Kris Manning; photo by Jake Lucas
It’s tempting to say Kris Manning sees the world as a blank canvas, but that’s not quite right.
Manning is, after all, not one to keep to a canvas. More often in her artwork, she’ll piece together old furniture, bits of mechanical guts, discarded shoes and literally whatever else she can get her hands to make something greater and more beautiful.
That propensity for elevating disparate things by using them together is a much better metaphor for her world view. In her artwork and everything else she does, she embraces new tools, whatever they may be, to make what she is working on better.
And she is working on a lot. Manning is the co-owner of the growing Black Tie Music Academy, the co-founder of a nonprofit after-school drumline called The Music Battery, a working musician, and an artist with demand for her work, in addition to having a constant stream of projects to help the community and advance the arts in the region.
Her dive into the art world is actually quite recent.
“It started with a little painting, and then I just lost my mind,” she said.
Originally from Syracuse, N.Y., she spent over 20 years in the button-down corporate sales and marketing world. She studied percussion performance at the University of Connecticut, but up until about five years ago, she had never made art or even taken an art class.
But then, in the middle of a snowstorm that kept her and her family stuck in their Connecticut home for two weeks, someone asked if they’d ever been to Charleston.
“Things went quickly from there,” she said.
In 2011, she moved to Charleston from Connecticut with her husband and their two boys with no game plan for what she would do.
Then she thought: “I can do whatever I want. Nobody knows anything about me. They don’t know I was this serious business woman.”
And there was something else. About a year before Manning moved to Charleston, her father had passed away. He was an accomplished man, she said. He’d traveled the world, lived generously and raised a family, but before he died, he said there were still things he wanted to do.
That left her thinking about mortality, legacy, what she wanted to do with her life – and what she wanted for her two sons.
“[Moving] was the one opportunity where I thought, I can be anything I want to be, and I want my boys, who are 17 and 13, to be able to run after whatever they want to run after,” she said.
But she also thought, she couldn’t just tell them that, she needed to live it.
So she set out to be an artist.
Those early days included a lot of kind rejection letters explaining that her style was just “not our aesthetic.” But she refused to change.
“I’m not a person who wants to make 15 of the same thing, or I won’t be that person that’s the, ‘Oh you’re the lady that paints lions,’” she said.
And over time, that worked.
“As soon as I stopped trying so hard and just did things that felt right, everything fell into place,” she said. “I don’t feel like I’m working a day in my life, but I’ve never worked so hard.”
Along the way, she’s also continued drumming under the stage name That Girl Drummer, gigging with various bands in Charleston and as a member of the Steven Canyon Orchestra.
About three years ago, she leveraged those drumming skills into a teaching job at Black Tie Music Academy. Black Tie, founded by Braeden Kershner and his wife, Julie, offers private music and art instructions. Manning approached them when they were looking for a guitar teacher, but she convinced them to bring her in to teach drums, which evolved into a business partnership.
Now, they offer lessons in six locations, including Park West, Daniel Island and Sullivan’s Island.
It was in the course of painting the wall at one of those locations that Manning and Braeden Kershner also discovered shared passions, for kids and for the power of drumlines to build camaraderie and self-esteem. They also share an unflinching work ethic, and they not only dreamed up The Music Battery, they made it a reality.
“We figured if we can affect 25 kids in North Charleston in the worst-performing school neighborhood, then it will make a difference,” Manning said. “And it is, and it’s cool.”
So from 4 to 7 p.m. after school, they take 25 mostly middle school kids to the Ferndale Community Center in North Charleston. When the kids first get there, they head to a room above the gym to do their homework and have a snack, and when they’re finished, they go downstairs to the gym and drum.
“We’d love to duplicate it in other areas, but right now this is what we can manage,” Manning said.
The first year, 90 percent of the money it took to run it came from her and Kershner. Last year, their second year, they got a grant from the South Carolina Arts Commission. Manning, who had experience in the nonprofit realm, is working on getting more grants this year.
She said it takes about $40,000 a year to run the organization, which goes to things like staffing, uniforms, and equipment. One of their board members got the Lowcountry Food Bank to provide the snacks, which Manning said saves something like $4,000 a year. But they still rely heavily on donations, and they both still do a lot to raise that money themselves selling art and playing shows.
Right now, Manning is working on a piece using a double-necked guitar with a sort of goblin crawling in between the necks, which she plans to sell, “and then I’ll donate all that to the Music Battery, and it’ll keep the program going for another three weeks,” she said.
And that is far from the only thing that Manning and Kershner are working on together.
“The two of us, I mean we just build stuff,” Manning said.
Through Black Tie, they’re now starting the Charleston Art Youth Guild. Manning said the goal is to help student artists prepare for art school and other professional environments by teaching them details like how to prepare a portfolio or for a media interview.
They also created the pop-up Daniel Island Art gallery with two other artists, which was open for a few weeks on Daniel Island earlier this year.
They’re looking for another space to pop-up the gallery again, but in the meantime, they’re finding other ways to showcase the arts.
Manning never ceases to explore ways to branch out in her own work as well. Not long ago, she published two children’s books – one she illustrated and one she wrote and illustrated – and is participating in the Harvest Tour of Homes on Daniel Island as a featured author on Oct. 22 to raise money for the Daniel Island Library.
She even travelled to Massachusetts recently to learn about puppetry. She doesn’t know where the puppetry will lead, but she’s already thinking of ways she can use it to raise money for the Music Battery.
That branching out is similar to the way she approaches her art, but instead of objects, she pieces together skills and experiences – including from her past in the corporate world – into something greater. Sometimes that’s a physical work of art, sometimes it’s a greater goal.
“Whatever I can do to support the arts or get people involved in the arts, that’s really important to me,” Manning said.
It also helps that she’s not afraid of failure.
“I fail all day long. All. Day. Long. Horribly,” she said. “But that 10th thing succeeds.”