the barn.” His wife said, “Yeah, Papa, if you think that will help, I’ll sleep there, too.”

But his good humor belies a seriousness about his art that few may see. At age eighty-eight, he still orders books about art and art masters new and old. He still orders videos about techniques. Just a few years ago, he drove to West Palm Beach, Florida, to take a five-day course from Nelson Shanks, the artist who painted portraits of Princess Diana, President Bill Clinton, and opera singer Luciano Pavarotti.

Neil is still learning.

“You’re never too old to learn,” he says.

Upstream from Bennett Spring captures dogwood, redbud, and understory flowers blooming at the same time.

You might be thinking he came to his artist career at an older age, as some artists do. But he started down the artist path at a young age, when he won first prize at an art contest put on by the public school, although they invited the Lutheran parochial school students to enter. Neil, age thirteen, was one of those students. He won the top prize for a pencil drawing in which he copied the picture of George Washington hanging in his schoolroom, “back in the day when they gave only one blue ribbon,” he likes to say.

His Lutheran pastor made a big impression on him when he told him, “The Lord has given you a talent that He doesn’t give to everyone. Wouldn’t it be a sin if you didn’t use it?”

Art was a natural path for Neil, who came from a family of artists. On his maternal side, his aunt had three boys and a girl, and two of the boys on their farm were artists. One of them was featured in The Kansas City Star before World War II. Another cousin was an artist who did advertising drawings for a Kansas City clothing store.

His grandmother was from Austria, and he once tracked down relatives there and spent a week with them. One of them was an artist too. Neil’s grandson graduated with a degree in art from the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, so the tradition continues. While a student, his grandson occasionally came to Neil for advice on technique, such as perspective drawing.

You can see Neil’s work online at HeimsothFineArt.com, at his studio in Cole Camp by chance or appointment ([email protected]), Bill’s Art Center in Camdenton, or at McCreed’s Gallery near Bennett Spring. See the original 1977 Missouri Life article on Neil Heimsoth at MissouriLife.com/ArtistNeilHeimsoth

Neil grew up in Stover, and he joined the Navy during the Korean War right out of high school. He spent four years in the Navy but was never on a ship. Instead he worked in electronics and as an instructor on flight simulators. After he got out, he came back to Missouri, to Springfield, and began searching for a job.

At a local dance, he met a young woman who was apparently impressed with his dancing skill because she introduced him to her boss, and that is how Neil became a teacher at the Arthur Murray Dance Center. He got to know one of the students, who just happened to be the supervisor of a US Forest Service office in Springfield that managed the Mark Twain National Forest at the time. He offered Neil a job as a draftsman and illustrator, where he created brochures and illustrations for places of interest in the forest.

While Neil worked there, he used the GI Bill to go to Drury College in the evening, where he took art classes. At the time, the Springfield Art Museum brought in visiting artists from New York for two weeks at a time, and he studied under them as well. The folks at Silver Dollar City at Branson spotted some of his work, and they offered him a place at their annual Craft Festival.

“We’re having more fun here than when the devil makes sausage.”

Neil refers to this time as his best teacher because he had to paint in front of a crowd, which was quite a challenge. One day, he was painting a picture of a deer, and he had a photograph of a deer for reference under his shoe. He would shift his foot occasionally to look at the photo, and one older lady saw him doing that and called him out for it, not knowing that most artists learn by copying others’ works of art.

He also became a member of the Silver Dollar City art guild, which participated in weekend art shows around the Midwest. He did this from 1977 to 1988. Bennett Springs was one of Neil’s favorite subjects for his art, and some of the resulting paintings were made into limited edition prints for the Missouri Trout Fisherman’s Association.

Then Bill Nunn, the founder of the original Missouri Life magazine in 1973, came across Neil’s work. Bill asked Neil if he could run a country church series Neil had painted. Neil gave him permission and wrote the captions for an eight-page feature in 1977. Of his country church series, he says, “Bill and I decided to call this article, ‘Churches of the Gentle Landscape,’ ” and as a result, his studio is called Gentle Landscape.

Neil says that article really helped his career. It gave him credibility, and he was able to get into about ten different galleries in the state, including the Bass Pro Shop. He has done one-man art shows in various cities, won numerous awards, and his work has been added to private and corporate collections. He has also taught watercolor at State Fair Community College in Sedalia. 

Neil moved to Cole Camp in 1989, and he has been heavily involved in the German heritage there. He loves music as much as he does painting, and in 1990, he organized the Cole Camp German singers. Neil and the singing group have given more than three hundred performances around the Midwest. The group organized annual Sängerfests for almost thirty years until the pandemic hit, and it will probably be scheduled again this year. He is also the president of the St. Louis district within the The Nord-Amerikanischer Sängerbund (North American Singers’ Association), and he has served as president for the past two decades.

He also donated an open lot adjacent to his studio to the Low German Club of Cole Camp, which is now the site of the German Immigrant Memorial in downtown Cole Camp.

“I got tired of mowing it,” he says in jest. But seriously, he and his wife Marilyn, who also has German heritage and is from the area, were instrumental in getting the memorial built.

These days, Neil works mainly in oil and acrylics and has been teaching four young artists in Cole Camp. He designed a large four-by-eight-foot painting of Venice, Italy, which now hangs in Calgaros Pizza at Cole Camp. He marked the painting off in grids, and each of the students he was mentoring painted one grid. He mixed the paints for them, and they drew and painted their portion, with Neil coming behind to fix things.

Neil also has large paintings hanging in other Cole Camp establishments, including his paintings Neuchwanstein Castle at the German Table restaurant and Austrian Wine Garden at Wine, Women & Song, a unique boutique that also offers special dinners with reservations.

Many of Neil’s commissions over the years have been for portraits. He chooses a full palette of color and pure colors for his more traditional paintings. He and his good friend and fellow artist Joseph Orr spend a lot of time critiquing each other’s work and exploring new art ideas together.

“What I’m really interested in is how light hits a subject,” he says. Perhaps his art echoes his lightheartedness.

“We’re having more fun here than when the devil makes sausage,” he says.