The sense of community runs deep through the Southwest Metro area. Families build lives across generations and add to the fabric of our community in many ways. Two women who are weaving their particular pattern into that community fabric are Kristin Laurel and Courtney Miller Bellairs. Laurel, a poet, and Bellairs, a visual artist, are each following a path that combines art with family and community.
Laurel is a trauma nurse. She flies on medivac helicopters and works long hours in emergency rooms. She sees people at their worst—and at their best.
“I love that about nursing—that people are in pain but are still able to be good and kind,” she says.
Laurel’s first collection of poems, Giving Them All Away, draws on her experience with people in extreme circumstances who still manage to be decent and human. There is also a great deal of darkness in the collection. Laurel’s childhood was marked by domestic violence and abuse, and her teenage years were chaotic. One poem in the collection called The Past explores how persistent our past can be when we try to ignore it.
Laurel doesn’t ignore her past, though—the poems at the beginning of the collection deal mostly with her family history. The later poems tend to focus more on her work. They are frank and powerful and often touch on the theme of people in pain yet still kind. She credits a two-year writing intensive program she completed at The Loft in Minneapolis with focusing her desire to write. She published Giving Them All Away in 2012. True to its name, the book is available free online from Google Books.
Years of working as a nurse had begun to make Laurel feel a little burned out. She says her work as a poet re-energized her career as a nurse. “Writing helped me get back to a connection with nursing,” she says and now describes herself as a writer with a nursing job. But nursing is still a big piece of her identity. She talks about knowing she is one of those helpers people look for in the worst of times.
Laurel divides her time between her home in Waconia and a house she shares with her partner in Asheville, N.C. Her next book is scheduled to be published sometime later this year—Questions about the Ride— is a collection of poems about the tragic deaths of both of her sister’s sons in unrelated accidents. Her sister Shelley is also a nurse, and with their shared childhood history, Laurel has, in a way, written about the overlap in their lives already. But for the past five years, she has dug deep into the deaths of her two young nephews to write about how death and life make sense of each other, exploring what she calls “questions about the ride.” Her sister has been supportive of the new book and sees it as a way of keeping her sons’ memories alive, but there is still a deep well of pain associated with the work for both women. “I so wanted there to be a happy ending for this book,” Laurel says. “But there wasn’t one.”
Laurel continues to work as a flight and trauma nurse and, even though she’s considered stepping away from it, she says the daily intensity of the work makes her appreciate the tender moments in life even more. But she’s still ready for a bit of a change. Her next writing project is probably going to be something lighter. “I am so ready for a break now,” she says.
Courtney Miller Bellairs wasn’t born in Minnesota. She spent most of her childhood in Maryland. Her husband’s work brought the family to the Twin Cities; they live in Chanhassen. Bellairs wasn’t sure what to expect, but she has embraced her new home with open arms. “It’s just such a great community,” she says. “I like that we are so close to a big city, but it has such a smalltown feel. I like that I know the mayor of the town I live in.”
Bellairs is a painter. Her work is richly colored and textured. “I’m excited by light and shadow and the way that light and shadow interact with color,” she says. She explores a subject for a while until she’s captivated by something new. That’s one of the things she enjoys most about being an artist. “You don’t know what the next thing you’re going to be working on is going to be,” she says. “You are always being influenced by new interests and new passions.”
Bellairs trained as an architect before taking a three month break from her first job in London to paint pieces for a show back home in the U.S. She says she was amazed by how happy she felt, spending her days painting. Her background as an architect informs her work in several ways. She says she has generally tended to focus her work on the “built environment rather than nature.” She is also drawn to the fronts of houses, especially doors and windows.
“I’m interested in thinking about things like what is a house and what is a home … when you cross the threshold or look through the window, what do you see?” she says. “I like to paint things that mean something to the viewer. A doorway or a window are powerful images
for most people.”
But not all her work is about the built environment. She has recently painted a whole series of almost impressionistic paintings that focus on people. The figures were initially nudes placed in barely articulated backgrounds, but over a period of about three years, the people become more defined, and they began to be clothed in richly colored, romantic fabrics.
“Color moves people’s hearts,” Bellairs says. She uses rich color to create mood and focus in her still-life works. The figures in this series are mostly women, and the relationship between them, and the environments they are placed in changes as the work evolves. The choice to redefine the figures and change their relationship to their environment wasn’t unintentional.
“I feel embraced by the art community here,” Bellairs says. But there were venues where she hoped to show her work in Carver County where nudes just weren’t appropriate. So her work adapted to her new home.
Being a part of the community means a lot to Bellairs. She’s active with the Arts Consortium of Carver County, and she is very pleased to be teaching at the University of Minnesota in the school of architecture. She has a master’s degree in architecture from Yale University and has taught in London and at the University of Maryland. Her background as an artist and an architect gives her a particular perspective on teaching. She’s happy to share her career with her students.
“I like that I am contributing to my community by teaching,” she says. “I bring 20 years of experience to the classroom, and it makes me feel like I have a real place in Minnesota by sharing that knowledge with community.”