Clayton Hamilton — Jerome Neal's friend and endless promoter of his work — warned me that Neal, a 74-year-old Indianapolis visual artist, was shy about letting people into his Wheeler Arts Community apartment.
This is why he arranged for us to sit and talk just outside of Neal's home. We bellied up to a table littered with his miniature paintings for sale.
Letting your home double as an art studio isn't always a good way to keep things tidy. But after several hours of conversation, Neal warmed up enough to allow me a look inside. His sequestered studio space is no point of shame. The first thing I noticed was an entire wall speckled with layers of canvasses, and paint tubes everywhere. There are paintings of clowns, astronauts, Indy cars, trains, horn-blowing musicians, African elephants and giraffes, and of course abstract work; all done in his colorful, expressionistic style.
Neal's solo exhibition of paintings at Gallery 924 will focus on a subject just a bit closer to home; the life of downtown Indianapolis. It's urban living viewed from the kaleidoscope of Neal's vivid imagination.
The 2014 painting that Gallery 924 chose as its postcard image for the exhibition, entitled "Circle City 360°," is certainly vivid enough. "The Yellow Bikes," depicting a group of bike riders on yellow Indiana Pacers Bikeshare bicycles making their way past Monument Circle, has mesmerizing abstract touches, bold colors and bits of advertising logos — like "Hard Rock" and "Snickers" collaged in. It's the kind of landscape you might encounter in a dream. But it's also an indication of the vibrant inner-city life that Indy residents currently enjoy thanks to organizations like the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, Inc., which runs the Bikeshare program.
"He takes Downtown Indianapolis, chops it up, and puts it back together in a new and exciting way," says Shannon Linker, vice president of the Arts Council of Indianapolis, which runs Gallery 924. She has followed Neal's work for years, encountering it in group shows at venues like the ArtsGarden and Gallery 924. (Neal also has work in a permanent collection at the Indiana State Museum.)
"The Yellow Bikes," recalls the work of some of the Harlem Renaissance painters like Jacob Lawrence. But while Neal is African-American and many of his paintings speak to African-American experience, perhaps the most important thing to say about Neal is that he defies labels.
Hamilton's discussions with Linker led to the forthcoming show at Gallery 924. He is also the father of Lobyn Hamilton, the artist NUVO profiled in 2011, and the designer of a mural for the Arts Council's 46 for XLVI program. Hamilton definitely has something to say about labelling: "Jerome, basically, is an artist whose imagery is primarily of the urban experience," says Hamilton. "Having said that, for decades Jerome's artistic eye and abilities have allowed him to go outside of his experiential environment to capture the totality of his existence: rural Americana, farm animals, waterways, planes, trains, space and the abstraction of it all.
"It is difficult to categorize someone who illustrates outside of their stereotypical norm, especially when Black. If an African-American artists' imagery is not black, is it Black art or art done by a Black person? Is the appreciation of the work diminished due to viewer expectation of what they believe "Black" art should be...I believe it can be..."
Neal's paintings range in place, style and subject: Drawing from every part of his own story and experience as an artist. Let's sit at the table with Neal and dig into what has shaped him and his work, starting at square one.
Neal spent most of his life in Chicago, where he was born in 1941 and grew up, for the most part, with his grandmother on Forrestville Avenue.
"I stayed right across the street from Washington Park," he says. "And I used to look out the window — we had a side window to the house — of the apartment building. And I stayed on the third floor. And I used to look out the window to look in the park. There was a lot of different stuff going on in the park. They had picnics, people playing golf, horseback riding, parades and stuff like that. I actually saw a fox hunt, you know the guys with the red coats? I don't know if they were making a movie or what. I was around four or five years old... The guy blows the horn and they come out there with the dogs."
Neal started translating his observations on to the page when he was very young. He received an art set for Christmas around the age of seven or eight, he says. "Sometimes, I wouldn't say I was on lockdown, but I couldn't go out. So I had to do something to occupy myself... You had to draw or make something out of wood or something like that."
Neal was also gifted a toy train, a gift that he didn't appreciate so much for two reasons: The first was that all his friends were playing with top-of-the-line toy electric trains. And the second: "My grandmother wouldn't let me plug it in the wall because she was scared that I would burn the rug," he says. "If you ran the train too long, it had a tendency in certain parts to get hot."
(Today, Neal's studio includes his son's HO model electric train – and no, it's not a fire hazard.)
