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Datebook: Artist Jim Neeley's 'Fertile Mind' Bears Cut-Paper Fruit

A compilation of artist Jim Neeley's "Obsession Tiles."
Jim Neeley
A compilation of artist Jim Neeley's "Obsession Tiles."

When the pandemic hit, Twin City artist Jim Neeley needed a place to escape to.

So, he created one — actually, dozens of them — in his 12-by-12 inch collage pieces dubbed “Obsession Tiles.”

And starting Friday, guests can view 100 of Neeley’s tiles in a new exhibition, “Painting with Paper,” at Hangar Art Co. in Bloomington.

Each piece is the product of Neeley letting his “overactive imagination” run wild.

“I have a very kind of fertile mind that leads me in a lot of directions and occasionally down some mole holes," he said.

Neeley said the works have a good dose of the kind of irreverence his operation Wisecracker Studios is known for, but with new elements of the fantastical.

Artist Jim Neeley.
Jim Neeley
Artist Jim Neeley.

“I think for me, beginning this work in 2020 in early March, I felt like some escape and some fantasy and just sort of clearing your mind of all the things that were going through our heads, and all the unknowns and all the darkness...I need to just creatively run away from that,” Neeley said.

The result is a serious divergence from the three-dimensional, monochrome assemblage pieces Neeley was making at the time.

“The pieces are much quicker, they’re more spontaneous, and they’re really shot with color,” he said. “For me, I think it was exactly the right kind of thing during the right time.”

In one of Neeley’s escapist scenes, a young Elizabeth Taylor can be seen surveying her estate at...wait, is that the Gailey Eye Clinic building in Bloomington?

“It’s a building that I’ve always been obsessed with,” Neeley admitted. From the black wrought-iron fence to the copper roof, the building’s architecture intrigues Neeley. “The design of the building itself is this kind of crazy mashup of French Chateau with the copper roof and also kind of like a stately ranch house that you’d see up in Bel Air or Los Angeles.”

“So I used this depiction of the building and I added a big round swimming pool in the front and towering palm trees in the back side of the building, and I put Elizabeth Taylor right in the foreground in white-hot pants and gogo boots,” he said.

Neeley found another unlikely source of inspiration while rummaging through a junk shop in Indiana: vintage Ektachrome portraits of an unknown woman. Neely’s mind swirled with questions.

“Why would her family let her photographs come to this junk shop, and who was she, and what did she do?” he said. “So I kind of adopted her as a relative.”

In the series “Unlikeliest of Situations,” Neeley imagines a new glamorous life for his subject, whom he calls Helaine — from dancing with Mick Jagger to getting her hair done at Versailles.

“I mean there’s some pretty wacky stuff,” Neeley said.

Collage is not a new medium for Neeley, but rather one that predates any formal art education.

“My mom hung onto one of my masterpieces from junior high. My mom is gone now, but I still have this collage. This piece hangs in my studio and it’s just a reminder of kind of the roots.”

As a student at Illinois State University, Neeley said his professors taught him a “methodical and meticulous” approach to art.

“And this was way before computers, so everything was very kind of hand-done and cut with exacto knives, rubber-cementing down elements to create work...and that discipline has really informed me as an artist today,” he said, adding he layers his own photography along with printed web images, cut paper and tissue to create the pieces.

Neeley knows it’s not the way a lot of collage is done these days.

“There’s a lot of contemporary collage that’s all done on the desktop and with computers, and it’s this amazingly beautiful, refined, perfect stuff that is, you just couldn’t create if you were cutting it out of paper,” he said.

But that’s what Neeley enjoys about his own “old school” approach.

“it definitely has somebody’s fingerprints on it,” he said. “It is made by hand. I think there’s this intrinsic value to that.”

Neeley wants to give guests at Hangar Art Co. a chance to get their fingerprints on his work, too. From the master wall of 100 tiles, guests will be able to select nine tiles to arrange in their own fantastical scene.

“I think it’s going to be really fun for folks to be able to pick out things that speak to them and arrange them in a way that does some storytelling for them,” he said.

Jim Neeley’s exhibition “Painting with Paper” opens Friday at Hangar Art Co., 105 W. Jefferson St, in downtown Bloomington and is expected to run through July.

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Breanna Grow is a correspondent for GLT. She joined the station in September 2018.