Pastelist Knows the Road to Peace is Paved with Good Intentions

Elise Okrend only wants you to feel better.
Portrait by Rachel Pressley

Elise Okrend’s canvases are far from private. They’re on daily display for thousands at a number of major hospitals, including locally at Mission in Asheville and Highlands, and at two Duke centers in the Triangle region. 

And yet the artist’s process is intimate. First, she says, she creates a bond between her body and the paper. 

“My fingers become blending tools, or can create linear texture. This tactile process allows me to become part of my paintings both physically and emotionally.” 

Okrend’s pieces at Duke Raleigh hang in the Pre-Op wing, “where patients are receiving IVs and other [preparatory treatments],” she explains. The pastelist wants her work “to be connected to a state of stillness and soothing beauty” — and healing is the intended outcome. “All my work is focused on this principle,” she says. “My subject matter is always nature. Between color choice and the blends of pastel, I achieve that feel. I want my paintings to take people outside of the physical world.”

Enchanted Forest

To reach even more people, she collaborated with her husband, life coach Phil Okrend, on the coffeetable book Messages to the Heart: Reflections of Beauty and Truth. In one passage, Phil writes: “There is only one essential assumption to make in life … You Are Worthy. By understanding the truth of that, you understand that you do not need to prove anything, control anything, force anything. All you have to do is share what you already are with others and you will thrive.”

And Okrend’s work is the embodiment of that sentiment. “We paired the passage on self worth with my painting Into the Light. The light shining through the lush green forest represents a person’s true light and worth that cannot be destroyed or broken. It can only be blocked by our own false and limiting beliefs.”

Into the Light

Before it found its way into the coffeetable book, though, the painting had already achieved its aim. The sister of a woman who was missing and later discovered on the Appalachian Trail visited Okrend’s studio and cried upon viewing Into the Light, reveals the artist. Okrend believes seeing the painting led the woman to experience “a sense of closure and peace regarding her sister’s death.” 

She starts every project with a walk around the lake or a hike up the mountain — anything to immerse herself in nature. Some paintings are highly figurative, adhering closely to the photos she takes of various landscapes; other paintings use compilations of multiple images to establish a composition of form and color.

Back indoors, her studio becomes a crucial extension of her process. It’s open and airy, with natural light and even a small water feature. Visitors say they get a sense of “calmness and dreaminess” here, she says. “Sometimes the effect on visitors is very visceral, touching them on a deep level.” 

In Flight

Elise Okrend, Wedge Studios, River Arts District (129 Roberts St.). On Saturday, April 13, 12-4pm, as part of Second Saturdays in the RAD, Elise and Phil Okrend will present a painting demo accompanied by live piano music. Her exhibit “Grasses and Marsh” shows in the Upstairs Gallery at Wedge Studios from Monday, April 1 through Tuesday, April 30. Elise Okrend’s work is also exhibited at Kress Emporium (19 Patton Ave.,, at Woolworth Walk (25 Haywood St.,, and at The Corner Kitchen (3 Boston Way, An updated edition of Messages to the Heart will be released in the coming months ( For more information, see

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *