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