In those years, his grandmother kept tight reins on Neal because their neighborhood had a rougher side. Those reins, for their family, meant a lot of church. When Neal formed a singing group with his friends, you can bet that his grandmother had something to say about it.
"We started out singing in church," Neal says. "It was a regular thing.
... We were trying to get a recording thing. And what happened was the grandmothers and some of the others didn't want us to be out too late, didn't want us involved in that life. That's what stopped us... . They didn't let us stay out late."
Not coincidentally, musicians are one of the subjects for his art that he repeatedly returns to.
It was at DuSable High School in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Southside Chicago that Neal began learning about art in a serious way. And perhaps Neal's most significant experience in terms of his future artistic career, wasn't a fine arts class.
The first drafts
"You see, I had drafting," he says. "You're doing stuff in dimensions. So that part I had covered, you know. When I started doing art it was easy. Shade and the shadow effect, that's what made it so easy. It didn't complicate things. But people want you to do portraits. And I wasn't into portraiture. No, because there were too many people doing portraits. Then the portraits, they wanted you to do it in charcoal. And you know what happens when you're doing charcoal, you get full of it. That's what it was. And I'd be full of it. If we couldn't get no charcoal, we'd use coal dust."
Neal liked to socialize — just like his high school classmates — and he didn't want to mess up his clothes so he preferred to avoid the coal dust.
The first painting Jerome Neal ever sold, completed during his senior year in DuSable High School, depicted a volcano.
"What happened was I entered an art fair," Neal says. "I just had three tubes of paint, red yellow or blue or something like that. I had some paper and one canvas. And I had some frames. So I painted some volcanoes with a hole in the side with a shadow. The volcano with a hole in it and the sun shining through it, a shadow effect. And I did four of those."
Immediately after high school, he took a job in suburban Chicago that required his drafting skills, but he didn't like the long commute so he eventually left. After that he worked at Montgomery Ward in shipping and receiving. He also tried his hand at a U.S Steel mill before being drafted in 1963 He spent four years as an Air Force mechanic, and went back to the steel mill for several years before being laid off in the mid '60s.
And then he found himself working for the Gallanger Corporation.
"We made 49 parts for the arch in St. Louis, synthetic seams," he says. "We made the first billy clubs. Then made circuit boards for Western Electric. We made a whole lot of intricate stuff."
Industrial work (especially at a time when it was less regulated) came with health risks. Eventually Neal left this job, he says, because of the toxic fumes that were a byproduct of production.
He worked then for the U.S. Postal Service for 16 years and handled various jobs on the side including a pit observer at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in the early 1980s where he used a computer for the first time. But like the Gallanger Corporation, this particular work environment had its downside. "In there it was like 30 degrees," he says. "I was like, 'I gotta get away from this. I'm going to get pneumonia or something.' "During the 1980s, Neal also drove a taxi. This was the way that he earned enough money to buy a house for his family. And his Chicago home so happened to overlook a railway on which the Union Pacific railway line ran frequently and he liked to watch the trains.
Nearly every job he had has played a role in some part of his artwork. It's no surprise that trains are frequently a subject in his paintings.
"I saw trains from all over the United States come by," Neal says. "When something happened, then all the passenger trains would come by on that line. I got a chance to see all the conductors. They would wave."
During all this time of successive and overlapping jobs — the variety of which matches the wide topicality of his painting — Neal was making art. But it was a series of deaths in his family that focused his attention more intensively on his art than before as a way to cope with the loss.
His daughter Shakira died in 1975. Neal suspects homicide. Her passing was followed by that of his uncle, his aunt, his grandmother and mother all within ten years of the death of his daughter.
"A whole generation went away," Neal says.
Around this time, he got his art supplies at a Chicago art store called Art Direction in Hyde Park Shopping Center. Working there was a photographer and painter named Eric Anderson. "He was a painter of exotic nudes," Neal says. He credits Anderson with being an inspiration and a resource during this difficult time in his life, as well as stoking his interest in photography. They both began selling their art in the long-running 57th Street Art Fair as well as other art fairs in suburban Chicago.
But it wasn't until he left Chicago for good that his art career really began to get some traction.
Moving South to Indy
Neal moved to Indianapolis in 1994, following his children who settled here. After working as a day laborer for an employment contractor, Neal landed a job doing maintenance at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (yes, another frequent subject depicted in his work). And working at the track gave him an opportunity to focus on his art since he only worked there seasonally six months out of every year. The rest of his time he could devote exclusively to his art. (Currently Neal is working as a full-time painter.)
