Twelve years ago, Serena Koltzau started placing paint on canvas, trying to find something to occupy her mind while going through “a rough time.” The Currituck resident never dreamed her works would not only one day be displayed in an art gallery, but that people would buy them.

Strangest of all, her art is on its way to helping a wider audience live in a more beautiful world thanks to encouragement and help from a complete stranger.

Koltzau is a single mom with two daughters — Allison, 24, and Hayley, 22, who is intellectually disabled. While painting runs in her family — her late-grandmother painted and her mom dabbles in watercolors — Koltzau never considered it as a possible career. In fact, she works two jobs to support her family.

“I always loved art, and grew up watching my grandmother sketch,” Kolzau says. “I started with acrylics but found it flat and I kept trying to build textures. Eventually I started using oils and pallet knives and found I could build up the texture on the canvas in a way I liked.”

Koltzau experimented with what she calls “floral pallet knife paintings.” She developed a technique that involved adding vibrant colored impasto oils on top of an acrylic pour. She took some classes, which she adapted to do “what I wanted to do.” It has taken her six years of playing to bring it to the level she felt confident sharing.

“My friends and family would tell me how awesome it is, but they have to do that. Finally one lady came over and asked why in the world don’t I have these out there?”

That friend had worked at Arts of the Arbamarle, and suggested that Koltzau take her paintings to the regional non-profit arts council located in Downtown Elizabeth City, North Carolina. To Serena’s surprise, they accepted her work.

But this serendipitous story cannot end with Koltzau simply displaying her paintings. During an exhibit with the Currituck Arts Council, a complete stranger overheard Koltzau discussing her paintings. That person was Debbi Kreiselman, who just retired after a 35-year career working in Information Technology (IT) for the U.S. government in all four branches of the military.

“The first thing that struck me about Serena’s art is how it comes out of the frame itself,” Debbi says. “I can’t explain it, but it is kind of like a mountain on canvas, the way it’s built up and the flowery details. Her work is really good.”

Debbi offered to help put Serena’s gift out in the world, starting with a social media presence (link below).

“No, I don’t make a habit of approaching strangers!” Debbi says when asked what caused her to approach the artist. “But Serena truck me as a phenomenal artist. Her art is not out in the public eye, and I wanted to help her boost her public presence. I want to get her noticed in the online world.”

For Koltzau, the robust attention encroached on her comfort zone at first.

“I am a shy person, not used to being seen,” Koltzau says. “For someone to notice me is very surreal. When Debbi says, ‘I can help with marketing,’ I wanted to cry and throw my arms around her. It’s very validating that someone liked my work so much. I’m still getting used to people telling me my work is amazing. It is a very unbelievable experience. I don’t have words for how awesome that feels.”

It might feel like “success.” After not even a full year showing her work in public, Koltzau has sold an impressive number of paintings. But that is not what drives her.

“I struggle with depression and severe anxiety,” Koltzau says. “I’ve been through a lot of things: divorce, taking care of a daughter with special needs, taking care of my parents. It is a lot of responsibility I never imagined I would have. I can be feeling blue, but when I start painting, it is impossible not to come out of a bad space.”

She hopes her art does the same for others.

“It doesn’t matter how bad life gets, life is always changing,” she says. “Just because today is bad, that doesn’t mean tomorrow will be bad. If you can, find something that makes you happy, whether religion or sports or music. For me, it’s art. Keep searching until you find something that puts your soul at rest, that distracts you, that reminds you of beauty, that makes you look outside yourself. There is so much more in life than those painful things you are dealing with. That’s what painting does for me. It makes me happy. I hope it makes others happy, too.”

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