Columbus Makes Art Presents: Coach Keith Neal, West Side Griot and Community Jewel
If you have ever walked into Upper Cup Coffee, you might have run into the infamous Keith Neal, affectionately known as “Coach.” His art collection has adorned the walls of the shop, giving customers a feel of African expression in the heart of Olde Towne East. Originally hailing from Philadelphia, Coach Neal moved to Columbus as a child and has since then been one of the most well respected elders to come from the west side of Columbus. Coach Neal served as the Executive Director of the J. Ashburn Center. In February, Maroon Arts Group featured Coach Neal in their monthly Roots, which is an open mic event that focuses on expression in identity. We caught up with Coach Neal to learn more about his career. You can see artists like him at Maroon Arts Group’s monthly Roots: An Open Expression of Identity, every third Friday of the month at 7 p.m. The latest Roots is this Friday, June 21, featuring Jordan Alexander.
Fevean: How would you describe yourself?
Keith: I’m a coach, not only of sports, but of life. I’m just trying to do the creator’s work. I am a truth seeker and a truth teller. I believe we live in a time where sometimes being truthful can lead to consequences, but I am protected. I try to express myself by uplifting those in dark situations by bringing light through my words.
Fevean: How and when did you begin expressing yourself as an artist?
Keith: My sister actually saw it in me when I was in third grade. She noticed that I was an avid reader and began to bring things for me to read. This encouraged me to become self-educated and knowledgeable. I didn’t look at myself only as an athlete moving forward. I wanted to learn more. Once I began to acquire more knowledge, I began sharing my thoughts. Actually, a friend of mine, Donna Wallace, was the first to challenge me put my thoughts on paper. From that point on I begin to write down my thoughts; my collection spans from the 60s to present day. Poetry is a spirit that you share with people, your thoughts are your trials and tribulations. We need to share this to encourage people and that is what made me share my thoughts.
Fevean: Can you share with us a time when your words took form? What did that production look like and what motivated you?
Keith: Yes, actually during my time at the J. Ashburn Center I wrote a play in 1978 called Changing Times. I remember something spoke to me that day and I sat down for six straight hours and wrote the entire play. The production was about a young man who comes back to his community from college and sees the devastation and hopeless caused by the crack epidemic. Spiritual leaders then guide the young man to understand there is still opportunity in times of darkness or despair. The play was a success; our youth each had a role in the play. That made me very happy.
Fevean: Aside from your spoken word, we know that you’re an avid art collector, per some of your pieces at Upper Cup. Tell us more about how that journey has impacted you?
Keith: It’s funny you ask. It actually started with a conversation I had with a friend named Jim Langley, who ran a shop in German Village. I’ll never forget he said, “Keith, if you want to be in this business you got to be student.” This was after I shared with him how much I paid for a piece, which he jokingly called “airport art.” Ever since then, I studied African artifacts, reading books, collecting, etc. In 15 years I became a master collector. During those years, I had been praying that if I ever got a building I would make it in the image that would uplift the cultural awareness of our young people. Finally we got the chance to do that with the center. I started putting up the art work, it was beautiful. The youth respected the art; we never had any vandalism, not one piece! We’ve had notable scholars of the African Diaspora come and visit. We utilized our space to teach and educate the community. Kids would see an ancient African statue as big as them and become curious and ask questions – it was great.
Fevean: What is your favorite art to collect and why?
Keith: The pieces I love the most are the African equestrian art because it shows the wealth and power on the continent. For example, the art you see of Mansa Musa –he wasn’t just a millionaire, he was a trillionaire. That’s amazing! This is history and civilization that we are not exposed to through our education system.
Fevean: Everyone calls you Coach. How were you able to use your words to empower youth?
Keith: I had many sayings as a coach. One story I remember, I had a team I called The Kolongi which has West African roots and stood for “Men of Victory,” on and off the court. One day I remember blowing the whistle and said, “You all have $100 shoes for a five dollar basketball game.” In other words, you need to work harder to be a champion both on and off the court. This group inspired me. Most of them went on to become great fathers or go into ministry. A number of these athletes went on to win the city league for West High School from 1997-2000. People often talk down on the younger generation but this is one of the most promising groups I coached. I let them know that not all elders look down on them; in fact, I look up to them!
Fevean: Who has inspired you and your work as an artist and community servant?
Keith: I can definitely think of some: Rev. J. Ashburn, attorney Clenzo Bell Fox, Jaymes O’Neal Saunders, also elders like Queen Brooks and Karen Johnson. Through them I was able to meet Columbus Legends like Elijah Pierce, Aminah Robinson, Dr. George Miller, who owns Black Arts Plus, Baba Shongo who owns The Gallery in the Hood.
Fevean: What is the best thing about Columbus arts scene right now?
Keith: The youth. I enjoy working with them. I actually wrote a piece called “Civilized Man?” in October, I haven’t performed it yet but I am working on some younger local hip hop creatives so I can share my message.
You can see artists like Keith Neal at Maroon Arts Group’s monthly Roots: An Open Expression of Identity, every third Friday of the month at 7 p.m. Catch the latest Roots on Friday, June 21, featuring Jordan Alexander.
Columbus Makes Art Presents is a bi-weekly column brought to you by the Greater Columbus Arts Council – supporting art and advancing culture in Columbus. The column is a project of the Art Makes Columbus campaign, telling the inspiring stories of the people and organizations who create Columbus art and sharing information about exhibitions, performances, concerts and more at ColumbusMakesArt.com. Each column will be written by a different local arts organization to give you an insiders look at how #artmakescbus.