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