Thirteen years ago Denise Bunkert made a life-changing decision. What happened to her happens occasionally to all of us, but we rarely take the time to notice: Driving to work one especially beautiful morning, Denise saw the sun coming across a field, and was moved to tears. It was a simple, yet profound moment in which she knew she had to be outside painting. So, after 15 years working in graphic design, publishing and education, she decided to make painting her life’s work.
Today, as a noted Minnesota plein-air painter, Denise is living her dream of painting outdoors: “Working outside just makes my heart sing and I’m in my element. It’s a feast—everywhere you look there’s a painting, a thousand paintings.” She works in several mediums, but pastel holds a special place in her heart because, she says, “Pastel is so conducive to capturing that glowing light, the light of nature.”
What is immediately striking about Denise’s work is its joyous sense of color. Her images are painted in high-key values, and her canvases are enveloped in light. Although she always had a keen sense of color, she points to the brilliant color work of Wolf Kahn as a major influence on her art. When Denise decided to learn the pastel medium, she dove into it, and for six years read intensely, and took classes and workshops with some of the best contemporary pastel artists, including Albert Handel, Richard McKinley and Elizabeth Mowry.
But Denise doesn’t just make art—she also feels compelled to share it through teaching and special projects. One such project is the Arts & Healing and Urban Renewal Project at the Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, in Minneapolis’ Phillips neighborhood. Through architecture, landscaping, science and art, the hospital hopes to create, “healing spaces that…provide healing journeys that benefit the whole person.” Denise was one of 38 local artists chosen—through a lengthy and arduous process that began in January 2010—to create original art for the hospital’s St. Paul and Minneapolis campuses.
The theme of the project was simple: “The hospital wanted images that were whimsical and colorful. Images that would bring a smile,” Denise explains. “The images had to be something children would enjoy looking at in-between tests and surgeries. And the project wasn’t just for the children, but also for their families and the hospital staff.”
Denise’s unique contribution was a series of three rotating paintings, each set on a clear acrylic wheel that children can turn 360 degrees to get changing views of nature scenes. Working with a carpenter, Denise designed each piece, which was painted with acrylics on a large board. These delightful images of frogs and butterflies now hang in the fifth-floor Pediatric Intensive Care Unit on the Minneapolis campus, which cares for children who are critically ill due to acute illness, trauma and injury. The hospital is also reproducing giclee prints of her originals for both the St. Paul and Minneapolis campuses, including the new Mother and Baby Center at Abbott Northwestern and Children’s-Minneapolis.
Denise enjoyed the project and believes in its mission. “I love that I got to work with the hospital,” she says. “It was an adventure to create these whimsical paintings, and then to see them in the hospital and to know that the kids were looking at these, and maybe they would heal and be happy. It was quite a rewarding project.”
Her rabbits, chipmunks, raccoons and butterflies are colorful creatures set in Minnesota’s prairies, lakes, skating rinks and gardens, but the inspiration for these paintings came from another, most unexpected source.
In 2010, just prior to learning about the hospital project, Denise spent ten days walking through Claude Monet’s famous garden in Giverny, France. She was so awe-struck by its beauty that she couldn’t paint on site. She returned home with over 1000 photos, still unsure about how she’d use this experience.
But after the first meeting for the hospital project, she knew exactly what to do: She’d bring Monet to Minnesota. She decided to create a series of animals painting and drawing outdoors, in various Minnesota versions of Monet's garden. Respecting the hospital’s request that the images reflect Minnesota flora and fauna, Denise based her plein-air menagerie on Minnesota animals, like “Little Art,” a charming chipmunk painting poppies on the prairie; a frog drawing with quill pen and ink; a raccoon in snowshoes painting with pastels; and a squirrel with a sketch pad drawing a bird perched on a tree branch. But while the animals are from Minnesota, the colors and designs in these paintings are reminiscent of Monet’s dream-like gardens and impressionist colors.
Looking at the brilliant blues, purples, pinks, greens and yellows in these paintings, one can’t help but feel that they belong in a healing environment. “Art can change a person’s attitude immediately,” Denise says.
And maybe it takes you away from whatever you’re going through that day. Let’s say there’s a big surgery coming up and the child is really anxious and scared, and they look at the colors and they see the animals, and they’re in this picture for a little while. They’re not thinking about the surgery, they’re not thinking about the test they have to go through. For just a minute, that child is not thinking about what he’s got to go through. Art has a way of changing our perspective, and colors can influence our feelings.
Denise’s healing art, which can also be seen at the Lake Nokomis Clinic in Minneapolis, brings us closer to recognizing art as something other than a luxury commodity. Art, nature and beauty are basic necessities of life. They are inseparable.
It goes back to something I discovered 13 years ago, when I knew I had to paint—I had to be outside. I had to be in nature. We spend so much time inside; we rarely go out. Having nature come inside to us helps us connect with our world. The reason I pulled my car over that day, and why I still pull over to take a photograph of an absolutely gorgeous sunset, is because I have to capture that. It’s so beautiful. And a lot of people don’t see it. My job as an artist is to bring people some of the beauty that they’re too busy to see. I can’t connect with the idea that art is not about creating something beautiful. Without beauty, what else do we have?
One of the interesting ideas to come out of the hospital project is Denise’s plan to explore children’s book illustration. She has already published one book of pastel paintings, “Mirrors of the Soul: Reflections on Life’s Seasons,” in collaboration with a poet from England. Her newest book, still in mock-up, is a children’s book titled, “The Heart of Art.” It’s about hope and the freedom to express oneself through art. Like her hospital paintings, the book speaks to children through animal characters, something that children especially relate to.
What are her thoughts about the future of art and health?
I think the health care industry needs more artists; it needs more art. It needs the healing parts of art. I think we’ll see more art in public spaces because people are realizing that it does make a difference.
In August, Denise will have a show at the Robbin Gallery, in Robbinsdale, of oil and pastel paintings based on her visit to Monet’s garden in Giverny. For more information about her work, visit her website, Painted Places: http://www.paintedplaces.net/