Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Angels, Safety Pins, and Southern Hospitality




Spartanburg artist pins his hopes on human kindness, our better angels



Tryon, N.C. – Kris Neely is known for his angel paintings. He calls them Guardians. This year he is trying something new.

When his older brother Erik died in the year 2000, Neely found way to use his art to give hope to others.

It all started with a simple request from his mother. “She wanted something to go in his childhood bedroom to remind her to be hopeful. You can imagine that was the saddest place in the house for a grieving mom.”

Neely painted the first of his Guardians for the narrow space between the door frame and the light switch in that room.

Soon his mother asked for more of these angels, painted on wooden scraps Neely had around his art studio in Spartanburg, SC. “I thought ten would be all I would ever paint.” Neely missed his estimate- multiply ten by one thousand. Neely has shared more than 10,000 of these simple paintings. Each one is unique. Neely hopes they will bring hope to places where it needs to be remembered.

Neely operates Wet Paint Syndrome, LLC on nights and weekends, sharing his Guardians worldwide, and by day he serves as the Professor of Art at Spartanburg Methodist College. “I try to mix it up a little every year so I do not get tired. One year the wings unfolded. One year I built more sculptural assemblages. This year it is safety pins.”

Neely has found a way to incorporate his Guardian image into the negative space left by the shape of a safety pin. “I do not consider this to be a political symbol,” Neely adds. “No political party owns love. No party owns human kindness.”

The symbol of the safety pin has become a rallying point for people who intend to serve as “a safe space” for others “who may feel vulnerable from the hurtful and sometimes hateful rhetoric that has emerged in our recent civic discourse.”

When asked about his politics, Neely asserts, “All of my angels have a right and a left wing. It is all about balance.” He says he has little use for partisan politics. “I believe in Southern hospitality, and that means showing kindness to strangers.”

Neely hopes his new Safety Pin Guardians will help him support people in the Carolinas who may be in need of assistance. He plans to support projects and charities that help communities that he wants to feel more welcomed in our region. “The Carolinas have been a thriving place for international business. The last thing we need to do is make people feel like we have forgotten to show basic human kindness to others just because they look a little different or think a little different.” Neely points out that the mountains and seashores in the Carolinas serve as a boon for regional economic growth and local businesses. He argues that any policy that excludes people on the basis of race, creed, or sexual orientation is not making visitors feel welcome. “If I believe God so loved the world, I figure I should try to do it too.”

Neely quotes Abraham Lincoln from memory. “All that I am and all that I hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.” He concludes, “If Momma saw someone in need, she would try to help them.”

Neely’s new Safety Pin Guardians debut at Carri Bass Gallery at 25A South Trade Street in Tryon, NC on Friday, December 9 from 6-8pm. The reception is free and open to the public. Neely says that he will have paintings at the exhibit on sale. His Safety Pin Guardians are also available on Etsy.com at Wet Paint Syndrome. Neely plans to donate a portion of every Safety Pin Guardian sale to benefit non-profits that extend the reach of human kindness in the community. He wants to start local in the Carolinas.

“I believe the whole point of the safety pin is being there to help your neighbors make a way in the world. For me that starts right here at home.” Neely laughs, "In times like these, I figure I better get going on my second legion of angels. 20,000 here we come!"

His laugh is loud and distinctive, and it seems to be almost impossible not to laugh with him.

“How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” Neely asks. “More than I can paint, but only one at a time!”

The exhibit will run through January 6th. His Safety Pin Guardians are also available on Etsy.com at Wet Paint Syndrome.

Photos courtesy of Betsy Neely Sikma









Saturday, April 23, 2016

Teaching Change


Soon it will be officially announced that I am going to be the new Professor of Art at Spartanburg Methodist College. I am very excited about this new professional opportunity.

I want to invite you to join us at a reception on Thursday, April 28 from 4-6pm in the Martha Cloud Chapman Gallery at Wofford College. I have learned that this event is not only the opening reception for a show of my students work during my Art and Earth course collaboration with Dr. Kaye Savage. It will also be an opportunity for members of the community to celebrate my work at Wofford. I hope you will join us if you can. It is free and open to the public.

