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In a world where even the headlines scream at each other, finding a peaceful middle ground may be as simple as getting out of one’s own way. At least, that’s how it works for Virginia folk artist Kacey Carneal. Enter her riverfront studio, and all the outside world’s cacophony dissipates. The faint scratch of a paintbrush on canvas, contentedly snoring dogs, and soft strains of Tony Bennet, Steve Tyrell, or Willie Nelson drown out all the dissonance.
“It’s a joyful world to me being in the studio. It’s so much fun, I love it,” Carneal enthused. “Picasso once said about his studio, `I leave my body outside the door.’ It’s so true. Once I go back through that door into reality, I’m tired.”
Carneal paints seven days per week from 8-4.
“It’s a meditative process, so you get out of your own head. You let the spirits take over. Then when you’re finished, you have something,” she explained.
And have something, she does. Her work currently hangs in the Ginger Young Gallery in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and Shooting Star Gallery in Cape Charles, Virginia. In 2014, her work was featured in a folk artist show at the Charles H. Taylor Arts Center in Hampton, Virginia. A focal point of that show was a painting called “Families Don’t Have to Match,” inspired by the book and movie The Blind Side. This painting depicts an enormous family of multiple races sitting down at a holiday dinner in her own 17th century home.
“This is the way life should be,” she said.
But what’s most exciting to Kacey Carneal is the work she has been able to share with children struggling with chronic or life-threatening illness. She has 60 paintings at the Battle Building of University of Virginia Children’s Hospital in Charlottesville.
“My biggest and most surprising discovery was that my art gets through to people in hospitals. I’ve been surprised how much time the children spend looking at my paintings. They are so sick, yet they like my art. The doctors and staff there seem to enjoy the work, too.”
Children do have a fascination with Carneal’s work. Her colorful themes center around families, particularly women and children. Each painting takes on a life and identify of its own—refusing to stay put on their canvases, the images swirl out onto the frames as well.
“There’s a lot going on in my paintings. Children really do jump into them. I was doing a workshop once, and I always play music. A little girl there asked me if I dance when I paint. I said, `Yes, honey, I do!’”
Carneal has been painting full time for 32 years. She began exploring her creativity after her daughters grew up. She took one class, and has been self-taught ever since. Painting wasn’t necessarily her primary plan at the time.
“I didn’t have painting as a goal. Who knew? I’ve stopped making goals because better things happen than my goals. You set goals, but then something else comes in your path. You’d better be ready to go in that direction rather than the direction you thought you should. You have to be flexible.”
Now in her early 80’s, she celebrates how far she’s come.
“Painting has changed my whole life for the better. I have an incredible life, and I meet amazing people. I never would have met all these people who care about me and my work had I not taken this path.”
The path wasn’t always easy. For Kacey Carneal, the magic only happened when she got down to work.
“It takes a lot of courage to put yourself out there. You have to be totally vulnerable and take the criticism. It takes courage to stop what you’re doing in life and change your whole direction. Then you have to wait and see. Rejections happen, and you have to take that.”
Rejections happen, until they don’t anymore. Carneal says patience is paramount.
“You have to show up faithfully. The more you do something, the more inspired you’ll become. It’s not going to just enter your head. You have to be working. I didn’t realize how important it was to just get up and work. Every day.”
For Carneal, the soul connection art brings to both the creator and the recipients makes the struggle worthwhile.
“Art shows empathy. People know you care about them and their lives, and it pulls them in,” she paused. “Your vision is important to somebody. You have to have faith in yourself. You look at a blank canvas and wonder, `Good grief, can I really do that? Yes. Yes, you can. Keep going.”
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