Ancient Stones & Ugly Buildings

I 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,” he grins.

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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