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Art People: the education of Serena Niensted

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Serena Niensted had already been painting for 40 years when she took some of her canvases to the Art Institute and asked if they would accept her as a student. "People come here to find out if they are artists," was the response. "You're already an artist. Find someone to sell your work."

Niensted had been captivated by light, color, and shape since the days when she was Serena Schult, growing up poor in Saint Louis, hanging out with the Turners and El Grecos at the city art museum. She won a scholarship to Washington University and was certified as a teacher (of biology, rhetoric, German, and English), then married John Niensted, a lanky, blond seminary student, soon after she graduated in 1937. They spent a heady year in New York, where John studied with the giants in his field, Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, and Serena had a fellowship at the New York Psychiatric Institute, assisting on studies of psychosexual development. After that they were dispatched back to the midwest, to pastoral posts at a series of churches in small towns in Minnesota, Kansas, Missouri, and Illinois.

Niensted always painted, but during the years when she raised her three children and worked full-time in public schools, her work consisted mainly of landscapes done on camping trips. If she could, she would set up an easel at ten in the morning and paint uninterrupted until dark, completely absorbed. "It was like Zen for me," she says. By the time she approached the Art Institute in the early 80s, however, she had reached an impasse: "I was repeating what I was doing. I wasn't getting any better, and I didn't like where I was." After she retired from teaching, in 1983, she enrolled in art classes at the College of DuPage. She began repainting her old canvases after the first class, and cried in private the first time a teacher critiqued her work. But she dug in, telling her husband, "This man knows what I want and I want to get it out of him."

She began producing large, sculptural, figurative acrylics--luminous and rich as oils, though figurative work never much interested her. ("The realistic image tells you what it is, and you're stuck there," she says. "I love painting realistic landscapes, but when they're finished, I don't ever want to see them again.") Subsequent classes led her to a technique she found more compelling, a sort of automatic drawing in which her pencil dances over the canvas while her eyes are closed. Images appear where they may, and the resulting shapes, like shards in a shattered glass pane, allow her to play with blocks of color. She has produced a series of 39 of these "emerging images" so far, and is still intrigued by the problems (and possibilities) they present. At the same time, she's continued to do the work she says everyone else likes better--more realistic paintings in a range of styles and mediums, from O'Keeffe-like florals to Turner-esque landscapes.

As the paintings began to pile up in the Niensteds' tiny brick bungalow in Bensenville, Serena thought of selling her work. She called 10 or 15 Chicago dealers and hauled some of her best emerging images to the only one who would agree to see her. "It was a large gallery and they had a lot of big, very realistic landscapes on the wall," she recalls. "All they said was, 'Look at our paintings. Now look at yours. Do you see the difference?'" She had a few shows at the Edge (the gallery Tony Fitzpatrick had in Villa Park before he moved to the South Loop), and with the help of her husband participated in some local art fairs. Then John Niensted fell seriously ill. For a time her world narrowed to him and her painting. He died in 1986.

After that, she gave up trying to sell. Without John a day at the art fairs proved "too long and too lonesome." When the house was so choked with canvases she couldn't get at them, and she couldn't clear enough space to work in, she decided to get rid of the paintings. "I was writing out my will and decided I'd take care of this too," she says. "At first I thought I would just burn them."

Instead she called the Suburban Fine Arts Center in Highland Park and offered a hefty selection of her life's work--66 paintings--for their annual benefit sale. Another 60 or so are hanging at the College of DuPage, where Niensted now teaches painting in the Older Adult Institute. In the process she was forced to look again at some of her light-suffused watercolor landscapes. "Turner-esque," she says. "That is nice. But I can't do those anymore. They take me 15 minutes and then what do I do with them?"

The "recycled art" sale at the Suburban Fine Arts Center, 777 Central, Highland Park, continues through July 31. Hours are 9 to 5, Monday through Saturday. Call 708-432-1888 for information. Center director Ann Rosen says the Niensteds have been flying out the door.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.

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