By Cady Kuzmich
Clifton Park — Galloping horses and other watercolor nature scenes by Clifton Park woman Nancy Keelen are hanging on the second floor of the Clifton Park – Halfmoon Public Library throughout the month of July.
One of Keelen’s pieces depicts a small wren sitting on a branch flowering with plum blossoms. “The plum blossoms are the first to bloom after the winter thaw,” said Keelen. She chose to paint the hardy pink plum blossoms and the wren, a traditional chinese symbol of strength, as a symbol of resilience and strength for those battling cancer.
Keelen always loved painting, though it became a much bigger part of her life after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015 and was bedridden for several weeks after multiple surgeries. “I was held hostage in my house so I brought out the watercolors and the paints. It helped calm my nerves and take my mind off the disease,” she said. Painting offered her a creative, constructive outlet in a time of uncertainty and hardship.
Art became more than a creative outlet or emotional release — it was both of those things for Keelen, but it was also something that kept her inspired and motivated to create something new and beautiful. She said she gets “fired up, motivated” to capture the world around her.
Sometimes, she said she grows so attached to her paintings, they become difficult to sell. She’s begun to paint duplicates so it’s easier to sell her work.
Though she enjoys painting birds, flowers, and Adirondack nature scenes, Keelen’s true muse has always been horses.
A pink “Fight like a Girl” bracelet dangled from her wrist as she spoke about retiring from the University of Albany where she worked as a financial analyst for 13 years and began volunteering with the Saratoga Therapeutic Equestrian Program last year. STEP was established in 1986 and offers riding lessons and hippotherapy for individuals with special needs. Keelen said STEP currently has about 20 children ages five through 18 enrolled in the program.
When she retired a year ago, her main goal was to stay active and, if possible, work with horses again. When she found out about STEP and the opportunity to work with children and horses, she thought, “Even better!”
While Keelen doesn’t have a professional background in psychology, she took several psychology and child psychology classes while studying at SUNY Empire State College which she said opened her eyes to the struggles of children with emotional and psychological challenges.
“It’s amazing,” she said. “[The kids] just calm right down. They’ll come into the stable not focused or with temper tantrums but as soon as we put them on the horse they calm right down,” said Keelen.
Keelen thinks there is something about the rhythmic nature of a horse’s’ stride that is especially soothing for the rider. She began riding at age seven and her love for the animals has continued to grow with each passing year.
As a young girl, she begged her parents for a pony or a horse until her mother told her she could get a horse if she got a job and paid for the horse herself. At age 13, Keelen took a job babysitting for the summer and earned $175, enough to buy her first horse at the time. She worked at a nearby barn, taking care of the horses, in exchange for her horses’ board.
“Each horse has their own personality. I try to capture that,” she said. From time to time, Keelen will race over to the stables to take photos of each horse then runs home to begin painting.