becoming a self in history, becoming a self in my street

Kevin Street

During a course on the history of art, I learnt about the painter Emil Nolde, who was part of the exhibition of Degenerate Art staged by the Nazis. For this reason his paintings were removed from the state galleries and he was not allowed to make work. We were shown the ‘forbidden pictures’, which he painted in secret at this time, sitting in front of the window of his house in Seebüll so that he could see who was coming up the path. He painted in water colour so that there would be no smell of paint to betray him. He often had to paint on the back of other pictures and the work had to be small. He had to do this because he couldn’t be seen buying art materials and he needed to make his paper last. Looking at these images with their extraordinary combination of structure and freedom and their glorious saturated colour, something broke open inside me. I had been adopted, and had only found this out by accident when I was in my early twenties. My life had been mapped out for me by my adoptive parents. I was supposed to go to university and become a teacher as near home as possible and fulfil my father’s deepest ambition to become a head teacher.

Strangely, the alchemy between the secret painting life of Nolde and the emotional power of the colour, combined with memories of the secrets in my family, had the effect of breaking open a hard shell around myself, and what was revealed to me was a profound longing to find my own creativity and rid myself of the pressure of fear and secrecy. I knew in some form or another I needed to put art into my life. I found myself near to tears, and from that moment I was intoxicated by colour and art and the search to be creative myself.