Within this context, I want to share a component of this story that I have never shared.

I was hired to return to Wofford in 2004. I was the director of residence life. At that time the program needed significant creative problem solving to fix some major housing shortages and other programmatic concerns. Dean Roberta Bigger invited me to join the Student Affairs team to help solve those problems.

Wofford soon realized that my biggest gift was not managing a system. My strength is fixing programmatic issues through collaborative and creative problem solving. I was asked to assist the administration in tackling many significant issues throughout the campus. Some of that work has been visible and some of it has been mostly behind the scenes. Business cards and titles have changed frequently. Always to serve the purpose of furthering the mission of the college.

In 2005, I was asked to examine Wofford’s retention statistics. We were particularly looking at bettering our first year retention rate.
There were three top indicators of risk for transfer after a review of the data. The first was if parents divorced or separated in the first year that a student was in college. The second was if a student was not engaged in an extracurricular activity by the end of the first eight weeks of college. National data showed that we were pretty normal on these two measures. Stable family dynamics and student engagement are keys to student success everywhere. The third issue was Wofford specific. In 2005, if an entering first year student had taken two or more studio art classes in high school, they were a high risk of transferring from Wofford to another college.

The studio art problem was something we could fix and improve the college and our retention rate. I began to see it as my mission to press for improvements to the studio art program at Wofford. At that time, we offered one class a semester and it was usually populated with all seniors. If we could solve that problem, we could help the entire college improve. We needed more opportunities for students to engage in studio art.


This information reaffirmed the importance of my hope to establish a Studio Art program at Wofford. This has been a goal of mine since I was a first year student at Wofford in 1997.

My own history with Wofford was complicated from the outset. I actually did not want to attend Wofford as a high school student. I had been interested in the visual arts since elementary school. My father took a job moving as an associate pastor at First Baptist Church to become the senior pastor at Morningside Baptist. A smaller church with a different mission, he worried he would not be able to afford to help me much with college. He had much more creative freedom in his new role. It was definitely a good move for him. It did impact our family. As a high school senior, I reluctantly applied to Wofford.

My choices came down to Wofford and Furman. Much of my wardrobe as a child was purple but Wofford offered me a much more generous scholarship. I faced a choice between a great college with no art program that we could afford and a great college with a great art program that we would struggle to afford. My uncle Bob pulled me aside one day at my Grandmother's house. He said, "Kris, God is everywhere. Go where the money is." It is a philosophy that works well in some situations. I would hesitate to apply it universally.

Wofford offered little opportunity for study in the visual arts. We had one course called Intro to Studio Art. It usually filled with 5th year seniors. In fact, I was a returning Presidential Scholar in my 5th year at Wofford before I was able to convince AK McMillan to grant me an override into that course. I still thank her every semester for giving me a chance.

The work of building this program started from the outside, but I soon realized that I had to work from the inside the faculty to fix this problem. I earned an MFA degree and began to push for the opportunity to grow studio art from the inside out. It has not been easy work, but it has been incredibly rewarding in many ways.

This Spring Wofford completed our first national search for an assistant professor of art. Mr. Richardson has given us a building that will house three art studios. We graduated our first 5 Studio Art minors at Wofford last spring. We will graduate several more this spring.

This is not the end of my work with studio at Wofford, but I am no longer needed on the inside. In fact by stepping out of my current role, I believe the college can do more to grow the program, President Samhat and I are already working to find ways for me to continue my good work at Wofford as a consultant on other problems.

It is with great joy that I will announce that I have been invited to join the faculty at Spartanburg Methodist College as Professor of Art. SMC has a long history of helping students find their way in college. It was founded to help students from Spartanburg who were struggling to afford college. SMC is still true to that original mission. I enjoyed a version of this kind of work in my time in the Success Initiative at Wofford. Many of the things I did in that program to help Wofford students will be helpful to students at SMC.

