“Don't pursue a career in the Arts unless you love the Arts truly, madly, deeply. And do not have any delusions about what awaits you both in educational settings, and in the job market. …If you think you're gonna get a break because you have a disability, think again. …You better be the best you can be at what you do, and do not allow yourself to use your disability as an excuse NOT to work continually and consistently towards total professionalism and high standards of quality.”
-- Jaehn Clare, professional theatre artist, from "A Career as an Artist Ain't an Easy Row to Hoe," keynote address for The Art of Employment: Careers in the Arts for People with Disabilities on March 25 & 26, 2002 at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis MN.
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When Columbus visual artist Paul Neufelder met Lois Templeton at a “pretty generic, middle-of-the-road” art fair in the late ‘80’s, he wasn’t expecting to find a life-changing mentor. “She looked like my grandma.” As it turned out, she was “an absolute ball of fire. She was all about what I was doing: talking about color, and being bold and being out there, and having your own voice.” Neufelder’s friendship with Lois brought him kindness, assistance, and encouragement. After seeing a show of her work in Louisville impressed him tremendously, he took her opinions more seriously. “I realized that her compliments are not hollow.”
Lois is one of a series of mentors whom Neufelder credits as having been supportive and influential in his work over the past two decades as a painter, installation and scenic artist, teacher, and administrator. "This is a tough profession," he emphasizes. "These bonds are critical."
Paul Neufelder might have had a very different career. At age 14, he envisioned himself in adulthood as a forester. That’s when he broke his neck in a diving accident.
I found out I was better at art after my accident than before. That was the first time I found that I could really excel.
Following this devastating experience, one of the unforeseen paths he travelled led him towards a life in art. “I found out I was better at it after my accident than before. That was the first time I found that I could really excel. It was a positive eye opener.”
So began a journey. Along the way, his mentors provided the same generosity and knowledge he now brings to his own students.
One night Neufelder went out for a hamburger after a class with Bobby K. Owens. An internationally known artist, Owens had invited him to study with him after seeing Neufelder’s teaching in action at a Montessori school. “He said, ‘You know what, you don’t have a studio, do you?’” Owens knew of a space that had become available. Neufelder rented it the next day, and “things just exploded.” “With the space came students, and with students came more teaching jobs, and with more teaching jobs came VSAI [Vsa arts of Indiana].” “It was just the right person at the right time.”
The next such person was Jim Nulty, the CEO at VSAI where Paul had become a teaching artist. “There are people that lead by example. He has always been deeply passionate about what he does.” Nulty helped Neufelder take the next step in his career. “He was an amazing mentor to me.” Expanding his repertoire of roles from Teacher-Artist into Teacher-Administrator, Neufelder became Assistant Director of Art Columbus, a nonprofit performing arts organization.
Notably, during Neufelder’s nearly four years at Art Columbus, “it was actually running in the black, which is very scary,” he jokes regarding his aptitude for fiscal matters. The vantage point of an administrator, as well as the grant writing and project management skills he gained, has helped him survive as an artist.
He also credits Columbus artist Gretchen Sigmund-Marks among those who have been influential and supportive of his art career. Topping this list, he puts his parents. “They really are outstanding people.” They never hesitated. “You have a dream, what is it, let’s help.”
Neufelder’s knack for finding and developing relationships with mentors mirrors his approach with potential buyers. “You’ve got to make a personal connection, and nine times out of ten that’s what‘s going to sell you work.”
The personal connection between teacher and student is perhaps the part of his work that gives him the greatest satisfaction. Nicholas Lyford-Pike was just out of his teens, with obvious artistic abilities, when he and his mother Pilar met Neufelder at a Columbus art fair. Nicholas had never found a supportive educational or working environment for developing his talents.
Paul Neufelder was to change all that. He didn’t see Nicholas’ deafness, autism, and epilepsy as barriers to success in art or as hindering an effective teaching relationship. So after Nicholas spent time at a class Neufelder was teaching, Pilar Lyford-Pike was floored when he asked her to bring Nicholas to his studio the following week. She was worried, though. How would they communicate since Neufelder didn’t know sign language? But he was confident he and Nicholas would manage.
I was always freaking out. I would say, ‘Paul, are you crazy?'
He challenged his new protege in ways that made Nicholas' mother very anxious. “I was always freaking out. I would say, ‘Paul, are you crazy?’” He told her that she and her husband were spoiling Nicholas.
Neufelder expected that Nicholas could and would help out around the studio. Nicholas carried bags of stone, loaded groceries into the van, even spent time by himself when Neufelder thought he was ready.
Three years later, things are very different. Nicholas takes the bus by himself to the studio, comes in and starts working right away. “He knows what to do.” He spends four hours there every day. He makes eye contact with people, is very curious, and no longer screams, his mother says. His artwork has become more fully developed, precise, and detailed.
On the morning I interviewed Neufelder in his studio, Nicholas was going about his business as we talked. Neufelder joked, “He looks really uncomfortable here, doesn’t he?” “Paul transformed Nicholas into a mature young man and transformed us as parents,” says Pilar Lyford-Pike. “Everyone should have a Paul.”
Where will his career take him now? Neufelder has a sharper focus on his priorities. As a person in his forties with quadriplegia, he faces increasing health challenges. One thing he will not give up is his work with a new and successful VSAI project that brings him into classrooms at Indiana University, Indiana State University, and Indiana University-Purdue University Columbus. Once again, person-to-person interaction is front and center. He’s giving future art and special needs teachers knowledge and understanding of disability that was absent when he was in school. He is enormously pleased to have the opportunity to do this.
And what about the future artists? Neufelder doesn't want to create any illusions: those who want to make a living in the arts face an uphill battle and a tremendous amount of work. They should think more than twice about choosing this profession. One of the indispensable elements of success will be personal connections. Trust him on this - he knows.