The creative life of Neil Horenz-Kelly (NED) an Interview by Sheryl Garratt

If I couldn’t paint, it would be the end for me,” says Neil Horenz-Kelly with a laugh. “It would be a life not worth thinking about. It’s what runs through me. I’ve got paint in my veins!
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Still, it took him a while to understand this. Growing up in Dover, all he wanted to do was escape from the east Kent coast. He joined the Army, briefly: “Conformity was never my strongest point,” he says drily. Then came back and worked for three years in social care. Then he worked on the ferries for a year, endlessly crossing the Channel from Dover to Calais and back again before he finally realised his calling.

“Looking back, I’d always enjoyed art. At home I used to make comics, I used to copy Star Warsfigures, even items of news. 

“I drew my way through secondary school, doing portraits or writing names in stylized graffiti on people’s pencil cases. And on the desks!  I often spent my lunchtimes sanding desks back to original condition. 

“Art allowed me to play out my cheekiness and mischievousness. It always felt like a rebel act.”

When he worked in care, he used art and music as a way of connecting with people with extreme behavioural difficulties. He remembers reading a book called Art as Medicine. “For me that book was really powerful. Just the title alone, I’ve carried with me ever since.”

At the age of 22, he followed this passion by going Derby to do a degree in art and psychology. “I wanted to really understand the healing benefits of creativity – of music, and the arts – and the power it has on the psychology of the individual and groups,” he explains.

“And once I was there, I couldn’t get enough! I worked hard and partied hard, immersed in a completely different environment with a completely different group of people. I had these fascinating lectures, learned about the mind, I was painting massive canvasses and really starting to understand about things like colour choices. 

“Some of my major life lessons have come from painting. It taught me how to take risks, developed my patience thresholds, helped me understand restraint and how to use my body. But ultimately, it’s given me a sense of self.

“That’s when I came alive, really. It was the Nineties, the music was great, and for me it felt like a very creative period.”

After graduating, he moved to London, doing a variety of jobs to get by. He worked in the interior design department of a fashion retail chain, and he did art therapy projects with homeless people in north London. 

“You see somebody who can’t even look you in the eye, because essentially they’ve been broken by the system, their upbringing, or just what life’s thrown at them. Then when their eyes light up as they talk you through a piece of art, or a song, and they start expressing themselves through that.. It’s magic!”

 After doing an MA in art at Wimbledon, he joined an artist’s collective in Deptford. He got some work into prestigious shows including the John Moores Contemporary Painting Prize and into the collections of Johnny Depp and Tracy Emin. For a while, he abandoned painting altogether in favour of more conceptual work, but his love of colour kept drawing him back to the canvas. 

It took a while, however, for him to realise that less is often more. “I used to put my foot through canvasses, cut them with Stanley knives. I hadn’t learned the power of restraint, of editing and erasing. One of the revelations for me was about taking paint off the canvas. Like many young artists, I thought you needed to keep applying it! 

“Then I realised that it was the paint that I took off that was giving me the reveal. I started to see a lot more depth in the work, and to really understand how to paint light and shade. Now I’m mixing paint on the canvas, as well as not. I’ll add bits and pull other bits off with rags.. There’s never a fixed start point, and there’s never an end point.”

Sometimes his paintings – which he signs with his nickname, NED – suggest the sky, the sea, the fields. Mostly they are abstract, but in colours that evoke a familiar sense of place, an emotional response. 

“I feel that sometimes, it’s not the artist’s soul that’s on the canvas, it’s the viewer’s soul. There’s something quite nostalgic about the colours that I’m using, because they are aroused by nature. I want my paintings to draw the viewer in, to trigger a response or a memory. They’re like mirrors, and that’s what’s exciting for me. It’s the same as when you hear a certain piece of music. A lot of people say my work makes them emotional. And that’s really powerful.”

No matter how much he thought he wanted to escape the east Kent coast, he sees now that in some ways he’d never really left it. It was always there, inside, tugging him back. 

“I hadn’t realised how important that was. Even in London, I still felt connected. The river – the Creek in Deptford – felt like a vein that would take me back, eventually.”

 In 2011, he was working on a community art project in east Kent, and he stopped to celebrate the Royal Wedding at a BBQ at a friend’s house. 

 “Afterwards I drove past the home of a childhood friend, and I decided to look her up. I discovered that Rebecca had recently returned to the area.  We immediately took up where we left off 18 years earlier – and fell in love.”

The couple married and moved to Deal, a few miles up the coast from Dover, and Neil got a job lecturing in art at Canterbury. He also started making work with a focus and concentration he’d never had in the capital, where he admits he often spent more time talking about art than actually making it.

In Rebecca, he’d found a partner who supported him, but also pushed him to be at his best: “She’s my best editor, my motivation to make art.” They now have three children, and this growing family meant that he needed to make the most of the little time he had to paint. But his surroundings were also an important inspiration.

“These colours, this environment is seared into my brain, and the way that I express that is through painting. The changing of the seasons, the wind on my face, the smell of the sea, or the freshly ploughed earth.. All of those senses come out through colours, for me. 

“I’m just amazed at how much beauty is out here, since I’ve been back. But I’m looking with very different eyes to when I left. What’s inspiring now is not so much the actual composition of the landscape, but the coloursof it. That’s what I translate onto the canvas. I am surrounded by this, and I’ve got to do something with it.”

He eventually stopped teaching and in March 2017, he opened a small gallery in Deal, called Don’t Walk, Walk. The work he shows there is carefully curated, and although the only space he has to paint is a tiny backroom with no natural light, he considers himself lucky.

“I’ve given myself the tiniest studio, but I’ve got a gallery full of really inspiring work that I walk through every day before I go and make my own work. I feel like I’m living the dream. I open at 10am, so I also get to take my children to school in the morning. I can put my favourite music on. And I can paint, every day. Yet I also come home at a sensible time, and I’m far more present, with my family. And it’s painting that’s allowed me to do that.

“Painting and drawing consistently give me the same sense of wonder that I had as a child when handed a pencil and paper. Everything feels endless, and yet possible. There something really life affirming about it. It trips me up, it challenges me on a daily basis. Every time I feel I got this, the painting fairy drops a big spanner and sets me a new hurdle to overcome. This excites me, my personality needsthis!”

This autumn, he will consolidate his journey so far with An Instance of Return, a major exhibition of his paintings at Deal Castle, a short walk from his gallery. Built by Henry VIII to stand guard over this stretch of coastline, the building’s ancient stone walls will enable him to show his work in a far grander setting.

“My work has been getting larger and larger in scale, but the places in which I can show it, and have people see it have become smaller and smaller,” he says, explaining the unusual venue. “There’s also such a strong connection of my work to the colour palettes immediately surrounding the castle. And it’s that connection to history, as well. Just to show my work there, I feel incredibly privileged. It feels like a bit of a benchmark. It’s a celebration!”  Sheryl Garratt

Neil’s latest show, An Instance of Return, is at Deal Castle from October 4-14. 

DONT WALK WALK Gallery is at 10 Victoria Rd, Deal CT14 7AP, and can be found online at www.dontwalkwalkgallery.com