This is an opportunity to help build another Studio Art program. I believe that my art and my vocation can thrive at SMC in new and exciting ways. I also believe I can help SMC as a whole college with my knack for creative and collaborative problem solving.

Wofford is on very good footing now with the Studio Art program. I would ask that you continue to support it long after I move my stacks of scrap wood and used books across town. I hope one day I will be invited to show my work in the Rosalind S. Richardson Center for the Arts. There already is talk about teaching collaborations and community projects.

Part of our shared Methodist heritage is that effective leaders move regularly and do good work in new places. This move was completely my choice. It was time for Wofford to grow the Studio Art program without relying on my force of will, a ten-year old retention study, or my personal goal. Great colleges need great art programs. We have built this together and we will continue to benefit from what we have built. If I can ever help you, just look a little further West to where the Pioneers gather.

My prayer is that this move will be good for SMC, good for Wofford, and great for Spartanburg.

I will be at Wofford through the end of the Spring term and I will continue some special assignments beyond that time. I will teach summer school and a learning community for Wofford in the fall.


There is much joy and grace in this change. There is also sadness and grief. Know that this message is intended to show deep love and continuing respect. I wanted you to know so you could join us Thursday afternoon for the reception if your schedule allows.

Thanks for your thoughts, prayers, and encouragement in this time of transition. Perhaps most importantly, thank you for your patience as I have been preparing for this change. More angels soon, I promise. This has been a very busy spring.

This is a chance for new and unexpected blessings for all involved. That is my hope and prayer.

Kris Neely

Monday, December 21, 2015

A Guardian for a Tool Shed



Tonight I have been thinking about fathers as I work at Wet Paint. A friend of mine told me that he was struggling to decide what to give his son for Christmas. He is behind on child support payments, probably way behind. He wants the child to be excited at Christmas, but he worries that if he tries to give his son the expensive item that he wants most, he will demonstrate an ability to pay that is far beyond his means. My friend is homeless and in recovery from years of drug abuse. He works at a restaurant my family often enjoys on the Eastside of Spartanburg. He lives in a tool shed behind a former lover's home. I know there are probably many ways to understand his story. None of them leave him looking like a sympathetic character. Tonight, I am prayerfully considering the tension he must feel inside. I pray that the stress in this situation will lead him to better places than it has so often in his recent past. 

I gave him a small Guardian on a piece of old chair molding when he told me his story. Beside it I had written, "While I breathe, I hope." I told him the painting was to help decorate the tool shed for Christmas. We laughed together. I told him I thought that the most important gift he could ever give his son was to stay clean and sober. We cried together. He is trying to win a very difficult battle. It will never be easy.

I have noticed from my recliner in the living room that it is often the father figure who needs a lot of work. It is the paternal character who most needs to recapture the Christmas spirit in almost every TV holiday special. At the commercials, I am reminded of those fathers who work extra hours to pay for added expenses that are associated with that commercial Christmas spirit. 

Tonight I am also remembering another dad with a new born child in the NICU, surely wishing he could fix what is hurting her tiny body. Ironically to protect his child, this father must keep a distance. How helpless that must feel to watch from afar, behind the glass-- trying to keep her safe. 

Tonight I am also thinking about fathers who go to great lengths to guard their families, even when it often seems like so much is beyond their control. Parents of adult children in crisis must surely feel this tension. How do we love correctly when words do not seem to help anything? 

And then I remember the story of Joseph-- trying to pay his taxes, trying to find shelter, trying to provide a crib and clothes for a new born. What did his mother-in-law think?

Tonight as I paint, I pray for fathers. May Guardian angels protect those who work or watch or weep this night. Give the angels charge over those who sleep.

In my family, the dads tend to be okay with just about any gift at Christmas. Sometimes things are given that are not all that exciting. Socks, deodorant, and another tape measure are pretty good gifts. My daughter Allie gave me a gift today-- a quarter from my own coin dish. She was so sweet and excited. It was a special moment. 

