May 13, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Neil Griess felt like an alien. He immersed himself so deeply into his art that coming out of it felt unnatural. This feeling of being otherworldly, detached and yet painting reality, lasted for about three years. Later, driving home from the Union for Contemporary Art after opening night, he broke down in tears.

“It was a big sigh,” Griess says.

His exhibit, “Pleated Field,” came together with the help of his entire family, who “took over the Union” back on November 14, 2015, when his exhibit began in the Wanda D. Ewing Gallery.

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Griess, 27, learned he won Best Solo Exhibition at the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards in January. But he doesn’t paint for the awards.

He wasn’t always serious about his art, as his late uncle, award-winning realist painter Kent Bellows, often reminded him. Griess found being in his shadow difficult.

“He was the ultimate cool uncle, but I was intimidated by him growing up,” Griess admits. “I wanted his acceptance and affirmation.”

While Griess was a student at Westside High School, his uncle passed away in his sleep. It was a trigger for Griess, who felt like he had something to prove; perhaps to make up for the grief and loss of Bellows in his life.

As Griess says, natural talent doesn’t mean anything without hard work. Soon, he developed a portfolio of acrylic on wood. Griess’ realism is so evident, his father Jim jokes he should take the painting of him into his doctor’s office because even the vein popping out on his leg is shown with such great detail.

Griess’ art led to a Gold Medal by Scholastic Art, a $10,000 prize, and a visit to Carnegie Hall in New York City when he was only 18.

“He’s just wonderful,” says his mother, Robin, prompting Griess to run out of the room in his worn black socks. Always the shy son, Greiss clearly becomes uncomfortable when his mother discusses him.

His mother is an artist, like his grandfather and uncle. Griess’ brothers are also creative. One is a game developer while the other is a sculptor. Jim laughs, saying he brings the frugality, common sense, and work ethic.

While he was pursing his Bachelor of Arts in the fall of 2011, Griess began developing his solo project. He thought about the potential of spaces and how people could alter them on their own terms rather than the norm. Griess combined different objects he saw, then put them into believable spaces. It was an “exploration of possibility.”

Griess designed miniatures of models, construction scenes. Sometimes, he would take the model out and experiment with different lighting like at dusk.  After taking photographs, Griess used acrylic to paint on wood panels.

Griess now divides his time between being a guard at the Joslyn Art Museum and tutoring children at the Kent Bellows Mentoring Center.

Will he do another exhibit?

Griess thoughtfully looks to the side, weighing his answer, slouching all in black on his mother’s white couch. Art is a challenge, a sacrifice.

“I’m playing, that’s all I will say,” Griess says with a sly smile. Encounter

Visit neilgriess.com for more info.

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