Artist Michael Shane Neal Tells His Library Story

By Michael Shane Neal

Nashville Public Library hosts the largest collection of internationally recognized portrait artist and Carnegie Society member, Michael Shane Neal’s work. Shane has donated his time and talent to paint a portrait of all Literary Award honorees which can be seen at the main branch’s conference center. We asked him to share the impact libraries have had on his life and career: 

“Libraries have meant a great deal to me all my life. In fact, it is not too bold a statement to say that if it weren’t for my time spent in both public and institutional libraries, I would not enjoy the life as an artist that I do today.

As a child, I looked forward with great anticipation to the weekly visits from the mobile library that came near our home. I was so excited to board the van each week to explore and find new books to read. I also enjoyed visits to our local public library as well as the downtown public library from time to time. I’m grateful for my mother’s encouragement that helped develop my passion for books made accessible through the public library system. At Lipscomb University, the library was my favorite place on campus. I spent hundreds of hours perusing the many art books on the shelves. One day, one of my art instructors suggested that I find a volume called Painting Portraits by New York artist, Everett Raymond Kinstler. Fortunately, when I made my way to the library that day, I found the book on the shelf. I sat down on the floor, began reading, and was immediately hooked. I stayed there all afternoon and read the book cover to cover. As I left the library that day, I was not the same person who had entered the building just a few hours before. From that day forward, I knew exactly what I wanted to do: I wanted to be an artist that painted portraits. Not only did I become a devoted fan of the author and his work, but I ultimately became a student and a close friend. It was a seemingly impossible scenario for a young artist from Nashville, Tennessee to even meet such a famous artist living and working in New York City. After many years of devoted friendship and study, Mr. Kinstler passed away in 2019, and I now occupy his famous studio and apartment in Gramercy Park in New York. The third artist to work there in over 100 years, I am carrying on the tradition of painting portraits in that space, and my life over the last 30 years began in the pages of that book.

I have met and worked with many remarkable people since I began painting portraits in 1990. One client I will never forget was the actor Earle Hyman, who I painted for The Players Club in New York, a famous private club for men and women of the theater. He told me that, as a boy growing up in and around New York, he didn’t like to do a lot of the things that other boys his age did at that time, so he found refuge in the public library. It was there that he discovered the works of Shakespeare and other great authors and where his love of acting was born.

At the unveiling of his portrait at the club, he told the audience a similar story and asked us all to support our local public libraries. He said that, like his, there was opportunity for many lives to be changed, simply by giving them access to the knowledge within. It has been my great honor to support for many years the Nashville Public Library Foundation and the important work that they do in securing our amazing public library system, both today and into the future. 

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