Eight years ago, when Flat Rock artist Barbara Remensnyder was 70 years old and had enjoyed a productive career in the arts for decades, she learned she had Stage 3 ovarian cancer requiring major surgery and chemotherapy. More than four years of remission followed — but the cancer returned, and the grueling treatment cycle was repeated, again successfully. Another three years on, “I’m delighted to say I am cancer-free,” she says.
Through two long recoveries, Remensnyder’s devotion to making art proved as effective in returning her to a full life as the medical interventions had been in eradicating disease. It started with the daily journal Remensnyder kept after her first cancer surgery, in which she wrote of her experiences and feelings and drew small sketches of anything she could observe from the chair where she spent so many long, fatigued hours. “I was too weak to paint, but just a small drawing was uplifting to me,” Remensnyder recalls. “Later, I found that when I was painting, I could completely lose myself and forget about the side effects of cancer. For that little while, I was free of pain.”
Her attachment to the arts goes back to the coloring books and crayons of childhood, and, from there, the pictures she’d draw to illustrate stories she imagined. Encouragement came from her self-taught artist mother, who supported not only her daughter’s drawing but multiple interests in craft making, from pottery to woodworking. “I guess I was just searching for my niche,” Remensnyder says.
Today, she works in a variety of media — watercolor, acrylics, gold leaf, and difficult-to-handle alcohol inks — and in genres from portraiture to landscape to still life. “I go through periods of using one medium until I feel bored or frustrated, then I switch to a different one,” she says. “I really feel that keeps my work fresh and prompts me to get excited to start a new phase … a new subject.” Regardless of tools or theme, all her work is characterized by the brilliant colors that have long fascinated her, particularly red and teal, which appear in nearly everything she creates. “It’s not from any accepted color theory — but somehow, the painting isn’t finished, doesn’t feel right, without that small or not-so-small dot of red,” she says. (It’s no surprise that Van Gogh tops her list of favorite famous artists.)
Among the most appealing of Remensnyder’s works is her feminine portraits done in watercolor, a series she calls her “ladies in waiting.”
Matisse-like in their vivid coloring and intricate backgrounds, these casually posed, fetchingly attired figures materialize from Remensnyder’s imagination, not from sitting subjects. “I usually loosely sketch my lady from somewhere in my memory, putting different parts of past images together until I get just the right attitude,” she explains. “All my ladies have attitude. When I see someone strike a pose or in an expressive situation, I know she has to be added to my gallery.”
Her work with alcohol inks is especially notable, and a skill she passes on to students at The Gallery at Flat Rock, which exhibits her work. Handled properly, alcohol inks produce highly saturated colors when applied to non-porous surfaces like tile, glass, or metal. “Control is very hard to achieve, and it takes a lot of patience,” she says. “The outcome is never exactly what you planned for, but that’s the fascination and frustration of working with this medium.”
Remensnyder and her husband settled permanently in Flat Rock 16 years ago, moving from Florida, where they raised their three children. While family life sometimes left little time for art, once the children were grown, opportunity appeared in the form of an art class at a nearby state college, where Remensnyder had decided to finish a degree in business. The woman teaching the class became her mentor, and, like her mother, urged her to explore. “I was having so much fun, though it was hard keeping up with the teenagers and young twentysomethings in the department,” she recalls.
But it was that exposure that, years later, would provide the lifeline for her confrontation with cancer. “I found I was using even bolder color combinations, and that I wanted to paint even bigger and be more free,” she recalls about those times of struggle. “I wasn’t worried about what impressions I was making. I was just having fun and laughing and loving life, right down to my soul. My art has helped me in my cancer journey, and it continues to be a very humbling and uplifting experience.”
Barbara Remensnyder’s work is shown at The Gallery at Flat Rock (2702-A Greenville Hwy., 828-698-7000, galleryflatrock.com) and also online, under her name, at ETSY.com and at Fine Art America (fineartamerica.com). For more information, contact the artist at firstname.lastname@example.org.