Published: 12:33, 04 October 2019
| Updated: 09:06, 07 October 2019
"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!”
Growing up in the busy port town of Dover, Neil Horenz-Kelly didn’t really appreciate the beauty of the east Kent coast as a teenager.
He just wanted to get away. He joined the Army – briefly. “Conformity has never been my strong point,” he says drily.
He worked in social care for three years, using art and music as a way of connecting with people with severe behavioural problems – a job he liked and was good at, until the restlessness returned. But it took another year working on the cross-Channel ferries for him to realise that his escape route had been in front of him, all of the time.
“Every job that I had, there was something in me that I couldn’t identify, that was making me bored or irritated. I took years to work out what this fire was, that was burning and nagging away at me. To understand that I need to be making art.”
He finally left to study Art and Psychology at Derby, and it was in his studio there, painting huge canvasses, that he finally started to find his way.
'Since I’ve come back, I’m just amazed at how much beauty is out here. But I’m looking with very different eyes to when I left' - Neil Horenz-Kelly
“I couldn’t get enough of it!” he says now. “I came alive, then. It was a good space to work, and a time where good music in the 90s, and for me it felt like a very creative period. That was the start of the journey of finding the self through creativity.
Afterwards, he went to London, where he did a variety of jobs, including art projects with homeless people in the Kings Cross/Camden area. After doing an MA 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.
Still, he says, he didn’t take the work as seriously as he should until he came home one weekend and decided to look up Rebecca, an old school friend who had recently returned to the area. “We immediately took up where we left off, 18 years earlier,” he says. “And we fell in love.”
The couple married, and moved to Deal. 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 the coastal landscape was also an important inspiration.
“Since I’ve come back, I’m just amazed at how much beauty is out here. 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 colours of it. That’s what I translate onto the canvas. I am surrounded by this, and I’ve got to do something with it.
“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.”
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. They are very beautiful, and he has a growing band of collectors not just in the UK but worldwide.
“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. That’s really powerful.”
In 2017, he stopped teaching to open his own small but carefully curated gallery in Deal. Called Don’t Walk, Walk, it also has a small space out back where he can paint, every day.
“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’m living the dream!
“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. It excites me, I need this!”
Neil Horenz-Kelly's exhibition An Instance of Return, opened at Deal Castle today (Friday) from 10am.
It is the first time the castle has hosted a contemporary art exhibition for a local artist.
It can be visited until Sunday October 14.
Neil's studio, Don’t Walk, Walk Gallery is at 10 Victoria Road, Deal.
Visit it online at dontwalkwalkgallery.com.