first met Chris Neumann at the Amble Dance coffeehouse in Mellenville.
He picked up his guitar, climbed on stage and played and sang and
knocked everybody out of their chairs. Chris has a big voice, an enormous
talent and more energy than you’ll find in just about any six
people anywhere. “I’m blessed with a lot of feeling and
I just let it out,” he tells me.
Chris Neumann was born in Houston, Texas twenty-nine years ago. His
father was a captain in the merchant marine. They moved to Pennsylvania
for a time then to Columbia County where he attended the Hawthorne
Valley Waldorf School in Harlemville. At eighteen Chris headed back
to Pennsylvania to sing in a punk band with some of his old friends.
“Why?” I ask.
“I liked the music. Just something I had to do,” he replies.
He was on a mission and pushed himself, writing songs about how extraordinary
he believed the world could be. “I wanted to be alive, everybody
seemed dead, so I wrote.”
After a spell he traveled to Ireland where he spent three years working
with handicapped children at Camphill Village. In 1998 Chris returned
to Columbia County.
Chris was never formally trained in music, he just did it, “in
seventh grade I wanted to be an artist and play and sing music.”
He recalls that one day his sister painted a picture of a deer in
a field and he realized he wanted to do that, too.
While he’s written hundreds of songs, Chris also paints and
makes folk art sculptures. The walls of his home are adorned with
paintings and sculptures created from grey weathered wood, rusty metal
objects, stone and glass. These discarded objects are compelling,
regenerated and alive.
“Folk art shows us things about each of us that are the same,
the common thread,” he pauses, “Everything
is beautiful, it just needs a frame. I give found things a frame and
they become art, as they should be. It’s the same with music,
with all art, don’t tell them show them.”
He picks up the guitar to illustrate his point and plays. The guitar
is as much a part of Chris as say, an extra arm would be. He is most
at ease expressing himself through music.
“The guitar makes me feel peaceful, like taking a shower,”
Chris has a deep social conscience; he stresses the importance of
talking to people everywhere, especially young people. Addressing
a classroom full of teenagers recently he stressed the importance
of history. He wrote on the blackboard, “Those who don’t
know about the last 3000 years of history are living hand to mouth.”
Then he wrote, “What do you care about?” The discussion
that followed was bold and lively. Chris stresses that, “What
you care about matters. Everything else is flim flam.”
So, now, let’s see, Chris is a singer/songwriter, a painter,
a folk art sculptor and a bit of a philosopher with a great sense
of humor. What else? Oh, yeah, he’s also an expert stonemason.
In Ireland, Chris met a man named Joe Daily, a stonemason. He was
captivated by Joe’s ability and told him, “I want to apprentice
with you.” Joe replied, “No you don’t. Ya got the
knack for it, boy, just do it.” And for three years Chris did,
working and learning right beside Joe Daily.
Chris loves stonework, possibly more than anything else, “Building
is creation,” he exclaims. “Look at what we can do. Look
at Egypt and Greece, but what are we building? Shopping malls!”
He is disturbed that our culture has turned away from the character,
the lasting and permanent beauty that is so exquisitely created with
stone. “Stone is ancient. I pick up heavy things all day long.
It keeps me grounded.”
Chris is pictured here on the right clowning with fellow stonemason
Patrick Jansen. His sense of humor is as enormous as his energy and
talent. This particular wall is on Partition Street in Hudson. Chris
tells me of several street kids who often wander by. They’ll
stop and watch Chris and Patrick work for a considerable time. Before
long they’ll let down their “tough-guy” attitude
and ask real, curious, honest questions about the work. Chris is moved
and inspired by their interest.
“These guys need something that will let their soul shine through,
allow them to be alive. They get it, they love it. When humans are
around things of beauty their souls literally flourish. It’s
important, it’s necessary.”
I ask Chris his dream and he says, “to initiate a building renaissance,
to build beautiful things, gas stations should be beautiful.”
He pauses then continues, his tone matter of fact, “Ugly buildings
create ugly people.”
I am intrigued by the amount of energy and life Chris so freely gives,
“You have to let go of yourself to have yourself.”
I just smile.
We’ll talk next time From The Road.
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