The Greenville + Upstate Story of: Kris Neely
Photographer: Wendy McCarthy, courtesy of Mr. Kris Neely and Spartanburg Methodist College
Name: Kris Neely
How long have you been in the Upstate area? I have lived here for most of my life. My father was a minister at Morningside Baptist Church in Spartanburg. We moved to Spartanburg when I was one, when he took a pastoral role back here in his hometown.
What is the most interesting fact about yourself? I am an Art Professor at Spartanburg Methodist College and I teach painting, drawing, computer graphics and 3D design. It is mostly art foundations type of coursework. I will be teaching an upper level course in the Spring. I am looking forward to that opportunity.
The artwork that I am known for, however, is not the type of artwork that I really teach in terms of technique, nor is it artwork that you would find at any high-end art galleries. I create Guardian Angels, a type of art for everybody. I think of it as intuitive art.
What is your background?
In 2005, started creating Guardian Angels for my mother as at the time, my brother had recently passed away five years prior in 2000. My brother Erik was 27 years old and was a newspaper reporter at the Charleston Post and Courier. And for as long I have known my brother, I have known about epilepsy, it was a part of our reality. One day, he had a very long, very big seizure and ended up passing away.
I was a student at Wofford College, and had a Presidential Scholarship, where I would travel around the World. I was in the Dominican Republic when Erik died, and I was staying with a family that did not speak English. I did not speak any Spanish. I mean, I had the Paddington Bear Card that basically said, ‘if you find me lost in the street, please return me to this address.’
I was really trying to figure things out, I was a religion major at Wofford and studied water and spirituality, specifically, how do cultures incorporate water and their water situation into their spiritual practice. There are all forms of water, depending on where you are located. The different forms of water can have a religious implication. A desert culture views water differently than an island culture.
I grew up in a family with four boys and one girl. Erik was the biggest both in-size and personality at the dinner table and when he left, there was a big hole. Personally, after Erik’s death, I felt numb, I felt like I did not admit what happened. We would talk about his death as a family but it did not feel real.
Then, I went on a journey after Erik’s death. I traveled around the World: India, Netherlands, Israel and even the Amazon River. I was able to spend a lot of time thinking and writing as I backpacked across the globe. It was difficult to return to home a year later, as people back home grieved in a different way. I never quite connected with Erik’s death in a healthy way, it was a different experience of grief for me: I was out of the country in an unfamiliar place without a lot of structure.
My mom told me that the hardest place in her home was Erik’s childhood bedroom. When she would walk in the door of that room, she would experience a lot of grief. She wanted something in that room, something that would remind her to be hopeful.
That is when I created the first, ‘Guardian Angel.’ It is a simple design, it is basically an upside-down teardrop that I put on a little strip of found wood. My mom wanted something between the light switch and the door and she wanted it to be visible when the lights are off. So the design has a bright white oval for the head and a simple halo with wings coming down and a heart. With the dark background and a bright color, with some details, the design made the Guardian Angel something that you could see before you would turn on a light.
Honestly, I thought this was going to be the only that I would make. But I have the kind of supportive mom where not only is she going to hang my art up, but she will encourage me. If she truly likes something, and not the ‘I am your mom and I like this,’ type of liking it, she will tell her friends. And that's what she did, she wanted me to make some for her friends so I made ten more.
Then I got a call from a local business, a business that had been through a really tough year where a member of their leadership team suddenly passed away. It really rocked that small business, which had about fifty employees. The owner of this small business contacted me about making fifty Guardian Angels so every employee can receive one at their Christmas party. I provided the owner with the price, which he approved, and told me to send him an invoice. So, I quickly learned how to create an invoice as this whole ‘gig’ was a complete accident.
What are your hobbies? Obviously, I love to paint. While that is technically part of my job, I still think of it as my hobby. I love to have time alone to work in the studio on new ideas. It is creative play. In terms of ways that connect with other people, I am very involved in scouting: teaching art, working with scout troops, etc. My wife and I help start Troop 67 and Pack 67.
What are you currently reading and/or watching? I love to listen to audiobooks. I can listen to them while I am painting. One book that I just finished was, ‘Death of Despairs and the Future of Capitalism,’ by Anne Case. It was a hard book to confront, but it helps me think about how to serve and care for my community.
I opened in 2009 and this is my main studio workspace. It is in Hillcrest Shopping Center. Wet Paint Syndrome is what sociologists call the tendency to reach out and test a wall if it has a Wet Paint Sign on it. More people touch it if they are warned not to touch. (I got really good advice not to start a business during the 2008-2009 recession. But I did it any way... so Wet Paint Syndrome.)
Favorite Upstate morning hangout spot?Spill the Beans in Downtown Spartanburg.
Favorite Upstate evening hangout spot? Patrice and I really like Hickory Tavern over on the Eastside in Spartanburg.
How would you describe the Upstate? I have been in lots of other places and lived in very different communities. But I could not imagine living anywhere else other than the Upstate. To me it is home.
How would the Upstate describe Kris Neely? I have been told that I have an infectious laugh, I think that is a positive thing? Maybe, but is that good to say during a pandemic? I just have a big belly laugh, and I am very recognizable. Maybe I should just say cheerful.