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Visual artist talks about how she was "broken | whole"

Karen Niemczyk’s (pronounced nim-check) life has always been tied to the arts. Although she originally studied biochemistry in college, she always circled back to the need to create. Whether a piece of music or an oil painting, Niemczyk has expressed her wonder, joy, angst, observations and opinions through her art.


It can be traced back to her childhood, which she describes in this way:


“Although I started out in Virginia, at a young age we moved to what at the time far edge of the Chicago suburbs. A literal block from my house was where the farms began. Looking back, it was a good place, a place where you could visit a world-class museum like the Chicago Art Institute and fish at an isolated pond in the country on the same day.


On top of a life where we ran pretty much free and my father whistled us home for dinner and bedtime - we had great schools, where there was strong support for the arts. Even though I was the odd dreamer, reading sci-fi and playing piano, carrying a notebook and camera in my backpack, it worked out for me.”


Technology became another creative opportunity as the internet opened new realms for her work through web design and digital art. In 2008 Karen had the opportunity to combine her love for technology and art through C:Art:Media – an MFA program at The Valand School of Art Gothenburg University in Sweden. Her digital sculpture and graphic art has since been showcased in Europe and both North and South America.


But two years ago, her life changed dramatically, having a significant impact on her creativity. Niemczyk suffered a mild stroke that mostly affected her cognitively, putting a halt to her visual art production.


She turned to music - playing the piano - as part of her healing process. Visual art and showings took a back seat until recently when she presented her first new project – an interactive miniature golf hole that is part of a fundraising event involving local artists at the Center for Visual Artists in Greensboro, NC.


Gate City Acres is a complete, playable nine-hole mini-golf course in the CVA gallery (). Each was designed by a separate team of artists. When the show’s curator, Harry Turfle, asked Niemczyk to design one of the holes, she jumped at the chance.


It was the jump start she needed. Now she’s flush with ideas and excited to get back to work.


She took some time after completing the project to talk with Snapdragon Journal about art and the healing process.


Her interview is here:


You had a stroke two years ago? Can you tell me about that?


“It was out of the blue. We – my husband Bob and I – were entertaining. We had a houseful of people. I was standing in the kitchen and went to pick up my drink and it just slipped out of my hand. It seemed strange at the time, but I disregarded it and went on to enjoy the party. Afterwards I felt odd but couldn’t really pin it down. I felt a little numb, but it had been a long day and I attributed it to being tired. So I went to sleep.


The following morning I felt worse. My left side was behaving badly. My hand wasn’t cooperating – I stood up and felt lopsided. I woke Bob, and he and my daughter Meg (who was visiting) took me to the hospital. I don’t remember much of that day except that even though I was worried about it being a stroke from the time I woke up I still felt stunned when the doctor confirmed it.”


What was your life, especially your creative life - before that?


“My life has always been tied to the arts. I have an education in rather diverse fields – biochemistry was probably the furthest stretch for me when I attended Northern Illinois University – I have always circled around the creative arts. I have moved a lot including to Virginia, Illinois, Indiana, Alabama, The Netherlands, Sweden, and North Carolina. My creative skill set is adaptable. I taught piano for many years, developed websites (that’s when I began programming), published articles and stories. I took up oil painting and for a while did traveling art fairs.


In 2007 when we were presented with an expat possibility in Sweden, I discovered C:Art:Media, a masters program that was a collaboration of Valand Academy (the School of Art at University of Gothenburg in Sweden) and Chalmers University of Technology that was the perfect meld of my interests. I applied, and Bob accepted the position. We moved even before I was accepted. I later heard rumors that I was ranked 17 upon application. They had 15 openings. Two people declined. I got lucky.


I thrived in the program. I began doing a lot of interactive electronics and video and loved it. I still love it.

I graduated in 2010. The shift in my work opened a whole new world for me. I began showing around Europe and expanded to North and South America with the work fairly quickly. Things were really good and were moving along.”


How did you go about healing/recovering after the stroke? During this period of healing, how present was art (the process of art or making art) in your life?


“The stroke was relatively mild. I had ‘deficits’ with my left side – mostly my hand. Even so – my hand was usable, just infuriatingly clumsy. Mostly my troubles were cognitive. I honestly don’t remember the first few weeks. My outside studio was gone – luckily, I had recently moved home and set up a decent sized space when the building I was in was gutted and rehabbed into something I had no hope of affording.

So at least I was at home. I was functional – I could walk and talk and appeared fairly normal. But inside I was just beginning to realize what was missing. Words were missing – sometimes simple words that I had known since was a child. I still lose a few here and there.


Concentration was missing. I wasn’t able to follow complex processes. At times reading music or even script was difficult – activities like the programming necessary for my artwork were impossible. I did a little physical therapy and determined to design my own program around my life and talents.


