Art alum Neil Griess to attend Stanford MFA program

Neil Griess, "Dead End Garden," 2012-14, acrylic on panel, 16 7/8" x 23 1/3 "
Neil Griess, "Dead End Garden," 2012-14, acrylic on panel, 16 7/8" x 23 1/3 "

Neil Griess (B.F.A. 2011) has been accepted into Stanford University’s Master of Fine Arts program. Only five graduate students are admitted into the program each year, and Griess received full tuition and a salary as a teaching assistant.

“I was at work, and I kind of missed the first call, but I had an idea of what the nature of the call was,” Griess said. “When I got the call, it was very exciting, and I knew that would be the option that I would go for.”

Associate Professor of Art Aaron Holz is not surprised that Griess would be accepted into such a prestigious graduate program.

“Quite honestly, this is a student who comes along once in a decade,” he said. “I could not recommend someone more fully, and I have no doubt he will be a valuable addition to the MFA program at Stanford.”

Griess was an assistant to Holz in his studio through UCARE when he was at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln for his undergraduate work.

“I have stayed in close contact with him over the past several years and follow his development,” Holz said. “Neil is extremely intelligent, hard-working and self-directed. He possesses everything you would desire for an artist entering a highly competitive graduate program—full of energy, discipline and creative spirit. He is truly in the top 1 percent of students I have worked with over the past 12 years.”

Griess is a painter who deals with themes of urban development through photorealist paintings and architectural models. He was recently featured in New American Paintings in 2015 for a body of work he created after graduating from UNL in 2011.

“After college, I had an exhibition in Omaha in 2014 at the Union for Contemporary Art,” Griess said. “I had that body of work, and it seemed like a good opportunity to get the work out there in a different way. So I just kind of threw my hat into that and got published in that as well. They have one for MFA candidates, so I might be submitting new work to that in a year or so.”

He also won Best Solo Exhibition at the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards for that exhibition, titled “Pleated Field.” In 2016, he was one of the recipients of the Nebraska Arts Council’s Individual Artist Fellowship Awards, where he received a $1,000 merit award.

Since 2013, he has worked at Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, where he does many different duties.

“I am a guard in the galleries. I help check people in at the front desk. When exhibitions are being installed or de-installed or there’s something going on with collections where they really need an extra hand, I pitch in,” Griess said. “It’s been a good experience, looking at some of the ins and outs of the museum, and particularly, with the handling of the work—how it’s stored and those sorts of considerations.”

Griess said he was fortunate to get a full ride at Stanford, and his undergraduate education at UNL was funded well, too.

“I’ve been really lucky on that side of things, and that enabled me to have my options open when I was looking at graduate school and not have to worry about debt that I had,” he said. “It let me wait until it felt like the right moment to apply for graduate school.”

His lasting memory of his time at UNL was the bonds he formed with his peers.

“You end up building a little community of your peers,” he said. “So those interactions with some of my peers and seeing where they have gone off and what they’ve done, that stands out.”

Griess grew up in an environment of creativity and artists. His uncle is Omaha painter Kent Bellows, who died in 2005 and was known for his figurative works in the realist style. His mother and older brother are also artists. Bellows’ father was also a commercial artist and watercolorist.

“Art has always kind of been there,” Griess said. “I’ve been making drawings and things early on, but I started to take it more seriously when my uncle passed away. I was a junior in high school, and it was kind of a way for me to work through the grief of losing him. That’s when I started being more serious about what I was doing and developed technically, and that was kind of a big moment for me.”

His own photo realist style began to develop.

“I’ve worked mainly with acrylic paint and did a lot of that in high school working from photographs,” Griess said. “I was setting up different scenes, photographing those and making paintings from that. And then about when I was starting college, I thought I always kind of liked capturing things in a direct representational way, but I wanted to play with that a little bit more.”

He began to build small-scale architectural models to use as a reference for his paintings.

“I liked the amount of control it gave me over the scene I was setting up and wanting to combine different architectural elements from different places I’d been to and kind of explore what that combination of things did to affect the energy of the space I was portraying.”

His uncle influenced that, too.

“My uncle would build sets and backdrops for his work,” he said. “So that’s a big part of why that kind of made sense to me as a way to go about setting up an image.”

The body of work he created after college was influenced by the spaces near where he grew up in Omaha.

“Some of what’s going on in those images is me thinking about some of the little shifts that have happened over the years with some of those places that have been renovated or little changes like the façade is updated in some way.”

Moving to California may alter that some, but not entirely.

“I am moving forward and moving away, but I feel like I’ll still be dealing a lot with the Midwest and being drawn to new development like suburban sprawl, places that were recently farmland and kind of the novelty of those spaces,” he said. “And the lack of restraint when it’s just driven by speculation and economics, what kind of spaces that makes. I think I’ll still be exploring that for the foreseeable future.”