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In the Name of Love

Renée Allem stepped away from the international art world to settle in Oxnard with a special family. Now she's ready to create a new body of work—using years of pent-up creative energy.

By By Maxine Hurt—Photos by Gary and Pierre Silva

Renée Allem with Gerard and Jeffry Fasel in their contemporary-styled Oxnard living room. Behind them, Allem's flowing charcoal curves create a sense of movement; on the adjacent wall, constructional relief art utilizes metal tubing as sculptural pieces

 

or nearly two decades Renée Allem worked as a professional artist, playing in what she calls “the infinite realm of the imagination.” The Oxnard-based South African created a diverse body of work: large-scale three-dimensional relief art and contorted sculptures using bold colors, multiple layers, her own unique set of symbols called RaGlyphics, and materials such as wood, metal, and wire from all over Africa. Her work—considered abstract expressionism with a sophisticated, modern perspective—was admired at galleries in London, South Africa, Germany, Hong Kong, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. Just last year she was invited to exhibit at the prestigious Biennale Internazionale d’Arte Contemporanea in Florence, Italy.

Yet she stepped away from it all.

It’s difficult to imagine anything distracting Allem, who, as she puts it, is driven by “obsessive creativity.” But something did pull her away from the world of art. Six years ago, she met Gerard Fasel, a physicist, actor, and visiting professor of physics and engineering.

“We have a friend in common who called me up one day and asked if I would please call Gerard and see if I could get him to go out,” says Allem. Fasel had been living at home, taking care of his ailing mother and two special-needs brothers: Jeffry has Down Syndrome along with multiple health conditions; Brian has Cerebral Palsy.

Gerard Fasel describes his brother Jeffry as outgoing and hilarious, evidenced here as he hitches a ride.

Allem befriended Fasel and took on the role of social planner. “I was living in Los Angeles and loved entertaining and throwing parties,” she explains. “For months I tried to get him to drive into the city and meet some of my girlfriends. After numerous failed attempts, I finally realized that he was interested in me all along and was just humoring me.” It wasn’t long before the two were engaged, and shortly after that they became Jeffry and Brian’s full-time caretakers.

For Fasel, growing up with special-needs brothers was “pretty normal, except for the times when Jeffry had serious health issues.” Hard times such as those made him realize, at a young age, the value of life and what is truly important. “I am very lucky to have my brothers,” he says. “They keep teaching me to be more patient and understanding with others. I enjoy watching a smile break on Jeffry’s face because I brought home a pizza or hearing a ‘thanks pal’ after I finish brushing his teeth.” Fasel describes Jeffry as outgoing and hilarious, while Brian is more introverted.

The “movement in a line following its own direction” inspired a body of art called Curvious. Seen here, ISOMEU, mixed media on canvas.

Allem responds to her fiancé’s positive attitude with something between admiration and awe. “That,” she says proudly, “is why he is such an amazing human being.” Then she laughingly recalls the story of how she met the brothers: “At first it was very uncomfortable, especially with Jeffry since I couldn’t understand what he has saying. He had me sit on the sofa next to him and repeatedly said, ‘Baby, baby, baby, love you’ in Jeffry speech. He thought Gerard had brought a girl home for him!” 

For Allem, who willingly put aside her art to help Gerard care for his brothers, apparently simple tasks are now anything but simple. “The time and logistics needed to get around and do daily errands is a challenge,” she says. “For example, I have to get the guys at the grocery store to lift Jeffry into a trolley because it would be impossible to push a wheelchair and a trolley at the same time.” 

GUSHGA (behind the artist), oil on leather, and TUZIZA, oil on masonite, hang in a bedroom. Both works contain symbols from Allem’s RaGlyphics, as well as physics formulas from Gerard.

It’s been difficult for Renée and Gerard to get away for a couple of days. And, of course, there has been little time for art. “Unfortunately, there just aren’t enough hours in the day to be a full-time caretaker and work on my art,” says Allem. “Something had to give—and the sacrifice was my art.”

Allem has donated her time to organizations such as Shriners Hospitals for Children in Los Angeles, where she taught ailing children art as a way of promoting healing. But teaching art isn’t the same as creating it, and she never gave up hope that one day she’d be able to resume her former path.

“In my darkest hour of not knowing how to help with Gerard’s mother and brothers, my father came to visit from South Africa,” she says, telling of a profound turning point in her life. “We were walking on the beach, discussing how difficult the situation was, when we saw two nuns walking towards us…they belonged to an order called the Sisters Servants of Mary in Oxnard, a ministry for the sick and suffering.”

Nuns from the Sisters Servants of Mary in Oxnard have developed a special bond with the brothers, Brian (back) and Jeffry (front).

Ironically, Allem had been schooled at a private convent in South Africa; meeting the nuns that day on the beach with her father felt like a gift from God. Shortly afterward, she visited one of the sisters and they were able to find a nun to help care for Gerard’s mother and brothers. “They were there until the day his mother passed, and they developed a special bond with the brothers, especially Jeffry, who calls them his ‘sisters,’” says Allem.

The drive to create is pushing Renée Allem once again. She plans to continue developing the art education for children program she started a few years ago, which was introduced to hospitals as a therapy method.

The colors of this oil on masonite painting, entitled PALAU, reminded Allem of a South Seas island.

But the first thing on her mind these days is her own art. “I have all this energy that has been building for the past few years,” she says. “My first goal is to create a new body of work for a new decade.”

02-01-2010

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