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Gulia Groenke
"Inflamed Spirits"

"Imminent Destruction", 2021, acrylic on canvas, 48" x 48"

East Gallery
October 7 - October 28, 2023

Opening Reception:

Saturday, October 7, 6pm-9pm


“The Ninth Wave: The Journey of a Self-Taught Artist”


Early Influences

The future artist was born in a faraway place “beyond the Arctic Circle,” far from big galleries and art institutions. As a child, she showed an insatiable curiosity for the wider world. She was fascinated by the complex relationship between man and nature. Without formal art training, she began early to record her impressions in sketches.



During her school years, the young woman continued to pursue her passion for art in secret. With limited resources, she took advantage of every opportunity to express herself artistically. Through picture books and studying the great masters, she began to refine her techniques and develop her own style. This period of self-discovery shaped her artistic identity. At a very early age, Gulia discovered Ivan Aivazovsky’s painting, the title of which, “The Ninth Wave,” is an old nautical term for a particularly high, threatening mass of water. Survivors of a shipwreck have taken refuge in small groups on a part of the wreck, the mast, while someone with a white rag beckons invisible helpers. This existentially threatening theme characterizes Gulia Groenke’s artistic work to this day: from natural forces such as forest fires to man-made catastrophes.


Experimentation and Exploration

The urge to evolve led the artist to try different styles, media and techniques. From abstract painting to sculpture to papier-mâché, she dared to experiment.


The Essence of Art

With each new challenge, the artist became more deeply involved with the meaning behind her work. Her art became a mirror of her innermost thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Through the process of creative expression, she found her voice and also a way to connect with others.

Role Models and Examples

This self-taught artist’s story is a tribute to the power of passion and determination. Through her dedication to art, she has proven that education and formal training are not always the only paths to success. Her journey reminds us that art thrives not only in academies, but also in the hearts and hands of people who have the courage to plot their own path. In Berlin, she came into contact with the international art scene, and she has also been deeply involved with her role models, such as Edward and Nancy Kienholz, Brian Maguire, and Sharon Kopriva. 


Experience of Nature and Breakthrough

Moving to Idaho and visiting the national parks, such as Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Zion led to the final artistic breakthrough and thematic focus on the confrontation between man and nature. A series of works with landscapes were created, but also very personal works dedicated to family history.


This biography tells the story of a remarkable woman whose self- taught approach to art overcame barriers, even without an academy, to bring her creative vision to the world.


From my point of view, the interaction between man and nature is ambivalent, we interfere with nature by cultivating it, tilling it, and even interfering with its nature - genetics. Nature also influences our life and survival through natural disasters.


Consequently, my artistic work explores this complex relationship between man and nature. This agonistic relationship, characterized by admiration and exploitation, awe and ignorance, is at the core of my creative reflection. Through my work, I aim to highlight the tension and interplay between human intervention in nature and nature as an independent, vital organism.


In a world where technological advancement and economic interests are at the forefront, it is crucial to focus on the deep connection between humans and nature. My artwork is intended to raise awareness of this connection and to question the multifaceted effects of our actions on the natural environment.


Through the medium of painting, I aim to invite the viewer into a dialogue about the ambivalent nature of this relationship. My work explores the beauty and fragility of nature, as well as the brutality that nature inflicts on humans, and that humans often unthinkingly inflict on nature. I play with contrasts - light and shadow, order and chaos, life and decay - to reflect the complex emotions and thoughts that this relationship evokes.


My artistic practice involves gathering and using natural materials and found objects from my Idaho surroundings to create a direct connection to the environment. This results in works that not only convey aesthetic values but are also intended to encourage the viewer to reflect on their own feelings and views of the human-nature relationship. My works tell a particular story - a story of vulnerability, fragility, but also of potential and restoration.


At a time when ecological challenges are becoming increasingly urgent, I hope my art can help foster a deeper critical questioning, appreciation, and mindfulness of nature. By depicting the ambivalence between humans and nature, I hope to encourage viewers to become aware of how our behavior affects the environment, while creating space for a deeper connection with nature.



Russian artist Gulia Groenke was born in one of the most polluted places on the planet. Norilsk is the northernmost city in Siberia and the second-largest city inside the Arctic Circle.
Due to its location above some of the largest nickel deposits on Earth and rich deposits of copper, cobalt, platinum, palladium, and coal as well, mining and smelting ore are its dominant industries.


Before her birth, Groenke’s father moved to Norilsk for its attractive wages, and although he did not intend to stay forever, eventually he sent for Groenke’s mother and their older daughter. Later, Groenke was born there and stayed until she was 21 years old.


