Make your mark

October 1, 2019 | By More

I follow Neal Harrington down the steps and into his studio. The room is cluttered, but it’s a good clutter, an artist’s clutter. A massive printing press looms in the back corner. Large finished prints hang on one wall and the other wall sports a Bob Dylan poster and street signs. Below the poster and signs, rests a rack of six-stringed axes that Neal rotates through in sessions with his band Black Sabbatical, a metal group composed entirely of college instructors.

We sit in the middle of this room filled with tools of the creative. Neal sips coffee and runs his fingers through long whiskers as he speaks about his journey.

He talks about his boyhood, about how he would tag along with his mother to the grocery store and she would leave him at the magazine racks while she shopped. The magazine rack became his art museum.

“When I was a kid the only art I saw was in advertisements or whatever was on television or comic books,” Neal explains. He’s an animated talker, a person whose passion and energy is manifest in physical movement. And it’s clear that he’s passionate about his craft. “I would copy comic books. I just copied them and it never got old to me. I just always wanted to draw.”

Neal grew up in a blue-collar home in Rapid City, South Dakota. He says, as a kid, it was hard for him to imagine art as a career. He often worked with his grandparents who were house painters. As soon as he was old enough to help out, he was on the clean up crew. His grandfather also taught him how to cut in the trim, which quickly became his favorite part of the job.

After high school, Neal decided to attend college at the University of South Dakota as an art major, but he quickly realized that it would be very difficult to make decent money as an artist. He considered the house painting business as a safe career to fall back on if nothing else worked out. Then, he thought he would want to be a police officer and switched his major to criminal justice. But it wasn’t a good fit. “After doing that for a semester I thought, well this isn’t going anywhere.”

Because he had always enjoyed reading, he thought maybe he would go into English and try creative writing. But, by his own admission, mastering grammar was a challenge. So he changed his major, once again, to art.

Then, as the college years rolled along, Neal noticed that his professors seemed to have a nice set up.

“I remember it distinctly,” Neal says. “I wondered, ‘how did they get that job? That looks like a good job.’” After inquiring about it, his professors told him that he would have to go to graduate school in order to become a professor. Neal kept this idea tucked away as he finished his undergraduate career with a BFA in painting and drawing. Even after graduating, he still considered becoming a police officer or a fireman. “But fate intervened,” Neal says, “and I was accepted to graduate school as a painter.”

Neal met his wife, Tammy, at USD and they applied to graduate school together at Wichita State University. She was accepted as a printmaker and he was accepted as a painter. Starting his graduate career, Neal had doubts about his decisions. “I was kind of painted out,” Neal says. “I went all in my senior year of college, and I lived in the studio trying to get better. By the time I got to grad school I thought, ‘this is a mistake.’ I was sick of painting.” He found himself struggling.

“The best part of painting is you can paint over anything,” Neal says. “And the worst part is you can paint over anything.” Tammy would come back from the printmaking studio and think that he had finished one painting and started another when he’d really just painted over the first one. “I was always a little bit envious, too, because painting is a very solitary thing,” Neal says. “Printmakers all print around the same press and they’re chit chatting.” Neal’s extroversion seemed to fit the profile of a printmaker. And so, after a couple of years, he decided to become a printmaker. The only real problem — it was the same field as his wife.

“That was a total idiot move because Tammy was a print maker and I thought, wow, we both have the same degree and we’re competing with each other.” But Neal stuck with it anyway and learned printmaking in one semester with Tammy as his main teacher. He taught printmaking to a class the following semester.

After grad school, Neal and Tammy had some tough decisions to make. “Everyone told us that one of us should go K-12 teaching and the other one could try for college because it’s that hard to get those jobs,” Neal says. “But we rolled the dice and the stars lined up. I was able to get a job at Tech and my wife is a professor of art at the University of the Ozarks. We both have college teaching jobs and we’ve both been at them since 2001.”

Neal started at Arkansas Tech University with a one-year position and Tammy was an adjunct professor at Tech and at the University of the Ozarks. Once that year was up, Tammy took a full-time position at the U of O and Neal worked as an adjunct. Now, 20 years later, Neal is a full-time tenured professor at Arkansas Tech.

Besides teaching art, Neal is a working artist. His style is grungy and detailed and the contrast in his woodcuts is dramatic. “I started doing these kinda bluegrass, blues, backwoods, moonshiney, all that mixed,” Neal says. His best selling series, “Bootlegger’s Ballads,” came about after some experimentation with woodcut. Woodcut is actually the oldest printmaking technique known. The artist starts by drawing their design on a piece of wood. Then they carve the blank wood away with a gouge. The next step inking the the uncarved parts of the image with an ink roller and the image is printed on a medium either by hand or with a printing press.

Tammy first suggested that he start doing woodcuts because he enjoys drawing so much. “I just have a tendency to carve out too much because I’m kind of a hyper person,” Neal says. To fix the pieces when he gets carried away with the gouge, Tammy told him to try ink washes. To do this, he puts water in the reservoirs of an ice cube tray and puts different amounts of India in each pool to create a greyscale. He then uses the different shades where he thinks they look best. There’s no formula. “I do it randomly,” Neal says. “I am not a methodical person.”

Neal likes to leave the meaning of each piece up to the interpretation of the viewer. “People are gonna bring their own baggage and their own thoughts to things anyway,” Neal says. “And that’s the fun thing. Its hard because I kind of look like the character, but if people don’t know its me, and you can hear people talking about your work, that’s fun. They’ll just be raw. Either they’ll hate it or they’ll be saying crazy things or they’ll say ‘oh, I never thought of that.’” Neal’s influences include Kathe Kollwitz, Jose Jiminez, Thomas Hart Benton, and Lind Ward. His portfolio highlights these influences.

Neal hopes to continue creating new content and taking his art in different directions. He’s always sketching out thumbnails for new ideas as they come to him, compiling a list of options to work with. To deal with creative blocks, Neal switches up his routine. “I come from the school of thought, though, that you have to work to make art,” Neal says. “I don’t wait for inspiration. I’ll change my routine, but I’ll still draw and read and do things I normally do but maybe just change the times of things. But I don’t sit around waiting for the image to happen.”

Students often come to Neal complaining of creative block. His advice is simple and direct. It’s wisdom that can be applied to almost any challenge. It’s wisdom that has guided Neal as he created a life blending his profession with his passions.

“Just start making marks and react to them,” Neal says. “You make a mark and you either react by doing something else, or erasing it or something. But you can’t work with nothing.”

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