Following learning her life’s story, I interviewed Barbara Nerenz-Kelley about a piece that currently hangs in the gallery for this month’s paper show. “Forget Time and Just Be” consists of a graphite collage and coffee powder on paper and measures in at 9 x 12 inches. I chose this piece because I was struck by the bold type in the piece, and the title made it all the more compelling: why include so obviously what we’re supposed to be forgetting? The composition of the piece, the coffee and graphite, the stark grey and the spots in the top left corner, however, all seem to accommodate the text. Though the text doesn’t fit seamlessly, the rest of the piece grows around and over it. This encroachment reminds me of the faultiness of memory, how it can warp and change through the years, over time. Time is ever-evolving, and we all think about it differently, but no one is exempt from its effects. Conversely, time is not exempt from our own thoughts and influences, and this piece captures that duality and then subsequently rejects it.
Lily Tischner: What are the different media in this piece, and what do they represent to you?
Barbara Nerenz-Kelley: They are graphite, coffee and a collage element. They don’t really REPRESENT anything to me; they are just mediums to work with on a certain day chosen because I preferred on this very day to use this medium. If they represented something to me it would be perhaps the sensual quality of the particular medium which I prefer on that special day before others or because I want to explore what I can do with this medium.
LT: Talk to me about the title: how do you think of time, what does it mean to you, and why should we forget it?
BNK: On a very practical level time is for me a helpful construct for orientation during my day or in my life in general (e.g. what time is it? How much time does it take to drive from Asheville to Marietta?) Without this framework, I could easily get lost.
From a more spiritual point of view, I would say that time is an illusion. As an example: When I enjoy doing something, time seems to be flying by like nothing. On the other hand, when something very unpleasant is happening to me or when I am totally bored time seems to drag along. Both can take the same amount of time but because the perception of time is different, I have a different experience of time.
So what is real here?
When I bring time together with my actual experience, then time happens in the very moment. I can’t experience a sweet strawberry yesterday or a toothache tomorrow but only NOW. Thus we could say that time is an artifact of the mind.
So the title “Forget Time and Just Be” is pointing to exactly this, something like: free yourself of any constricting mind-made timeframe and just BE in the moment, the only time when life is taking place.
LT: How did you first discover using coffee as an art medium? Why does it appeal to you?
BNK: As I am sometimes using tea for a first layer — either on paper or on canvas to activate the canvas or to take off its harsh white — I was curious how coffee would work. And coincidentally, I then found a German artist who uses coffee, too. That gave me the impetus to try it out for myself. (I am not sure, though, if I will go on to use coffee as a medium as it is bleeding through the lighter layers or bleeding off when coming in contact with water. Varnishing only partly solves the problem. But I will continue experimenting with it.)
LT: Not all of your pieces incorporate paper with words on them, so what was the importance of including it so blatantly in this particular piece?
BNK: There are different ways I am using words in my work. I can start to activate the canvas writing down something, partly of where I am in that very moment (my thoughts and/or feelings)or words without any meaning at all… bla bla bla. Often I use writing and words as movement using my whole arm and/or body depending on the size of the painting surface. I don’t give it any meaning (at least most of the time). I am using words — either written or as a piece of collage — as a pictorial element.
In the case of TIME, I remember even having been hesitant to put something that obvious on this little painting. But then I liked it as a composition element and glued it on.
The title of the piece came later.
LT: In regards to the story you told me, how does the theme or content of this piece contribute to your healing and expression?
BNK: When I did this piece it was one of several ones, which I almost simultaneously worked on. (You have part of the series in the gallery) I was just in a playful mood, forgetting time or any obligations. I must have been in the Now which is, in my understanding, healing in itself. When I am without regrets or attachments to the past and when I am not worried about the future or in a “want to have or to achieve” state connecting with the future then I am in the Now and not being caught up in the illusion of time (past and future). I understand the Now not as a single moment in time, but going beyond time and space, a concept which would exceed this questionnaire.
Being in the Now is for me healing and goes beyond the duality of “sick” or “heal”-thy.
LT: How do you personally “forget time and just be?”
BNK: “To forget time and just be” is a very blessed state of being which we can’t “make.” But we can practice it — and I would say it is a life-long practice — to bring us again and again into the Now and into Being-ness. My tool for doing it is mindful awareness. Sometimes it works and more often it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t, I am observing in mindfulness what is happening in that very moment that I am wandering off. And when I am not remembering being mindful then it can be that I will be ending up in an unwholesome state (being moody, impatient, tense, anxious to name only a few).