Around the turn of the century, Neal met David Hittle, the organizer of the April Show, a one-night-only exhibition dedicated to showing work by artists facing challenges, whose art may not otherwise be shown. The show takes place every year annually in Hittle's house after he and a score of volunteers hang paintings on every conceivable wall space in his house.
"David Hittle was in the Second Helpings food organization and me and some other artists we volunteered our time for that," Neal says. "And then we volunteered to have our pieces shown so that's how it became a special thing."
"I met Jerome Neal through Greg Brown, proprietor of Utrillo's Art Shop on East 10th Street, at about the same time I met Harry Blomme," says Hittle. "Jerome, and Berry Connell, another artist who had been drawn to Greg and Utrillo's. [They] had stories similar to Harry's, and as a trio were the first artists and inspiration for the April Show."
If you happened to be at the last April show, you would have seen an entire wall dedicated to Neal's work. He is without doubt the most popular artist at this venue among the extremely devoted group of patrons.
Neal believes the April Show helps keep him on his toes.
"Each year I have to come up with something new. If not, I'll get into a stalemate, doing regular airplanes and horses," explains Neal. "Like this year I came up with micro merchandise. Just like one year I did jazz musicians. It went well."
In 2000, Neal took a trip to Europe and met up with his son who is in the military, and they explored Europe together. Which is why, during my visit to Neal's apartment, I saw paintings of Venice and the Eiffel Tower alongside one of Fountain Square. But the paintings of the Eiffel Tower, he noticed, didn't sell very well.
"One year I did clowns," Neal says. "They got going pretty good. And what happened I found out that someone was copying the clowns. That disturbed me a little bit. I said okay. So you do a trend and it winds up in another state somewhere."
Sometimes he'll put words and phrases in his work — collaged bits of advertisement such as in the painting "Yellow Bikes"— so people stop to take the time to read it. And other times he'll choose subject matter that appeals to children, like Thomas the Tank Engine, the star of the British animated TV series aimed at preschoolers.
And including text in his work, he says, is a great "conversation starter" for children.
All of which is to say that Neal wants to create work that people will buy and enjoy whether it's abstract or representational, whether it depicts a street scene or a barnyard. He's not shy about adjusting his palette to fit the local art market.
Changes in Indy, Changes in the World
Neal has kept in step with the changes in Indianapolis. He sees positive developments in the city in the refurbishment of the Downtown Canal and the Central Library expansion.
He prefers the polarity of urban and rural landscapes to the suburban repetition of stucco homes and strip malls: both as places and subject matter for his art. In that sense, it might be possible to read some nostalgia into Neal's work. After all, it is the suburban landscape that has become the dominant one in post WW-II American life.
And there's changes in the culture that he feels have affected people's perception of his paintings.
"I've noticed people aren't interested in art in the same way they used to," Neal says. "They used to come in stare at a piece of art. They don't do that no more. They'll look, they'll keep going, they're on their cell phones. Then they'll come look and take a picture of your stuff. Do they pay attention to it? Do they evaluate it?"
Despite this concern, Neal isn't ready to throw away his paint brushes like some of his artistic friends have over the years. Anything he can do to grab the attention of a younger audience in the iEra of Planet Starbucks he will do, whether that's making paintings of Japanese girls with big manga eyes, including text in his work to make viewers — young and old — stop to read it, or finding new subjects to paint that strike a chord. This restlessness — in both his production and his choice and treatment of subjects — seems to be a hallmark of his art.
Or, in the words of David Hittle: "Jerome's work moves. He has described himself as an 'action painter,' and I think that's apt. There's usually someone or something playing or flying, ascending or approaching, struggling or rejoicing. Even his cityscapes pop and dance vibrantly, somehow. He returns to the same half dozen themes repeatedly, but, for a guy who's been around for a long time, he's also surprisingly relentlessly eager to venture into uncharted artistic territory."
The last thing Neal points out to me before I leave is the table just outside his apartment studio in the indoor atrium of the Wheeler Arts Community Center where we started.
One of them just so happens to depict a volcano, with a shadow and a hole in it. I mention to Neal that this was the same thing he did in high school.
"That's right," he says. "You hit the nail right on the head. Because I couldn't figure out. The other artists used to be calling me, saying I can't sell nothing. ... I just told them I go back to the original work that I started. So that's what I do."