As part of the Susan Nomberg McCollough Fine Arts Initiative, artist and UA alumnus James Emmette Neel (MFA 1973) was invited to give the keynote address during the reception and awards ceremony on Friday, October 6, 2023, in the Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center in Tuscaloosa. Jim Neel’s work has been exhibited nationally and internationally; he has been the recipient of artist fellowships and residencies, including two with the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. As a conflict photographer, he covered wars in Central America in the 1980s and his photographs for Dennis Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Oxford American, Esquire and Witness. In 2014, Neel lived for a month on the Turkish/Syrian border; the works from that experience were exhibited at Birmingham-Southern College and the Huntsville Museum of Art in 2016 and in UA’s Sarah Moody Gallery of Art in 2017. Neel is a professor of art at Birmingham-Southern College. Following is the text of his talk:
Thanks so much for inviting me to speak and represent.
Particular thanks to The University of Alabama, Daniel White and his staff here, Susan and Gaylon McCollough and the Susan Nomberg McCollough Fine Arts Initiative, President Bell, and Dean Messina for their continued support of the visual arts here at Bama. And a personal thank you to Rachel Dobson for all her continued support.
I am humbled by the occasion and more than a little daunted by the task of speaking for the artists that went before, during, and after my time here.
You know, this sure seems circular. I started high school in ’63, finished grad school here in ’73, now it’s 2023. 60 and 50 years later. Geez.
But then, circles are the perfect form.
And because it has been 50 years since my MFA, and because I am currently working on a project, Black Belt Requiem, that investigates, in the form of memoir, sculpture, and photography, the social changes within Sumter, Pickens counties, and nearby parts of Mississippi, and since I was born there in York nearly 75 years ago, I will take a similar memory tack tonight. Sorry, but since there are a bunch of students here tonight, I’m also gonna teach a little.
The evolution of the human brain is an amazing story. It’s almost miraculous in comparison to other animals considering the short amount of the time it took to get here. I have always thought that artists mature and develop in the same evolutionary way, that there are lots of parallels. In biological terms the process is anything but steady, there are no straight lines, there are just too many factors, too many stresses, weighing in on that process. Sometimes the evolving organism reaches stasis, so perfectly at home in its niche that it needs to go no further. Think “shark.” Sometimes environmental factors change and leave a species behind. The pterodactyl didn’t make it, well, except for little Petri in The Land Before Time.
That almost happened to us, when 900,000 years ago drought conditions drove the population of our ancestors to 1,300 individuals. But we did, lucky for us, make it past that brink.
We can reason, we can remember, we have motives and intentions, we can learn from our mistakes, we are self-aware. And though there are dangers, as Alabama-educated biologist, Edward O. Wilson has said, “We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology,” we can imagine things that haven’t happened, that have never existed. We can make art. We can envision and create the world of which we dream.
We are finite beings, in an infinite universe.
What makes us who we are? The place we live? The time we live? Our DNA?
The place was the University of Alabama Graduate MFA program in studio art.
The time was 1971, ‘72 and ’73.
It was a crazy time.
Richard Nixon was in the White House. Vietnam, Cambodia, Watergate. The Draft. Our generation was still hurting a year after the betrayal of Kent State, The lessons of the Chicago Democratic Convention were still fresh in our minds. The fifty thousand casualties in Southeast Asia were our classmates, friends, brothers, our fathers.
Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon.
Our high school years saw the assassinations of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, the Cuban Blockade that took us to the brink of nuclear war. The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing. The Four Girls who died and the others who were injured, at the hands of the KKK, were our age; Carol was the 14-year-old daughter of my friend Alpha Robertson. That we did not grow up a trusting generation should come as no surprise.
We tend to be disappointed idealists.
Here on campus, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band played on Woods Quad, their stage just below the windows of my Woods Hall second-floor studio. Led Zeppelin played the Coliseum, so did Liza Minnelli and Elton John. We listened to Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder, Motown, Tom Waits, Queen, and Bob Marley on the University student radio station. Deliverance played in the local theater. The French Connection. Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.
