New art movement draws Youngstown native
When recording “Kind of Blue,” Miles Davis brought few notes to studio sessions.
Instead, his fast-paced improvised harmonies and melodies painted a picture; his legendary sextet featuring John Coltrane, Bill Evans and Cannonball Adderley, accompanied by an equally talented rhythm section, added to the canvas.
This marriage of different styles creates a sensory experience like no other. It’s exactly what artist and Youngstown native Brendan T. McNally, 40, is trying to conjure up with his collaborative partner, artist Amir Diop, in their Neo Savage movement.
“It’s an idea of laying art between multiple artists — the idea is like jazz where you paint on a common canvas the same way you have a bass, a soloist, a pianist in a band and they’re playing off each other to complement each other’s style,” McNally said.
The two met during the height of the pandemic in 2020, with both artists ascending on what McNally described as a “Mad Max-esque” post apocalyptic SoHo, where businesses had been boarded up with plywood, partly due to lockdowns, largely due to social unrest over the police shooting of George Floyd creating a space for a artistic revolution marred by protest.
“It is poetic that this art movement was started in protest, and grew into a revitalization project. Not a financial revitalization, but a spiritual one. NYC’s heart is growing, I showed up, and this flowed out. The painting was as much from the street as it was from me,” McNally said.
Combining the styles of multiple artists creates something new.
Before this point, McNally had no experience in the realm of street art.
The transition was born out of desperation after losing his online teaching job at The Ohio State University, where he taught foreign scientists who were later slated to become research professors at OSU to work on their English and teaching skills.
Recalling that time, McNally said, “It was a surreal experience where I got to listen to the highest level of scientists that conducted million-dollar research projects, as they did mock interviews from several fields of study.”
When the pandemic struck though, the opportunity faded as the researchers went home to their countries, just as McNally was coming back to New York in late 2019 with his 5-year-old daughter.
“We had become temporarily homeless for a time back then and crashing at another artist’s studio in SoHo” McNally said. “A close friend saw the boarded up buildings, gave me a call and said I should go out there and paint a mural.”
The Canfield High School graduate was used to painting unsung heroes in the 1990s.
During his formative years, he attended the Columbus College of Arts, where McNally developed his style based around drawing civil rights figures, describing it as his way of paying homage to unsung heroes left out of history.
“My original art influences came from looking up to the old masters, as most of the art I had access to in the pre-internet Youngstown area was in history books,” McNally said.
McNally described the experience painting on the streets of SoHo as a “spiritual experience” that gave him the chance to live out a childhood fantasy of painting in the infamous neighborhood known as a hub for artists in the ’70s and ’80s.
As marchers went down Broadway Avenue, letting their voices be heard, McNally let his paintbrush channel his feelings on a piece of plywood; creating “River Unconscious,” a mural of the late Floyd and an early glimpse of the Neo Savage style.
“Neo started as a practical way for me and Diop to get around the fact that we had no money, we just had the paint we were being supplied. We’d take turns using the paint for our street murals and the idea came to mind to collaborate,” McNally said.
Their movement merges their contrasting styles, with McNally’s work adding classical elements with portraits, and Diop adding the street and jazz elements, with heavy usage of bright colors and cartooning.
With an increase in media coverage and growing interest from local businesses in utilizing the work of street artists to beautify the city, McNally, Diop and several other artists formed the Soho Renaissance Factory, an artist collective and community outreach group that furthered their working relationship.
“We were trying to help the community and the community helped us; we were bringing people back to the area so that was a positive thing and the business community latched on to it,” McNally said.
Gaining the attention of the NoMo hotel, the hotel took in artists from the SRF giving them an ability to live there while being given free reign to paint murals inside the hotel. For a time, McNally’s Nina Simone mural hung in the hotel’s lobby, preserving his work that originated on the streets.
During this time, McNally’s work was featured all across the city — a huge feat for a kid from Youngstown who never envisioned making it this far.