Sometimes what we give our dads is really probably about all they deserve. Like most dads we do not always get it right-- maybe almost never. This Christmas don't overlook Joseph silently watching the baby Jesus. Remember a father figure who is living by faith and doing all he knows to do to provide for his child. By most standards, he was failing miserably.

My dad used to quip that he believed in the Immaculate Conception because Joseph believed it. Imagine the tension. Imagine the faith. Imagine the trust.

This Christmas, don't forget about the guy who spent most of his life in the tool shed. God can use him to help change the world.




Saturday, December 12, 2015

Art Process vs. Art Product: The Journey with Our Lady of Guadalupe

On December 12 there is a celebration in the Americas, and in particular Mexico, for a sacred image.

I had the opportunity to write this icon in Christian community this year. This is a picture of the icon I painted.


As an artist and an art professor, I was cautioned by members of the icon writing group, that artists often struggle in these settings. 

In the process of icon writing, there are steps and moments of great prayer, care, and attention. 



For a long time I have enjoyed the practice of contemplative prayer, speaking of my work in the studio as a manual act of contemplative prayer. Usually these images are painted on found wood, rough and flawed. The image of the Guardian Angel I paint is simple and sincere. A background, an upside-down teardrop shape, then wings,  head, halo, and heart all in white. The prayers are for comfort, hope, healing, love, compassion, and joy wherever they find a place to light. There have now been well over 10,000 of these Guardians painted and shared in our community. Christmas is the busy season for these paintings, often given as gifts. I joked with my fellow icon writers that these Guardians might just well be "redneck icons." 

The purpose of an icon is also very different than the purpose of a painting.
The icon is meant to be an object that is sacred. The icon is not something that is prayed "to" in worship, it is an image that is prayed "through"-- a window or a glimpse into the divine -- a mode to show God to the faithful. 

As the son of the Southern Baptist church, that was not a part of my rearing in the Christian faith. Icons were not considered  glimpses of God, but barriers to God equivalent to idols. In particular, prayers to Mary or the Saints were thought to be misdirected. If we can call directly on Jesus, why go through a sort of heavenly 
bureaucratic line up? Baptists make the direct call to the big boss, no middle management needed. Very democratic, I suppose.

I was drawn to this image of the Guadalupe icon for several reasons. The first was that it is wildly popular in Hispanic communities. At the flea market, on tattoos, and on air fresheners, Guadalupe is well loved by ordinary people. In that way, it seemed approachable for me.

In fact, the origin story of this image is really interesting. The story goes that a peasant farmer named Juan Diego, not really someone who had much clout in the 1500's. A widower ripe for a midlife crisis, Juan Diego saw a vision of Mary near what we would call Mexico City. At that time, it was a hillside that had been a sacred place to the people in Aztec culture. This was a time of great cultural transition, and it could be argued, (and has been frequently) that neither the Spanish Conquistadors, the Catholic Church, nor the Aztec civilization were all that helpful to the common Mexican farmer. 

So Mary tells Juan Diego to go tell the Archbishop to build a church on this hill. Juan Diego does this. The bishop gets down to brass tacks. He needed Mary to send him a sign if he was to believe the hallucinations of a farmer who may have just been hitting the mescaline. 

Juan Diego is afraid to return to the hill, being caught between a bishop and a queen is enough to make any pawn feel threatened at any angle. Even as he seeks to avoid Mary, she calls to him. She sends him up to the top of the hill to fetch some Spanish roses, not your typical sight in that time or place. He gathers them in his cloak, a cactus-fiber tilma. When he returns to Mary, she arranges the flowers in the tilma, and tells Juan Diego not to show anyone the roses until he sees the Archbishop. 

He runs off to do her bidding, and after some grief from his entourage, Juan Diego opens his robe to show the roses to the Archbishop. There are roses, but also the legendary image of Our Lady of Guadalupe emblazoned on the cloak, Mary, the Mother of God.