Gasoline was $0.35 a gallon at the Pure station. Pabst Blue Ribbon, $3.00 a case. There was a bar called The Library, so named so if mom and dad called on the landline, your roommate could honestly say “you were at the library.” We all lived on a shoestring. Lots of PBR, PB and J, and ramen. When gas went all the way up to $0.50 a gallon, I parked my Karman Ghia—that’s a kind of Volkswagen—and walked to the studio.
Woods Hall was not in the best shape. The 1868 brick structure had seen its best days. Basically, it was condemned. Frank Engle’s ceramic classes and Granata’s studio were still on the ground floor, grad student sculpture studios on the second. All the other classrooms had been abandoned, the desks gathering dust still in their places. A colony of hundreds of Little Brown Bats lived in the attic. My dachshund, Christie, and tabby cat, Tad, came to school with me every day and hung out on the veranda while I worked, and no one complained.
The work I was doing at the time was large, room-sized geometric installations, and space to exhibit them was a problem until one day I discovered that my studio key was a master. So, I decided to ask for forgiveness rather than permission and moved all the desks from the abandoned classrooms, stacked them into one, and used the remaining empty rooms as galleries.
Things could be pretty casual in those days.
I learned a lot from my peers. Rita Dewitt and Bill Gibson taught me the darkroom. Usually after midnight in the photo labs, no one to get in our way, undergrads didn’t keep those hours. Dave Howell and his wife Eleanor were from Baton Rouge and taught me how to eat crawfish and etouffee. Rita and I talked a lot about studio practice and how we worked, what part research played in the formation of a personal aesthetic and individual production practices. Bill educated me on the Vietnam War; it was firsthand knowledge. He was the eldest among us, a veteran, US Army Infantry, during the Tet Offensive in ‘68. His stories were often funny, but mostly horrific. But even those came with a Coen Brothers’ dark sense of humor and a thousand-yard stare.
My affiliation with the University of Alabama Graduate School really begins in 1963 when I started high school. See, I believe that I have led a very fortunate life in the arts and I give most of the credit for that to the men and women teachers who nurtured and pushed me. Edgar Parrish, the artist who nurtured me at Woodlawn High was a recent Master of Arts in art education from here. He introduced me to the work of Henry Moore, Ben Shawn, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg; he was the first to encourage me to make sculpture.
At Birmingham-Southern College, where I received my BFA, I studied with Robert Tucker and Robert Shelton, two MFA graduates of this program, and Dr. Virginia Rembert who championed my work and left BSC to become chair of Art and Art History right here. They were all four mentors, not just teachers; they molded me. Edgar and I remained friends throughout his life. In their eighties, Bob and Bob are still making art every day and I see or talk to them every week, lunch and dinner with Tucker, weekly snooker gathering at Shelton’s.
I recommend their work for the next Alumni Exhibition.
Artists don’t retire.
Tucker, with his love of family and the natural world, taught me what it meant to create a “life in art.” Shelton, with his appreciation for foreign film and enviable work ethic, taught me how to look beyond the walls of art in an expansive quest for understanding. Rembert’s undaunted scholarship and support of her students, despite the cruel hardships of her life, still inspire me.
They were who I wanted to be.
So, since they had evolved in this graduate program. I wanted to go here as well. Seemed like the circular thing to do.
Most of the faculty was still the same when I got to the quad. Jack Granata and Al Sella the New Jersey Italians, Richard Zoellner the printmaker, Howard Goodson the Abstract Expressionist, Frank Engle the ceramicist. The other painter, Melville Price, had passed away the year before. Art Oakes was the new guy in sculpture and Gaye Burke in photography came my last semester. I managed to get all of them on my committee by the end of the two years.
They never agreed on anything, of course, which, of course, was perfect.
You only learn and evolve with opposition. Easy roads never lead anywhere.
Art making is an existential predicament for both the Artist and Viewer.
Isolation can be a bad thing, but it can also be a good thing. During the time I was here, you’ll have to admit, Tuscaloosa was not exactly the hub of the art world. It’s a long drive to New York City, a long flight to London. It was the isolation of the studio expanded to the geographic. But the isolation of the studio is a necessary thing. You are only as isolated from the world as you choose to be.
