Paper Cuts and Paper Heals: Barbara Nerenz-Kelley

Beginning today, I will be conducting a series for dk Gallery on the topic of art as healing. The way that this series will be set up, one post will be dedicated to the telling of the artist’s story in her own words, while the following post will feature an interview about a specific piece from the gallery and how it fits into the story. The first person I contacted for this was Barbara Nerenz-Kelley.

Nerenz-Kelley grew up in Germany during and after World War II, so the upheaval during that time heavily influences her art: Among the destruction, she sought beauty and order and used her art as the means to create it. She uses her art to tap into spirituality, giving form and color to what she experiences in that mode. Her art mimics the cycle of life, as she continually adds and erases, portraying all of life and death and rebirth, and all that comes with those in each piece. Nerenz-Kelley seems to be connected and influenced by a higher plane than us all as she sought in her life to help others through social work and counseling and find her true home while endeavoring to keep her creativity alive through her art, all while finding life and love along the way.

What follows is Nerenz-Kelley’s incredible story in her own words: 

I started to become a professional artist only late in my life, although the endeavor to create was always with me as long as I can remember.

It started with six colored pencils and a few grayish sheets of paper. That is what was available in the aftermath of World War II in Germany. Although drawing on paper was limited there were other ways to express myself: playing with nature materials –sand and sticks and leaves and water—dancing, making music, you name it.

Art classes were rare when I went to school as teachers were few, many of them not having returned  from the war. When I was in about the fifth grade I got my first “Pelikan” color-box, finding delight in the 12 beautiful colors  arranged within. Even in the fifth grade I must have shown early promise in painting.  I vividly remember when my art teacher (yes, I had one in that time) brought students from the 12th grade to view a painting of mine that I had done with the theme, “New building construction in the snow.”  My art teacher spoke sternly to the girls from the 12th grade, “Like this you have to paint!” he told them.  This highlight of my young career stood alone as I found my own, special ways to create over the years.

The urge to enter the world of art arose strongly when I lived in Berlin as a young woman working in my first job as an educator. (This was in the early sixties)

With all the museums and exhibitions in Berlin I received a lot of inspiration to paint. I worked during the day, painted at night , applied to an art school (Meisterschule fuer das Kunsthandwerk, now part of Berlin University of the Arts) with my portfolio, and following  an entrance test I was admitted.

The years to come were sort of crazy, intense and very alive. Not only the classes at art school, (which were then still taught and conducted in a very traditional way) but the whole political scene in the sixties, the start of the “students’ movement” were altogether very exiting.

I was living in Berlin when President Kennedy visited the city in June 1963. I was actually present at the moment selling newspapers out of a big bag when President Kennedy spoke in front of the “Schöneberger  Rathaus” (Townhall of Schöneberg, a part of Berlin). I heard him speak his famous and often quoted words: “Ich bin ein Berliner” (I am a Berliner). Only five months later I marched with thousands of others through the nightly streets carrying torches crying and mourning President Kennedy’s  assassination.

Soon I left Berlin and started roaming through the years moving from one location to another. I lived in Glasgow,Scotland, in the South of France, in Paris, in Tunesia, in Spain and Italy, all the time working in different jobs ,seemingly seeking for something, for what — I didn’t actually know.

Although still unaware, perhaps I was searching for my true home, which later became a more obvious theme in my spiritual quest.

I eventually relocated to Munich in 1969 , worked at  different jobs to begin with, worked again as an educator and eventually started studying Social Work.

In that time I was very much politically involved (we are in the late sixties, early seventies now) especially by singing in a politically motivated music group. This was a wonderful and exciting time for me as we were performing at music festivals and different political events all over Germany and in different European cities, mainly in Italy and France, and we also appeared in film productions and produced some records.

My professional career had turned more to the social discipline, and later with several additional therapeutic trainings,  to the therapeutic field.

Although  I was barely painting in those years I received a lot of inspiration for my artistic expression during my training in Psychodrame ( a group therapy approach), and by participating in several workshops in the Life/Art process created by  Anna Halprin (USA), partly with Anna Halprin herself, or with different teachers of the Tamalpa Institute, which had been founded by her. I eventually integrated these methods in my workshops and therapy groups.

The 15 years before I moved to the USA, I worked in a crisis intervention center mainly with suicidal patients. In addition to working with individual clients or in therapy groups, I was conducting workshops and trainings  in crisis intervention for professionals . There was barely painting in all those years, only during vacations  (I always had some drawing and painting stuff in my backpack when I was travelling in Greece, Italy or France). But the urge to express myself creatively was definitely always there.

As much as I liked the work I did, I eventually came to the point when I wanted to step out for a while. The urge to work creatively again and to focus more on painting took over. I arranged for a sabbatical from  my position in crisis intervention and went to the spiritual community of Findhorn in the North East of Scotland end of 1998 to participate in the three-month-long “Essence of the Arts” program.

My 18 months-long sabbatical also included the time when I left Scotland and went to the South of France to paint there and to enjoy a sojourn in a little place where artists of different kinds used to gather. A highlight of my sabbatical was surely a month-long retreat in Plum Village, in France with the renowned Vietnamese Zen monk, Thich Nath Hanh, a writer of many books and founder of engaged Buddhism .

Still having several months left of my sabbatical, I decided to return to Findhorn to live there over the winter. And here I encountered another unexpected highlight of my sabbatical. This was “Robert, the writer”, as he was called there. The Spirits (or for those who believe in God – God) must have had something in mind when They/He let us meet there.

