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Second act: Following diverse paths, artists are returning to their creative roots

Second act: Following diverse paths, artists are returning to their creative roots


SIOUX CITY | Michael Frizzell is an artist with a passion for hip-hop.

That explains why the 43-year-old Sioux Cityan was putting the finishing touches on a portrait of iconic rapper Biggie Smalls (aka The Notorious B.I.G.).

"There's just something special about rappers and musicians in general," Frizzell said, inside an art studio on the third floor of the Benson Building. "They have a real presence about them."

In addition to Biggie, Frizzell has immortalized such musicians as Alice in Chains' Layne Staley and a "Ziggy Stardust"-era David Bowie in a series of evocative pieces.

"I may have missed my opportunity to see Biggie, Bowie and Layne perform in person," he said of artwork dedicated to the late entertainers. "Hopefully, my paintings will capture the energy of their music."  

Talking about the ways in which the art and music scene intermingle, Frizzell comes alive. It's hard to imagine he's only been painting for the past three years.

"I drew when I was a kid but I gave it up for decades," the 2017 Briar Cliff University graduate explained. "It wasn't until I returned to college to get an art degree that I actually picked up a paint brush."

Art as a second career is becoming increasingly prevalent. Many are going back to school as a way to pursue their creative aspirations.

Indeed, the two artists sharing studio space with Frizzell are recent Briar Cliff graduates who left other occupations.

"I'd love to paint full-time but my days are spent as a trainer for a call center," Frizzell noted. "I still need a steady paycheck."

That's not the case with his studio partners.

Brian Joel Damon is a 2015 Briar Cliff art graduate who went back to school after retiring from a 40-year career as a psychotherapist. Debra Knealing, a 2014 Briar Cliff art graduate, has a work history that included stints as a mechanical engineer for the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) and Walt Disney Imagineering, where she assisted in the engineering of exhibits at Disney theme parks.

All three will be present when their shared space, Studio 355, has its grand opening from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday at Suite 355 inside the Benson Building, 705 Douglas St.

"In the 1980s, I worked on the Indiana Jones exhibit, the Tower of Terror and Toon Town," Knealing, 53, said with a smile. "If you were a draftsman in Southern California back then, you more than likely worked for the DOD or Disney. I just happened to work for both."

Despite having a proficiency with mechanics, Knealing was always drawn to the world of fine art.

"When I was young, I painted typical girl things likes horses and angels and fairies," the Idaho native remembered. "But I also loved fashion design and music, which seemed to be better career paths.

"Well, that turned out not to be the case since fashion design was a hard industry to break into and so was music," Knealing said. 

Instead, she concentrated on drafting before moving to Sioux City 10 years ago, when her husband, Todd Knealing, accepted a teaching position at Briar Cliff. Todd Knealing is now the vice president for academic affairs for the school.

"Time and circumstances allowed me to pursue fine arts," she said. "I knew I would always return to it and this was the moment."

Since then, Knealing has been creating fantasy paintings influenced by such artists as Jeffrey Jones and Frank Frazetta.

In addition, she finds inspiration in literature, as well as, believe it or not, from vintage record covers.

You see, Knealing is as big of a music fan as Frizzell. 

"I was totally into heavy metal back in the day," the grandmother of one offered with a laugh. "Guess I still am."

Moving from a home art room to an actual studio was a natural progression for Knealing.

"I wanted to take my art to the next level," she said. "Having a studio to come to allows an artist to become a part of the community. Otherwise, producing art on your own becomes a lonely profession."

Frizzell needed the studio simply because he didn't have enough space at the two-room apartment she shared with his 13-year-old daughter.

"My daughter likes art but she's more of a writer than a painter," he said.

Thumbing through his completed work, Frizzell said he didn't have much direction when he was younger.

"I knew I had a knack for art but I didn't take it seriously," he said. "I went to the University of South Dakota for a while and, then, dropped out. I worked at Gateway for years. Becoming an artist never crossed my mind."

That is, until Frizzell went back to school.

"Initially, I was going to become an art teacher," he explained. "But I found out I liked art better than teaching."

Frizzell returned to his easel, adding some shadowing to Biggie Smalls' face. 

"Art is something that brings color to life," he said. "It's something that I want to share with others."


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