In Norilsk, contamination from the extensive mining operations destroys trees and vegetation and pollutes lakes and rivers. In “Future Passing,” a large photograph augmented with paint and mixed media, Groenke depicts the devastation that has resulted from this mining. The photograph, which was taken many years ago in Norilsk, depicts people swimming in a pond near a large lake. The pond is surrounded by rocks, to which Groenke has added what appears to be dirt and gravel, as well as fragments of wood shaped like coffins. Large factories on the horizon belch toxic clouds into the air.  


“I was shocked at how people who live there still have fun,” Groenke said. “They swim in the water despite the danger to their health.”  


According to the artist, the average life expectancy in Russia is 67, but in Norilsk, it is only 57 due to the compromised environment. Although the wages are higher and workers have as much as half a year off, they pay for these advantages with their health. Groenke’s next body of work deals with this discrepancy and is titled “Minus 10 – Behind the Circle.”


“I want to tell the story of this place,” she said. “Norilsk was part of the chain of Russian gulags. Stalin sent political prisoners to this town, which wasn’t on any map. Before Perestroika, not even Russians knew this place existed. It was a military city, and you needed an invitation to come here. You had to fly, as there were no trains or roads.”


Several years ago, Groenke’s sister invited her to visit her father’s grave in Norilsk. “It was shocking to go there after so many years,” she said. “I don’t like to be political, but I do want to tell this story. My new work is about the sacrifices these miners made by working there.”


“Inflamed Spirits,” the title of the Redbud Arts Centeshow, refers to a painting inspired when her husband’s sister and family were forced to evacuate their home in California due to a massive forest fire. They spent a week in a hotel, not knowing if their home had survived.


“All the worry and emotions we experienced gave me the idea to do this painting,” Groenke said. The piece has three sections—the bottom depicts fire raging through the trees, the middle area shows blackened treetops, and above that is a sky filled with smoke.


Luckily, the wind shifted, and their home was spared. “Due to fires, floods, or tornadoes, people sometimes have to start over,” Groenke said. “You can’t always escape. Nature can be destructive, but it can also heal and recharge us. It is all part of the circle of life.”


Groenke moved to Berlin when she was 21 and is now a German citizen. Her husband, a dual German and U.S. citizen, first came to California as an exchange student and, years later, to Dallas, where his business is located. His parents were friends and collectors of the late artists Edward and Nancy Kienholz, who lived in Hope, Idaho. After visiting, they bought a house there, and Groenke and her husband began spending time in Hope. Living in the natural environment has inspired her to focus on her art full-time. She met Houston-based sculptor Sharon Kopriva and Irish painter Brian Maguire in Hope, both of whom have influenced her work.


It was Maguire who encouraged Groenke to become more serious about painting despite not having a formal art education. “Brian gave me a few lessons in the beginning,” Groenke said. “Not technical art lessons but how to use art to express my feelings and tell my story.”


Maguire addressed Groenke’s work in the “Inflamed Spirits” exhibition catalogue, writing, “The two great overriding issues of our time—the natural environment and war—are the conditions of the present. The works are drawn from her youth. The work challenges us to determine where we are now, today, and silently asks what we should be doing.”


As a child, Groenke sketched from nature and pursued her passion for art in secret. She recalls discovering the work of nineteenth-century Russian painter Ivan Aivazovsky, particularly “The Ninth Wave.” The ninth wave is a nautical term for a particularly large wave that follows a succession of smaller waves. The painting is a sublimely romantic view of shipwrecked sailors on a precarious raft in a churning sea. Groenke became fascinated with the forces of nature at an early age and continues to express those feelings in her paintings today.


Groenke returns to Berlin frequently, where she has seen an increase in the number of refugees. “That is because Germany has excellent social programs,” she said. In “Forced Migration,” Groenke paints abstracted figures wandering in an obscured landscape that seems to be on fire. Isolated from one another, the migrants seem to float in a thick haze. “I am working on more paintings about immigration,” she said. “As an emigrant myself, I understand other emigrants.”


In “Yearning for Peace,” a haunted childlike face emerges from the background amid a scenario of pollution and dying trees. “I hope to raise awareness in people of the strong connection between humans and nature, as well as its fragility,” Groenke said. She often visits national parks such as Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Zion.


When she went to see the Grand Canyon, the main road was closed, but a local told her about a back road to the canyon. “No one was there,” Groenke said. “The experience brought tears to my eyes. You see eternity, and it makes you feel so small. At a time when ecological challenges are becoming increasingly urgent, I hope my art can help foster a deeper critical questioning, appreciation, and mindfulness of nature.”


View all of the works in the exhibition, read Gulia's artist statement and biography, and read the statements written about her work.


Click on the image below to page through the catalog:

Gulia Groenke "Inflamed Spirits"
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