The Columbus native died on June 21, but lives on through murals and memories of those he touched throughout his travels. He was passionate about showing the beauty of African American culture.
Artist Walt "Wali" Neil’s footprint in Columbus stretches across decades and neighborhoods.
Since the 1970s, his drumming and singing were heard at events such as the Columbus Arts Festival, ComFest and the Hot Times Festival.
Most of his murals have been lost to urban development, but several can be seen on the South Side, East Side and Linden areas.
Neil died of lung cancer at age 66 on June 21, having followed a lifelong dream.
"His philosophy was: He’s going to paint the world," said Columbus poet and author Is Said, Neil’s friend of 50 years. "And he tried."
Neil created music and art everywhere he lived, including Atlanta, Seattle, the Virgin Islands and, for the past 20 years, in Cleveland. His wife, Denise Neil, is attempting to track all of it down so it can be preserved.
In lieu of a traditional funeral service, Denise would like to have celebrations in Cleveland and Columbus. But, due to the coronavirus pandemic, she may plan an online event.
An African American artist, Neil was passionate about showing his love and appreciation for his people and culture, Denise said. Much of his bold, colorful work depicts Black people in love, engaging with family and embracing their roots in Africa, which he visited twice. There’s even a thread of Afrofuturism in his painting; he imagined Black people thriving in worlds to come.
"He believed in unity and community," said Denise, 68. "He wanted to show Black love and Black images and reflect those things back to the community."
But Neil’s mission wasn’t always supported. The Near West Side native had an art teacher at Central High School who discouraged his drawing of African American figures.
"It left a bad taste in his mouth," Denise said.
Neil did not obtain a college degree, but he learned from his mentors in Columbus, including artists Tom Pannell, Ed Colston and Bill Agnew. He also worked with renowned woodcarver Elijah Pierce.
According to his wife, Neil was frustrated by his lack of access to major institutions and funding, but was not one to make cases before board members.
"Wali was very free," Denise said. "He did not fit anybody’s mold for what an artist should look like."
Neil wore his hair in locs and often had on his "paint pants."
"He thought that his appearance would get in the way of selling work and he would want someone else to sit and do the transactions," she said. "I told him that people want to connect with you as an artist. … But that wasn’t him. He thought the art should be able to speak for itself."
That isn’t to say Neil didn’t make meaningful connections; he was a kind spirit who worked well with children and enjoyed teaching them how to create art.
And those paint-splattered pants were even a hit in Africa.
"The only thing they wanted from him were those pants," said Is Said, 85, of Linden. "They thought it was beautiful."
Beginning in the 1970s, Neil performed with Is Said and his music, dance and poetry act, Advance Party. They played the clubs and bars on Mount Vernon Avenue, festivals and out-of-town gigs.
Neil also illustrated the covers of Is Said’s books, which the poet keeps on display in his home. His walls are covered with Neil’s remarkable paintings, including images of Is Said, animals and the continent of Africa.
Is Said admired Neil’s willingness to explore.
"There was no dirty place to him," he said. "He could lay down in some trash and wake up with art in his head."
That art also depicted nature. Denise said Neil loved to paint trees and "tree people," and would often hide faces in his work. This effect can be seen in his mural of a rainforest, which has been on the wall of the Nicholson Auditorium in the King Arts Complex for years.
"It’s just an honor that we can continue to allow Walt to live on with his artwork," King Arts Complex Performing Arts Director Jevon Collins said. "There's youngsters who may not know of him, but they know that mural they may have seen in the King Arts Complex or (elsewhere) in Columbus and how much that inspired them to continue to dream."
Neil’s murals for the Southern Orchards and Ganthers Place neighborhoods can still be seen on Parsons Avenue on the South Side. On the East Side, there’s a vibrant landscape on the back of a garage on Bryden Road, and Black people portrayed against a multi-hued sky on the back of a convenience store on St. Clair Avenue.
Because of the respect Neil commanded, his murals were never tagged, Denise said. But she is concerned that neighborhood revitalization efforts will continue to claim his work.
"Is it too late to preserve what's there if the city has their eye on those buildings?" she said.
Neil also painted a mural of flowers in a Linden community garden managed by Kwodwo Ababio, who operated New Harvest Cafe and Urban Arts Center in the area for 15 years.
"His art was about the culture of African American people brought here from the motherland," said Ababio, 59, who published a book, "Love Knows All," featuring Neil’s art and Is Said’s poetry earlier this year.
"We've always been a beautiful, vibrant, hard-working people. And that is what he drew and how he saw us. … (His art) needs to be taught in schools because our children need to understand the basics of who we are."
If you wish to donate art by Walt Wali Neil to his wife for preservation, email firstname.lastname@example.org