It took over a month to get up the guts to attempt the piano. My hand was clumsy and reading the music was at times a challenge, but I figured it would help both my coordination and my brain, so I practiced incessantly. Bob gifted me the grand piano that I had dreamed of my entire life. I would have done this with my old spinet – but sometimes it still brings tears to my eyes when I walk into the studio and see it. He is a wonderful person. I wasn’t doing visual art yet at the time – but the piano was my entry back into creativity and it saved me in so many ways.”


Now, you're getting back into the pool, so to speak. What told you that you were ready?


“The last two years my focus was on recovery of my memory, intellect, and body. As the pieces came into place – diet, exercise, sleep habits, intellectual stimulation – and I healed – I began to be able to look at my life with a little more distance. I realized that my own self neglect had begun long before the stroke, likewise the brain fog and damages had begun a few years before the shock of the stroke accelerated it. There were setbacks even after I started taking care of myself – I have had multiple TIA’s (mini strokes that clear) and incidents that would set me back temporarily. But all of this has dropped off the cliff recently and I am fairly certain that I am in better shape than I have been in years now – both mentally and physically.


In the last few months I’ve had success in complex tasks such as programming that would have broken me a year ago. It’s an amazing feeling. And ideas have been eating at me. Ideas for projects.

Recently, I was working on an outside programming project when Harry approached me about doing a putt-putt hole for a miniature golf course that the Center for Visual Artists was putting together as a fundraiser here in Greensboro.


My work is generally dead serious: Issues, political statements, mental health. Even before the stroke, the brain has been a favorite for me. I have a couple of interactive EEG works out there. But a putt-putt hole was fun. And in the serious world we have around us today, there is certainly a place for fun. There has to be. And it was a great project to get my toes wet with an installation. I jumped at the chance.


Bob and I decided to work together. Our goal was to make it fun. Period. It’s not art, at least not in my normal aesthetic, but it’s creative, and we had a great time making it. We waited too long to start because of other commitments so we came screaming up to the deadline and struggled near the end. We were exhausted by the time the installation was finished and fully functional. But after a good night’s sleep, there was a sense of exhilaration that hasn’t left me yet. It was my turning point.”


How does it feel to be back?


“I feel complete again. I realize that this project brought me the one thing that hadn’t been addressed in my recovery. It brought me community.


It has only been just a few weeks since the revelations I described above, but it has been a productive new beginning. I have committed to a space at HQ Greensboro – a local, vibrant co-working space – where I will give my art and outside project programming and business activities the attention and enthusiasm they deserve. I’ve explored the possibility of outside studio space – but whether that works out or not, I am comfortable in the knowledge that I have the fortitude and resources to do my art wherever I am. I have recently been trained and have signed up for more training on what I consider essential tools for my work at The Forge (our makerspace here in Greensboro). And I reactivated Art+Tech – a meetup group I formed a number of years ago that had faded as I struggled the last couple of years. We met already once and have another meeting scheduled. It’s a great and supportive group of people of diverse talents and backgrounds. I’m excited.”


How is the creative process different and the same - pre- and post-stroke?


“There are some differences. First and foremost, my complacency is gone. I am more excited and determined than I ever was in the past. And I know that in order to maintain my health I must keep up with my healthy habits. Diet and exercise must be strongly interlaced into my daily routine. Yoga and sleep will be mandatory and not something to be indulged in only then it is convenient. I treat my brain as a muscle as well with well-defined exercise and rest cycles. But the basics, like my devotion to research and play have remained the same and I am determined to nurture them.”


Your art is technical, digital, interactive - why does this medium appeal to you? How has this evolved for you through the years, and where do you see it moving to?


“I work in a very conceptual manner. My media is totally dependent on what I want to say. This won’t change.”


In your artistic statement, you question a lot of things in yourself, your surroundings and life - how have these sorts of questions evolved since your stroke?


“I think my focus has shifted a bit – life, death, family and gratitude have taken a front seat. I should probably write a new artist statement. Still – it will probably contain a good bit of the old. I haven’t changed THAT much.”


The issue's theme is Broken | Whole - how do you interpret this as it relates to your own artistic journey and the work you are creating now? Is your art a way to continue your own healing process?


“Directly. I spent two years working on broken. My brain was broken. It may not have been obvious to everyone but it was obvious to me. The fix was gradual, but ran in spurts.


Periodically something improves – I recognize it and think: 'Yay, I’m back'

Then I keep working and something else resolves itself and I think: 'Yay, I’m really back!'


It’s been a seemingly endless cycle and at this point I feel like I’m actually better than before the stroke in a number of aspects. I feel like my recent rediscovery of community was the last missing piece of the puzzle and that I am whole again. Is recovery finished? I have no idea. What I do know is that the knowledge that trails the creative process – knowledge both introspective and extrospective is never ending – and that my current ‘whole’ encompasses a space without limits. That my ‘whole’ is what allows me to expand. I am reaching out again, and that is good.”


For more about Niemczyk’s work, go to www.interpolations.org.

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Snapdragon: A Journal of Art & Healing, a publication of The Word Project

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