Neil Carroll doesn’t see much artistic difference between painting and folding clothes. Or making furniture and baking cookies. “My approach is the same,” he says. “It all comes from the same place.”
Carroll grew up in Cleveland, and says, “Creating stuff has always been in me.” His high-school music teacher encouraged him to be a musician, while his science teacher thought he should be a scientist. Instead, he followed his own instincts and enrolled at the Cleveland Institute of Art, graduating in 1981 with a BFA in painting and printmaking.
All of the jobs he’s had over the years have contained elements of creativity, including the 25 years he worked as a landscape designer/contractor in South Carolina. “During all this time, I still painted and produced other things creatively,” he notes.
In 2002, he fulfilled a long-time dream by moving to the mountains of Western North Carolina. “I am a ‘plant nut,’ and these mountains are one of the most diverse temperate locations on earth,” he says. “I’m also an old-time musician [banjo, fiddle, and guitar], and that is a big draw for me. I love it here.”
For most of his life, Carroll has built things out of wood. His partner, weaver Kathrin Weber, recognized his natural talent and gave him the gift of a class at John C. Campbell Folk School, where he learned his first fine-woodworking and joinery techniques. Next, she persuaded him to enroll in the Professional Crafts Program at Haywood Community College. He graduated and has been making furniture and other wood items full time for three years.
Carroll rarely sketches his projects in advance, unless a piece involves a lot of drawers or doors, and he says he’s not big on making mockups. Remarkably, he rarely repeats a design. “Even when I do, they are only somewhat like the original,” he insists. “All my work is done one at a time.”
While his furniture sells well, his graffiti-influenced paintings are, for him, like the “big catchall.” In the late 1970s and early ’80s, Carroll and some of his school friends would travel to New York City to visit museums and galleries and to see the graffiti on the subways. “It was alive, colorful, illegal … and highly expressive,” he recalls. And its impact stuck with him, though his own street-style work is sanctioned. Examples of it can be found at 12 Bones Smokehouse, Wedge Brewing Company, and other places in the River Arts District. Carroll calls what he does “practicing graffiti,” but shows no patience with the grittier side of the medium. “In Asheville, the graffiti scene is made up of artists rather than drug gangs, although we do have pure little s**t vandals here, too.”
As he explains it, “Painting on buildings … is large, fast, and you have no expectations of permanence. I can do a very elaborate piece that is 8 by 12 feet in less than two hours. It gets your entire body physically involved in the work.”
Regardless of what he’s making, Carroll says, “What I want people to know is that I am an artist, and I don’t think that is something special.”
Yet he also notes: “All of my creative work comes with the same rules and the same commitment to excellence.”
Neil Carroll, Weaverville (custommade.com/by/neil-carroll). Carroll’s solo exhibit, “Street to Studio: Graffiti Influenced Art & Fine Furniture by Neil Carroll” is on display at Grovewood Gallery (111 Grovewood Road, grovewood.com) through Sunday, Aug. 18. His furniture is sold at Miya Gallery (20 North Main St., Weaverville, miyagallery.com).