Pioneers Together — Our Community Responds to COVID-19: Kris Neely
By Robert W. Dalton
This article appeared originally in the Fall 2020 issue of Frontiers Magazine.
In a time of great upheaval, Kris Neely has been a beacon of stability.
Neely, a Professor of Art and Director of the Interdisciplinary Studies Program, helped SMC navigate through the unknown as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded. As chair of the Faculty Steering Committee, Neely was a voice for the faculty as key decisions were made.
“I also helped lead faculty discussions about how we should operate as an institution during the pandemic,” Neely said. “We have had to find a way to do it to safely deliver the same high quality education expected at SMC.”
Part of that strategy required Neely to make an adjustment for his art students. In normal times, he would spend a lot of hours face-to-face with his students. When the pandemic made that impossible, Neely found an alternative.
“I wanted to turn that into an advantage instead of a weakness,” Neely said. “I required students to visit a gallery or a museum. There is a lot of high-quality content online, so they could do virtual visits and make use of those resources.”
Neely also found a way for students to showcase their art when COVID-19 wiped out SMC’s annual fine arts night.
“We had students who were about to showcase their pieces they’d been working on all year,” Neely said. “We organized a virtual arts show so they could share their work.”
The virtual art show was a hit and Neely said,“ I’ve had several people request that we do it every year.”
Over the summer, Neely also made time for a deeply personal project involving his popular guardian angel artwork. He began painting the angels in 2005, with the first piece going to his mother, who wanted something to go in the childhood bedroom of his brother, Erik, who died five years earlier.
“There was a renewed interest because of the pandemic,” Neely said. “Families wanted to get them to people who were hospitalized or grieving.”
The pandemic created an opportunity for a new way to share the artwork when Neely’s wife sewed a mask using a guardian angel print.
“We did a lot of research, did several test runs, and she figured out the best way to do it,” Neely said.
Each mask is unique. The Neelys recently made them available to the public, and they’ve had requests from across the country.
“It’s been a fun experiment,” Neely said. “I never would have thought to create art for that. It’s about being hopeful. A pastor’s wife said she wanted to wear one because it felt like she had a prayer on her lips.”
Neely is looking forward to the academic year, even with the challenges presented by COVID-19. Through the use of technology, he believes the potential is there for students to hear from speakers, artists, and musicians SMC normally wouldn’t be able to afford.
“There’s a lot of room for new adventures and new ways of doing things,” Neely said. “I wish it wasn’t under these circumstances, but we’re making the best of it. “I feel SMC will be all the better for it.”