Uncovering the layered stories in Colleen Kastner’s paintings
By MARIANNE LEEK
Colleen Kastner is the definition of a Renaissance woman. Born in South Africa, she spent her first career as a journalist during the transition at the end of Apartheid as a self-described “adrenaline junkie” who covered protests and marches, while also traveling to isolated areas and urban battlefields to find her stories. She later crossed the Atlantic Ocean on a 38 ft. catamaran and backpacked solo across Europe. Finally, she immigrated to America, where she earned her master's degree in psychology and established a second career as a mental health counselor helping people, specifically survivors of domestic violence, heal. But her third career, borne out of her own deep experiences and profound loss, would transform her yet again.
As an abstract, impressionist, mixed media artist, each of Kastner’s paintings tells a rich, layered and multi-dimensional story. In just five years, her award-winning art career has grown exponentially. She is the chair of the annual Summer Colors Fine Art Show for the Art League of Highlands-Cashiers and has a summer studio in Sapphire Valley. But to Kastner, the connections she makes between her art and others are as simple as they are complex: “Great adventures. And terrible loss. They all make up the layers I bring to my art. People relate to my art because they are all about stories and layers, too. This is how we connect.”
Kastner’s art is a juxtaposition of peaceful, calm, serene, landscape paintings and bold, confident, self-assured female faces and figures. Cottages and barns, fauna and foliage, mountains and streams, painted with broad and blurred strokes and shades of greens, grays, and blues, layered with lines of reds, yellows, and oranges. Portraits of brave and bold women, of all ages and body types, refusing to be defined and determined to be themselves.
Each of Kastner’s paintings is a combination of her love of words, story, experience and beauty, with the added dimension and fullness of mixed media, frequently layered with vintage letters and maps and representing a broader human connection. “My relationship with art is an ever-evolving love story, and my work is all about storytelling. Stories make up our lives and make us interesting. For example, there is nothing so seemingly simple as a picture of a landscape or tree. However, there are the stories of when the tree was planted, the children who climbed it, the birds who live and make their homes in it, etc. There are so many layers of stories that give meaning to the tree (the landscape, the house, the portrait). It is no longer simply a tree. It is the tree my great-grandmother planted, that I fell out of as a child, and sipped wine with my lover on a blanket beneath its shade. I try to capture the stories with collage and gestural mark-making with paint, impressions open to interpretation, to provide multiple pathways for connection. It is the same with people—the layers of experiences and stories make us interesting and give us depth. I want my work to have that same depth and complexity. Simple and striking on the surface but the closer you look, the more there is to see.”
Kastner discussed her transition from realism to impressionism and mixed media, “I learned how to paint realistically when I took oil painting classes many years ago. I loved learning how to master oils, and I was delighted when my work turned out hyper-realistic. However, it didn’t take long for me to want something more from my work. I want the suggestion of things, hints of things, layers suggesting complexity, stories and memories. I want to be able to look at a piece and have it trigger different things in my mind and heart. This is how meaningful connections are made with art. And I want my viewers to experience something more than just a pretty picture. I want a deeper connection for them, too.
“I love working with different mediums, exploring new things, and the freedom to change or mix up mediums. I first learned to paint in watercolors, and I still adore them for their translucency, but then I began working in charcoal and graphite and fell in love with the forms and expressions I could capture. I worked with ceramics and loved manipulating the clay, building with coils and slabs, or spinning it between my hands on a wheel. Later, I discovered encaustics and rekindled my childhood fascination of playing with candles to create images with fire and hot wax. Then I learned oil painting and was delighted with the malleability of the medium and how I could make hyper-realistic images appear almost magically. When Covid hit I decided I was going to make the lockdown one of the most productive times of my life, and I began taking online classes and playing with acrylics and collage, gelli plates, stencils, inks, and making natural dyes from foraged materials. I made huge progress as an artist and loved all the different ways of making art. I resent being told I should only be doing one thing if I want to be any good. Van Gogh painted in oils and watercolors and made drawings and sketches. Michelangelo worked in fresco, sculpture, drawings, oil painting, and wood. Why should I pick just one or two?”
Kastner’s landscape paintings not only reflect her South African roots, but also her love of the beauty, peace, and solace that can be found in the natural world, particularly in our little corner of the plateau, and she explained how the power of place influences her artwork, “I have always loved the outdoors and the natural world around me. My levels of peace and contentment are directly related to my levels of gratitude and the amount of time I spend in nature. When my husband and I first discovered the plateau and our home in Sapphire, I was in the middle of the losses that ended my career in mental health. I was a mess. But the more time I spent soaking in the view of the valley and lake from our deck and hiking through the mountains to stunning waterfalls and views, the better I felt. The beauty in nature is so healing, and it's where I feel the closest to God. I think coming here was the beginning of my healing, so it will always hold a special place in my heart.”
Creativity served as Kastner’s vehicle for healing, as well as her transition from a mental health professional to an artist. That journey is not lost on her, “I think anyone and everyone can benefit from the inherent healing qualities of writing and making art if they wish. You don’t need any special talent or skill, just a desire to start and play.”
But it is more profound than that, and her experiences as a mental health professional can’t help but be integrated into her own creative process, “I think it goes back to the storytelling. A kind of redemption in the beauty of the whole that is made up of good and bad. Domestic violence in any form is terrible and destructive. However, the beauty and resilience I have witnessed in survivors are almost beyond words. During my work with survivors, I designed and implemented a workshop using art as a means of processing violence and trauma and developing resilience and healing. Art, beauty, and spending time in nature all have inherently healing qualities that I’ve used in my own healing. My intention for my art is for it to trigger and nurture the same kind of healing qualities for the viewers.”
Kastner’s love for her plateau community runs deep, “One of the great unexpected gifts I have received through my art is the community of people I have because of it. I’ve made life-long friends with the most amazing artists, art collectors, designers, and other art appreciators, and I’m so deeply appreciative. It’s almost like a kind of extended family, and we’re all connected through the beauty of art. I have found the people who love my work are beauty chasers like me who also love the outdoors and nature, books and travel, and value meaningful connections with special people. It is the most amazing community, and I love being a part of it.”
If you missed seeing Kastner’s work at the Summer Colors Fine Art Show in Sapphire in July, look out for her at the Fall Colors Fine Art Show in Highlands in October and join her online community at www.ColleenKastnerArt.com.