McNally often stayed with his grandparents on Orlo Lane near Midlothian Boulevard and early years in an apartment with his parents on Southern Boulevard across from St. Dominic Church.
Looking back, he recalled it being a time where mafia-based crimes were commonplace.
Even if you weren’t directly a part of that lifestyle, McNally said living in the area meant there was bound to have been some overlap.
“I grew up at Mickey’s bar. My dad was a bartender there, I had been around there since I was 4 years old. It was allegedly a mafia bar,” he said.
Around that time, McNally said it wasn’t uncommon to see sections of streets closed off as shootouts rang out between mafia and gang members.
“Everybody assumed there was more to every story, everyone was steel lipped, nobody talked about it but everyone knew about it,” McNally said. “When I left, it was rough around the city, I worried about my grandparents.”
Despite the rough edges, the area still remains close to him — the memories of nights spent navigating the downtown area for punk rock shows at the Draught House.
“There was another place too,” McNally said happily, reminiscing; the spot that escaped his mind for a split moment was Nyabinghi.
A time capsule of Youngstown, McNally described it as the peak of the weird underground side of the city.
“It felt like something out of the movie 8-mile. They’d have rap battles one night and switch to hardcore heavy death metal the next,” he said. “Youngstown is a very unique place that has this old world feel to it. There’s little enclaves where the people there have been through so much.”
McNally eventually left the area for a time after losing his passion for art and dropping out of CCAD.
“After that, I had a loss of identity, my whole life I thought I was going to be an artist,” McNally said. “Almost in relation to that life, I joined the Air force in 2003 at the beginning of the Iraq War and they trained me as an intel analyst.”
For six years, McNally served in the Air Force, and between 2006 and 2008, he had three deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq and Germany.
“During that time I started painting again as a way of doing self-therapy toward the end of the deployment,” McNally said. “I was struggling mentally. I was painting things I was seeing over there, drawing and selling paintings for officers that wanted work done for them all while in a combat zone.”
After the military, McNally was struggling to come to terms with his time served.
“When I got back, I felt pretty guilty about it because I didn’t have that ‘ignorance is a bliss factor’ so I was kind of torn on how I felt,” McNally said. To treat his nerves, he turned to art once again.
McNally worked a series of jobs before moving to New York for the first time from 2009 to 2012, crashing on the floor of a brownstone among 11 skaters, including Youngstown native Matt Lilly, who hosted skating events using a backyard halfpipe they had built in the backyard.
These events were infamous in the neighborhood, becoming known as “Shred-stuy” drawing crowds of hundreds, soundtracked by five rock bands playing from the rooftops.
Lilly is someone McNally credits with saving his life. Prior to moving to New York, he was on the verge of being homeless.
Making a bit of a name for himself on the avant garde scene in Brooklyn, McNally said the years of partying, drug usage and a realization of his PTSD from the military left him looking for more stability.
“I didn’t like the competitiveness of it so I stopped painting again for a few years. This happens to artists often where they start to get artist blocks and they start to rely on substances to do it for them,” McNally said.
He moved back to Ohio in 2012 until 2013 to use his GI bill to pursue an ESL degree from Kent State University, where he met the future mother of his child and wife (they later divorced). During that time, he taught English at a German high school for four months.
In 2014, McNally taught English to business executives in Mexico until his daughter was born in September. McNally was at a crossroads where he had to admit that he couldn’t raise a child while traveling.
He pursued a master’s degree at Columbia University in applied linguistics in 2016. Afterward, he got a teaching job at Auburn University that bled into his eventual position at OSU.
In his current life, McNally overlooks the Empire State Building from his studio on the corner of Bowery and Spring Street as he and Diop are working to develop art for a startup app, which provides painting space and business connections for the two.
The pair hopes the movement grows into a school.
“I want people to learn to do a craft and then figure out how to monetize it. Almost like an incubator for artists,” McNally said.
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