So, I tell my students this, “No one is going to come looking for you.” No matter how talented you are.
You have to go to them, introduce yourself, invite them to your studio. Put your work out there, stick it in their faces. Meet people, introduce yourself. Network. Be persistent. Be relentless. Nothing happens in the art world without it.
As Bob Dylan says, “Life isn’t about finding yourself, or finding anything. Life is about creating yourself.”
While I was here, the department went to great lengths to connect us with the greater art world. It brought Henry Geldzahler to town two years after his Metropolitan Museum of Art blockbuster exhibition, “New York Painting and Sculpture 1940-1970.” Ivan Karp of SOHO’s OK Harris Gallery lectured, introducing us to the works of new emerging artists. Conceptual artist Les Levine was invited to speak, post minimalist sculptor George Trakis installed his work in Garland Hall. The gallery also hosted a solo exhibition of Robert Motherwell paintings, some Spanish Elegies right out of the textbooks.
(Bill Gibson and I drove the works back to Hahn Brothers Storage in Harlem in a beat-up rented U-Haul. In today’s market there must have been $50 million worth of canvas and paint in the back of that truck protected by a very adequate $5 Masters padlock.)
Later on, when I lived in DC for a while, I got to know Hale County native, Bill Christenberry, the UA-trained artist and photographer. (My mom was also born in Hale County.) We would have simultaneous solo exhibitions at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts and become good friends. Ivan Karp would later give me lots of career advice at his NYC space and Trakis would recommend me to his gallery. Levine and I spent lots of time talking about the Conceptual and the Minimal over martinis in Manhattan.
So, get out. Network.
The isolation in those days demanded that of us. It was a hard, but necessary lesson to learn.
So, don’t sit back and wait. No one is coming.
The fat ain’t gonna rise to the top of the milk by itself, you gotta churn it.
My time in graduate school was invaluable. The professors mature, settled, but not jaded. Open and nurturing but demanding. There are lots of stories I could tell about interactions with them. Like late one night hanging out with Art Oakes in his studio, “It’s midnight,” I said when I glanced at my watch. “That’s it you know, that’s how you’ll know,” he said, “When you are in your mid-thirties, where are you at midnight? If you are in your studio working instead of sleeping in your comfy bed, you are an artist.”
As it turns out, I wasn’t in my studio, but in El Salvador, covering the war for the Birmingham News and Post-Herald and Memphis Commercial Appeal and falling in love with my wife, the artist Lynn Neel, over long distance.
I spoke to Zoellner during my last spring here about my frustration that there were only a handful of faculty jobs open for which I was qualified. I thought I was alone in the studio one night and I was making the old etching press that looked like something out of a Steam Punk fantasy groan under pressure when Zoellner came out of his studio in the back to see what was the racket. “Don’t worry about the qualification thing, Jim,” he told me. “When I took the job here, I had never printed an etching, I just stayed ahead of the classes until I taught myself how.”
Of course, he went on to a national reputation for his etchings.
His advice got me that initial newspaper job and a secondary career as a conflict photographer. It took me to the wars in Central America, the Serpent Handling churches of Appalachia, KKK meetings in the Ozarks, and to the Syrian War.
Bob Tucker has one of Z’s works hanging in his living room; Janet Hinton, one of my classmates, owns his press.
We keep close, this Alabama family.
My life as an artist has been informed and enriched by this place and its people and its program. Though my life is certainly not a model for anyone else, nonetheless, it would never have been without my time of significance here. My University of Alabama graduate art education is an immutable part of my continuing evolution as artist and citizen. The debt I owe, I try to pay forward to the younger generations of artists that I teach.
They are the rainbow-hued ones that will take up where we left off and challenge newer generations of creatives.
The next Renaissance is theirs. It will be in good hands.
So, again, let me thank you all for including my work and inviting me to speak.
Thank You, Roll Tide.
Jim Neel, MFA, 1973