The Archbishop gets the message, Mary gets her church, and Juan Diego loses the shirt off his back. The peasant's tilma with the miraculous image still resides in the church on Tepeyac Hill. Juan Diego gets to be a saint long after his death so it probably is a win-win.

As we wrote the icon, I asked a friend who knows this story and liberation theology why this image is so popular. I thought it could be seen as a tool for oppressing millions. Her opinion stuck with me. "This image is not something the church gave to the people, this is something a peasant gave the church. Our Lady of Guadalupe is sign that says even the poorest of us can have a direct encounter with the divine." 

That sounds like the story of Mary, away in a manger I sang about as a Baptist kid. The ordinary becomes sacred. God is born to be with us. We should not fear what God continues to do for the poor and the oppressed.

In that way, maybe my Guardian angels are redneck icons written for a community of ordinary Joes and Juans. Maybe all icons are meant for the ordinary to remember that the divine is with us.

I am not sure how the story of my Guardians ends. I thought it would have ended long ago. Some months are tight, but so far I have not lost my shirt. 



I am no peasant farmer, in fact I am a college faculty member. I am in a position envied by many in a field that is strewn with adjuncts and part-timers. I am certain some of them see my paintings and recognize the miraculous nature of how I wound up making a living doing these little angel paintings.

I often hear sharp criticisms about the way I teach and the quality of the work my students produce. My educational philosophy privileges process over product. The joy of art is in the making, the art is in the work of making the mark not in the mark itself. I want my students to believe that proposals, experiments, explorations, risks, and reflections are equal to or greater than the individual finished work. I still want final products to be perfect.

When I look at the image of the Guadalupe, I see the journey of Juan Diego. He participated in the making of a powerful image. He held the materials in his hands. He followed the steps as instructed. The result was a transformative piece on a found object. Juan Diego arrived at a finished piece by following his intuition.

Some day, maybe an art historian will see value in the thousands of little scraps of wood spread around the buckle of the Bible Belt as something worth considering. Probably not. 

I have to hold the materials. I have to follow the steps in faith. I have to pray that what I do can make a difference where I am. That is the life of the artist, I suppose. 

When I brought my icon home it met with mixed reviews. My mom said she wanted one. She said it is different than my other work. Mom is hard to read. My brother Scott asked me three times if I had painted it myself, perhaps a commentary on the quality of work that he thinks I can muster with a brush, or a suggestion that the image was not mine to paint. He is hard to read. My wife, Patrice said it was amazing. I heard this as supportive. I was hard of hearing.

On Thursday, feeling the impulse to share it, I picked it up and took it to Fr. Jim at St. Christopher's in Spartanburg. He was very kind and gracious. We discussed it as a piece that might play a role in the life of the parish, perhaps welcoming new voices into our life as a congregation.

Last night, Patrice and I were on a date. I told her about my struggles with my art, my teaching, and my own vocational fears. I mentioned the the icon workshop had stirred up question for me in many areas. I told her I had given it to Father Jim and she looked astonished. I soon learned that she did not intend for this piece to be released into the world the way my Guardians so often take flight. This was an image she held sacred. A symbol of her effort to support me in my winding journey in faith and in art. It was a part of my legacy she intended to protect. Quickly an e-mail was drafted to the priest, setting the course for the image to return home.

Fr. Jim did not bat an eye in returning it to her. 

Patrice could see the value in the process and the beauty in the end result. She has helped me hold the materials, and keep them organized in my studio, no small miracle. She has been my companion on this long journey of prayer and art, faith and vocation. She is the reason I have a shirt or two without paint stains down the front.

Patrice helps me remember that we share this work and the objects that result.

As my Guardians fly out the door this season, I am thankful for the mothers I have known. Protective, supportive, defenders of the smallest of us, it is mothers who can help us understand how to carefully hold what we are given. If we listen they will tell us important steps in the process, how to arrange the composition, and when to share the final work with the critics. They can help us be who we are and live into what we can be.

Thank you mothers, full of grace.

I believe we are each made in God's own image. God has a lot of different looks, but all our images are God's, and all of them are still in process.