When it is working very well, though, I forget time and just be.
A shorter answer: I forget time and just be when I am in the Flow, in the Zone.
Next, Nerenz-Kelley answered my sample of the Proust Questionnaire:
LT: What is your idea of perfect happiness?
BNK: In my view, there is no PERFECT happiness. As happiness is a state of being, it is always changing (observe your mind e.g. in meditation)
I would say this: if I try to label happiness as PERFECT, then there must be IMPERFECT happiness. When I want happiness to be perfect or think of it of not being so perfect then I take away the nature of happiness which is — at least for me — beyond the duality of good and bad, perfect or imperfect but rather a deep state of inner peace and equanimity. Then happiness just is.
LT: What is your current state of mind?
BNK: Always changing, always floating. That’s one of the biggest lessons, which I am getting out of meditation: that all is impermanent and with this, also my state of mind. In this moment I can feel content, in the next moment an unpleasant feeling or sensation can arise. With mindfulness, I always have the possibility to observe my state of mind as it is in the very moment.
LT: What or who is the greatest love of your life?
BNK: Concerning the Who: being an older person and reflecting on my colorful life, I can say that I had many loves in my life and they were always “the greatest” love in the time being. (Speaking of impermanence)
If I have a great and ongoing love then it is definitely nature in all its manifestations.
LT: When and where were you happiest?
BNK: There were and are many times when I was and am very happy in my life. But also here I don’t want to make a distinction between happy and happiest. That — in my view — would contradict the nature of happiness.
LT: If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what would it be?
BNK: Although there is no scientific proof about reincarnation, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. I like the idea to have more than one lifetime, having lived and may live again in other times. This thought can help me be aware of the consequences about how I conduct my life now as I don’t want to come back as a rat living in the New York underground.
All the wishes of how to come back are bound to the time I am living in, to my perceptions, attachments, preferences, life’s experiences, etc. I better let this go and leave it to the Universe or the Spirits how they decide to let me come back if they decide to let me come back.
LT: What is your most treasured possession?
BNK: I don’t have any most treasured possessions. I like many things I own but I could also let them go (I am trained in it with my many moves), some easier and some with more difficulty.
LT: What is your greatest regret?
BNK: There were surely several regrets I had when I was looking back. It was mostly about things I didn’t do, chances I didn’t take. I am writing this in the past tense as living with regret/s would mean being attached to the past. So, I try to let go of hanging on with regrets and try as best as I can to accept my unskillfull decisions and failures.
But here is one story which I want to tell you and which falls into the category of “regret”:
When I was living as a travelers guide near Barcelona, Spain in my early twenties, I used to do some horseback riding. Partly with tourists to go with them to the countryside and visit a Finca (kind of a farm) where they would get a quarter of a roasted and sometimes burnt chicken and where they were allowed to drink “as much wine as they wanted” (which was for most of them the reason to buy in for this tour). To lead back the tourists on horseback, some of them drunk, was a challenge in its own.
After the tourists were gone, I enjoyed being with the gypsies from Southern Spain who owned the horses and had this summer business in the northern part of the country. There was a lot of guitar playing, singing and dancing.
When the season was over in October, I was offered the possibility to go South with the gypsies and bring back the horses to Andaluz.
This was absolutely intriguing: riding all through Spain from North to South on horseback, which would have taken us about a month.
I didn’t do it, maybe out of fear or a certain gut feeling which held me back. Over the years, I had the regret of not having allowed myself to have this unique experience.
Today, I can totally accept and understand the decision I made then.
Instead of riding through Spain, I decided to return to Germany and to relocate in Munich, where I hadn’t lived before. There I remained for more than 30 years until I moved over to the United States.
LT: How would you like to die?
BNK: In a state of forgiveness for myself and others for all the mistakes, flaws and unskillful deeds and hurts.
With gratitude that I was given this life in all its variations of “good and bad” to experience human conditions on earth.
Having found peace with it all.
LT: What is your favorite occupation?
BNK: I loved the challenge to work as a therapist and facilitator of trainings and workshops. I love teaching Meditative Circle Dances, which I am still doing.
I don’t write being a painter because that is not an occupation but rather a calling.
LT: What do you consider your greatest achievement?
BNK: Making it through life up to the age of 75.
For more information on Barbara Nerenz-Kelley and to view more of her work, visit her artist’s page at dk Gallery, Barbara Nerenz-Kelley.