I had arrived in Findhorn from Munich the end of November ,1999, and Robert some days later from the USA; actually he arrived on December 4th, which we call “Barbara’s Day” in Bavaria.

Robert had seen me at a public gathering  soon after his arrival and was asking himself, “who is this woman?” whereas I wasn’t really aware of his existence yet. We didn’t meet until early February, in 2000, in the new millennium. This was when I was almost due to go back to Germany to give some seminars there.

There were only ten days left to fall in love and to decide what to do and where to go after my seminars were completed. A month later Robert who had remained in Findhorn while I conducted my seminars flew to Munich and from there we took off for a two- months -sojourn on Crete, Santorini, in Athens, and then Venice.

To get to know one another while travelling can be very romantic, but also challenging. But we made it and decided to live together in Munich to begin with.

I went back to work after 18 months of absence and took up painting again participating in the “Atelier Projekt,” an art studio led by different artists. Robert was my big supporter in my painting exploration because I still didn’t see myself as an artist.

Since the beginning of our relationship we were frequently pondering on the question “where is home?” Although understanding it more from the spiritual perspective, we also took this question literally. We travelled to Italy, Tenerife, Spain, Portugal and again to Findhorn, Scotland trying to find out where we would want to live for good after my retirement.

The answer found itself. Robert had to return to the United States, to Maine for the memorial of his late mother. In addition he thought that it would be a good idea at this time to explore another area of the States while he was there. He had heard about Asheville long before and actually even had a friend in the area who offered him the opportunity to stay in her house and even use her car while she was over in Europe on a business trip.

Robert fell in love with Asheville immediately and found a little place to live in the Waynesville area.

Up to that time the USA had been only on the low end of our “where to live” list.

For Robert, this seemed to be the place.

I came to visit him later, but I was still undecided if I liked it here or not. A couple of months later I visited him again, and we decided to get married and live in the Asheville area.

It took a while until I finally could relocate from Munich to the United States: preparing my retirement, selling and giving away most all of my things (packing still enough to send over to the States), going through a long and arduous visa and immigration process, leaving my friends behind, and letting go. The excitement to live with Robert permanently was stronger than the whole farewell thing. I made the big leap into a new phase of my life.

I was confronted with the challenging question of what was there to do in “The New World,” a new country, a new continent, a different culture?

I began with teaching Meditative Circle Dances at the University of North Carolina, Asheville in the College for Seniors. I am still teaching and loving these dances, which are  coincidentally still playing a big role in the programs of the Findhorn Community.

Being officially retired and having left my previous professional duties  behind, I took up painting again, now having all the time of the world to do so. I still wasn’t bold enough to call myself an artist. Believing in being an artist developed gradually and through “a little bit of help from my friends” who believed in me as an artist long before I was able to do so.

Also, with the encouragement of a good friend of ours I had my first solo exhibition in 2006 at the Black Mountain Center of the Arts and sold my first paintings.

Two years later in 2008 I found a very good art teacher, Steve Aimone ( who helped me to find my way into a professional career. This was the time when I started to show my work in different shows and started to be represented by galleries.

Especially since the Aimone workshops, which I attended and assisted in, the question of how to bring together spirituality and the arts is accompanying me constantly. Having been a therapist in my “former” Munich life, I am also searching to find out how the art I am doing can be healing.

What is healing and how does it occur? I continue to ponder this question and will surely do so until the end of my life. There are perhaps as many answers as questions, if there are answers at all. There is definitely a mystery in all of that, the mystery of not knowing.

And from this place of not knowing I want to paint, as this is for me the only place where art can come through me and be expressed.

Next, Nerenz-Kelley spoke to me about the story that she strives to portray through her art:

I am not trying to convey a story in a literal sense.

The “story” is my life, my life’s experiences and how they show up on the canvas.

To be authentic in that, I have to let go of all goals and preconceptions and come as well as I can to a place of Not Knowing. That is, ideally, to a place of letting go of fixed ideas about myself, others and the universe.

“My story” reveals itself in the best way when I am not interfering, when I am present in the moment. This is the biggest challenge in painting and in life in general: to be in the Now.

It actually doesn’t matter what I am doing (or one is doing): if I am washing dishes, if I am being with friends or with unpleasant people, if I am looking at the news on TV or being stuck in traffic, or if I am painting: it’s all for me to be present for what is, right here and right now.

In painting, this effort to be present with what is can be a big challenge. When all is going well, and I am in the flow, the zone, in the non-thinking mode, the challenge doesn’t show up. But as soon as my inner critique or the doubting self interferes then we have a problem. Because in this case I have fixed ideas about myself about how I “should” be painting to please the world.

Seeing all aspects of the situation, including judgment and attachment to a certain outcome, needs to be observed and witnessed. Then I have a choice which way to go.

This process of witnessing, letting go and coming back to the place of Not Knowing is in my experience more challenging in the abstract than in literally painting. There is nothing to hold on to, nothing to render what I am seeing in front of me — and with practice and perseverance a painter can become fairly good in this endeavor.

In abstract painting, I have to be willing and courageous enough to let go of all concepts and be an open channel for what comes up deep within, from the inside, or what comes up deep without, from the universe.

When I am open to this challenge, art can become a way of healing.

For more information on Barbara Nerenz-Kelley, visit her artist’s page at dk Gallery, Barbara Nerenz-Kelley.

Art featured is titled Moonlight Will Make You See Enough.


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