CHAMPAIGN — Camelia McNeal saw lots of collages when she toured New York in the early 1990s with a Hinds Community College choir. She was particularly struck by one she saw inside the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
She decided then, when she was 20, that she would make collages some day. She didn't get started until 2001, though. Marriage, two children and other things got in the way.
Later, while attending Eastern Illinois University, McNeal made history-theme collages for the courses she took with Professor Roger Whitlow, who has a Ph.D. in American civilization.
He gave her credit for her research-based collages. And this past year, he urged her to submit work for the juried 19th Biennial Drawing/Watercolor: Illinois exhibition at the Tarble Arts Center at EIU.
It was the first time McNeal entered some of her pieces in an exhibition. The judge, Carmon Colangelo, dean of the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University, accepted two and gave one, "American Bigotry," the Roc's Blackfront Merit Award.
It carries a cash prize of $150.
For the exhibition catalog, Colangelo wrote that McNeal's collage work "presents a powerful palimpsest of magazine cutouts, revealing repetitive themes related to serious issues of racism and bigotry in America as they are played out in the media."
Tarble Arts Center director Michael Watts calls her collages "arresting."
"They're just loaded with content," he said. "It takes a while to absorb all the images and text that she incorporates into the work."
Though her collages have no single focal point, they are cohesive. Watts compared them to the "all-over" style of painting in which the artist deliberately tries not to make any one element the focus.
McNeal probably has never heard of "all-over" painting. She has not taken any art courses, and she doesn't paint or draw.
Instead, she's compelled to collage, and does so from 5:30 to 8 p.m. every day at her home near Judah Christian School in Champaign.
Her process: She does research first and then scans images and headlines she likes in history textbooks, journals, magazines, websites and other sources.
She prints them out and uses "preschool scissors" to shape them into the forms she wants. Then she lays them on the floor, moving them around before transferring them to a heavy construction board.
As she tacks down the images using a glue stick, she leaves the edges free so she can insert more pictures under them.
If the paper develops wrinkles, she smooths them out on the back using a little water on a paintbrush.
She does not leave any gaps — negative spaces — between the pictures. She prefers them being "close knit."
She also wants to tell stories, no matter what her subject. She loves history and making history collages — the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil War are among her subjects — but also has created pieces for relatives, baby showers, anniversaries and other events.
She made two large collages for Bundles of Joy, the Champaign preschool where she works as a teacher. One measures 6 feet, 3 inches across and features photographs of more than 200 students.
"I see myself collaging a whole wall," McNeal said. "I want to be able to collage a wall of black history but have the images appear bigger. I want to teach young people how to do it."
She generally works on two or three collages at a time. It takes her about six months to finish one.
She's now putting together collages about Michael Jordan — she hopes to get in touch with him so he can see the finished product — and Martin Luther King Jr.
She said she believes her knack is a gift from God. She feels her work also teaches people things, like "where we came from, where we are now and where we're going."
She seems to know those things in her own life, saying she comes from "two good families" and at one time traveled a "rough road."
McNeal is the daughter of Clyde Turner, a standout basketball player at Champaign Central High School who went on to play at the University of Minnesota and professionally, and Tina McNeal March. Both still live in Champaign.
Camelia — named after the flower — graduated from Centennial High in 1987 and went to Hinds Community College, encouraged to do so by Willie Summerville, who led a choir in which she sang at St. Luke's CME Church, her home church.
At Hinds, she studied voice, music education and general studies and met the man she would marry. After graduating in 1991, she remained in Utica, Miss., for a while, acting and singing in community theater. (She sings here with Noah Brown & Company.)
She eventually moved with her husband to his hometown of Toledo, Ohio. There they had two children (Jawuan Braddy, now 20, and Camesha Braddy, 18). McNeal drove a bus for the Toledo Head Start program and remained active in music and the arts, particularly singing.
After 10 years of marriage, she divorced. She returned to Champaign in 2004, mainly to be near family and for a "better life." She also spent time in California, attending a Bible college.
"I have an inquisitive mind about the word of God and the history of the word of God," she said. "I learned so much there. My brain was hurting."
She didn't obtain a degree at the Bible college. But in June 2009, she returned to school, taking EIU courses at Parkland College and on the Charleston campus.
"I learned a lot of things," she said. "It opened up my brain. It made me realize, 'Camelia, you have so much to give back to your community and your dad and your family.' Especially my dad — my dad was so successful."
She graduated in May 2010 with a bachelor's degree in continuing education and is now working online toward a master's in human development from Capella University in Minneapolis.
"I have eight more months to go. It's killing me. I have a 4.0 grade-point average," she said.
EIU's Whitlow, who's now retired but teaches part-time in continuing education, wouldn't be surprised to hear that McNeal is doing well with her online work.
"She gets excited about learning and life," he said. "She always produced one of the best papers in class; she always did the extra work. That attitude kind of shows up in her collages."
Whitlow called them "magnificent," saying he can read in them the history he knows. They also caught the eye of his daughter, an art historian who works as director of visual resources at Washington University in St. Louis.
"I had them all here at home once when she was home, and she thought they were really great," Whitlow said.
Whitlow called McNeal a wonderful person.
"She's very, very outgoing and friendly and generous," he said.
In turn, McNeal said she learned "so much" from Whitlow. Before going to EIU, she acknowledged she "wasn't perfect."
"When I went back to school on June 13, 2009, I promise you my life changed," she said. "When I got into the undergraduate program, that's when I knew I'd be successful at this (collage) and history and education, and that I would be a better mom."
She's proud that her daughter is studying art at Parkland College and recently received recognition for a drawing she did of Malcolm X.
As for McNeal, she wants to pump up her collage-making and help people here and in Africa.
"The reason I like to teach is I like to help young minds grow," she said. "I have a passion for young children. The first place I can start is with children. We all start young."
If you go
What: 19th Biennial Drawing/Watercolor: Illinois, featuring 69 pieces on paper by 43 Illinois artists, among them 19 from Champaign-Urbana and the area
When: Through Feb. 24
Where: Tarble Arts Center, Eastern Illinois University, 2010 Ninth St., Charleston
Information: 581-2787; http://www.eiu.edu/tarble 
Note: C-U and area artists represented are Jenny Barrett, Jodie Birdwell, Julie Birdwell, Richard Burkhardt, William Burton, Cindy Carlson, Judy K. Dethmers, Dick Detzner, Sandra Hynds, Judy Jones, Donald Lake, Casey Lowry, Camelia McNeal, Matthew Pacunas, Robin Riggs, Barbara Ryan, Andrea Shields, Birute Simaitis and Sharon Zimmerman (local Biennial award winners: Riggs, Ronchetti Art Acquisition Endowment Purchase Award; Dethmers, EIU Alumni Association Merit Award; McNeal, Roc's Blackfront Merit Award; and Julie Birdwell, Tarble Arts Center Endowment Merit Award)