Local Arts

Carmen Neely collects words and phrases, then turns them into abstract art

Artist Carmen Neely is one of six artists-in-residence at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation in Charlotte this summer. Neely is a Charlotte native who specializes in abstraction.
Artist Carmen Neely is one of six artists-in-residence at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation in Charlotte this summer. Neely is a Charlotte native who specializes in abstraction. Lorraine Turi

The McColl Center for Art + Innovation awards 15 to 20 residencies throughout the year. Charlotte native and abstract artist Carmen Neely is one of this summer’s six artists-in-residence.

Neely, 31, graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from UNC Charlotte and a Master of Fine Arts from UNC Greensboro. She spent the past few years teaching drawing and design courses at UNCG, Wake Forest University and North Carolina A&T.

Neely works in abstraction using oil paints, ink, graphic and color pencils, watercolor and paper cut-outs. She plans to use the residency to learn embroidery and experiment with how to incorporate it into her practice.

She answered a few questions for the Observer. They have been edited for clarity and brevity.

How did you become interested in art?

When I was younger, I was always making things, but didn’t take art classes. I didn’t really recognize art as a legitimate path I could pursue. I took an elective course my second year at college. It was a photography class, and it was the first time I realized that people get advanced degrees in studio art. I got completely immersed in this class; I spent all my time taking photos and developing things. I was craving more afterward.

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Charlotte native Carmen Neely is one of six artists-in-residence this summer at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation. Lorraine Turi

What does your process look like?

I’m really interested in collecting — how we collect objects and things in the world and how they represent events or experiences in our life and how they become souvenirs. In the past few years, I’ve started to collect words or phrases from conversations. They either have an interesting sound or resonate with me in a moment. Sometimes, I can’t get one out of my head.

My process really starts with those phrases as representations of an entire experience and that’s how I begin an artwork. I start with the title, which is the phrase. And then the artwork really is meant to embody or express the mood, energy and experience that’s linked with that phrase.

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Two pieces of Carmen Neely’s artwork on display at Setareh Gallery in Düsseldorf, Germany earlier this year. Ivo Faber Courtesy of Carmen Neely

What’s something you’d want people to know before they saw your work?

I ask that people come to it with an open mind and investigative attitude. The art is not direct in what it’s trying to communicate. I hope that viewers of the work will come to abstraction knowing that there is a vulnerability and an honesty embedded in it, somewhere. Be willing to be led to some emotional experience.

What’s an obstacle that you’ve had to overcome?

I suffered from, and continue to deal with, anxiety. It definitely was a hindrance, and it was part of the reason why it took me a long time to get through undergraduate programs. I used to feel ashamed. But the more artists I’ve come to know, the more students that I’ve worked with, the more I recognize the need to be really honest and open about the fact that it’s OK if you’re dealing with these things. It doesn’t have to prevent you from being successful.

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Carmen Neely’s piece called “Alternate Reality.” Courtesy of Carmen Neely

What’s been your experience as a black artist pursuing abstraction?

I hadn’t been exposed to a lot of women of color engaging in abstraction. I was always interested in formal abstraction, but I didn’t see myself represented in the artwork I was being taught. It took time for me to view my practice as a worthy pursuit because I was missing clear examples of people who looked like me.

Who has influenced you?

Alma Thomas. She does abstraction but from a totally different approach compared to my gestural work. It’s very geometric. I love the way that she talked about herself as an artist and really defended her ability to be seen as just an American. She was categorized. People would come to her and say, “What does this work mean? How’s this related to being a black woman?”

Her response was, “Well, I’m also an American, I’m also a painter. I’m also these other things.” And she sort of demanded that people see her as more multifaceted, and have more of an intersectional idea about an artist’s identity.

What surprises you about the Charlotte art scene?

I have lived outside of Charlotte for several years and then came back a year ago. And in that time, I can tell that there have been more community investments made in creating spaces for artists. I think that there can definitely be more of those spaces.

Open Studio Saturday.jpg
Carmen Neely and the other summer artists-in-residence will be on hand July 13 for Open Studio Saturday at the McColl Center, noon to 4 p.m. Admission is free. Artists will be working in their studios and answering questions. Hands-on art activities, like the one pictured here from the last Open Studio Saturday, will take place throughout the building. There will also be food trucks.. Courtesy of the McColl Center for Art + Innovation

Meet the Artist

What: Open Studio Saturday. Carmen Neely and other artists will be in their studios working and answering questions. Visitors can participate in hands-on art activities throughout the building..

When: July 13, noon-4 p.m.

Admission: Free

Where: McColl Center for Art + Innovation, 721 N. Tryon St.

Details: mccollcenter.org

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte..

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