By Gina Malone
Pastel artist Elise Okrend seeks tranquility in her paintings, both for herself as the artist and for those who view, enjoy and collect her art. “It all starts with my exploration in nature, which I do on a daily basis for my own sense of peace and to live in the present moment,” Elise says. “Whether it’s just looking out my back window, taking a walk around the lake or hiking up a mountain, I immerse myself in natural elements and use my camera to record it. All of my paintings are based on these photographs.” Often, she compiles many photographs, choosing elements from each for the right composition and colors.
Lately, she says, she has approached her work more abstractly. “Each piece starts as a color background pattern. I simply choose colors that represent the emotion I want to achieve and work with that. Once I am satisfied with the pattern, I add a natural element— tree branches, moon, grasses.”
The choices she makes as she paints are both conscious and intuitive based on what she wants to convey on the canvas. “This usually comes from my own personal purpose and values, in essence, my spiritual beliefs,” she says. “I believe that we are all connected to the natural world and that the beauty we find in nature is also within each of us. My art is meant to remind us of that.”
To that end, process and surroundings are important to her. “My studio complements my art with open space, lots of natural light and a water feature,” she says. “Many people that come into my studio express that they feel a sense of calmness and dreaminess as they view my work. Sometimes the effect on visitors is very visceral, touching them on a deep level.” She recalls a woman breaking into tears before her painting Into the Light. “After having a discussion with her,” Elise says, “she revealed that seeing the painting led her to experience a sense of closure and peace regarding her sister’s death.”
Painting with pastels, Okrend is able to connect herself bodily to creation. “My fingers become blending tools or can create linear texture,” she says. “This tactile process allows me to become part of my paintings both physically and emotionally.” Many of her paintings have been recognized by hospitals as exhibiting healing properties and have been purchased for their collections, including Mission Hospital and Duke Regional Hospital. She also enjoys working with individuals on commissioned pieces for their homes.
Elise majored in fine art at Binghamton University. As a child growing up in New York City, she remembers being interested in art and design from her kindergarten years on through later childhood when her mother signed her up for art classes at The Brooklyn Museum. After graduation from college, she worked in commercial art and design while in New York before she and her husband Phil moved to Raleigh. “As my two sons, Jordan and Josh, got older,” she says, “I had the time, desire and inspiration to return to fine art.” Eventually painting only at night or once a week with a painting buddy progressed to her choosing to work full-time on her own art. “My love of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the art community would eventually bring me to Asheville,” she says.
She and her husband collaborated on a book, Messages to the Heart: Reflections of Beauty and Truth, published in 2013 and released in an updated edition last year. “This beautiful coffee table book pairs my pastel paintings with my husband’s mindful passages derived from years of his life coaching work,” she says. “Not just a beautiful art book, Messages to the Heart is also a tool that readers can use again and again to pull themselves through life’s challenges. Our intention with the book is to help others open a door where peace, clarity, joy and purpose can come in.” The two also pair his original piano compositions with her art in videos available on her website.
“My focus of subject matter is mostly atmospheric, whether sky, clouds or mist,” Elise says. “My creations are meant to connect the viewer to a state of stillness and soothing beauty.”
Elise Okrend’s studio is located on the first floor of Wedge Studios at 129 Roberts Street in Asheville’s River Arts District. To learn more, visit EliseOkrend.com. Her art may be found locally at Corner Kitchen in Biltmore Village and at Woolworth Walk in downtown Asheville.