Arts & Entertainment

The Art of Healing

After surviving brain surgery twice, Nicole Keintz is on a mission to spread healing through photography

Three years ago, a quarter of photographer Nicole Keintz’s vision went black. She had just endured her second brain surgery to remove a benign tumor, and its side effects eclipsed a portion of her eyesight with a “dark shadow.”

It wasn’t the first time Keintz’s health had interfered with her art. In fact, Keintz’s career in photography is wrapped around her brain tumor diagnosis — without it, she may never have become a photographer at all.

Keintz first learned about the tumor in 2009. Although it was benign, it needed to be surgically removed, and the intense procedure changed Keintz’s perspective. She’d been passionate about photography since high school, when she taught herself to use a film camera, but she’d never had the courage to pursue it professionally. After the surgery, Keintz knew she wanted to make it her career.

“I realized that life is way too short,” Keintz, of Helena, said. “I couldn’t really hold myself back anymore.”

She began to work under the mentorship of Jason Savage, a Montana landscape photographer. Soon, she was producing nature pictures through a counterintuitive technique. Rather than holding the camera still, Keintz would move it, using a slow shutter speed, creating “really soft, dream-like landscapes.”

Keintz’s photographs are a vivid wash of color and light, often warmed by sunrise or sunset. Their wavering surfaces are inspired by the loose brush strokes of Impressionist painters like Claude Monet. Keintz started to use her movement technique in an attempt to capture the blur of the view out a car window. Looking at her photographs, you can just make out a skyline or a mountain, but their beauty is in their hazy glow.

After a few years working with this method, Keintz’s career was taking off. She was getting published in magazines, doing photography gigs and selling her work in shows. Then, in 2016, a check-up MRI revealed that her tumor had grown back. She had to undergo a second brain surgery to remove it.

This time, her side effects were more severe. After the surgery, she began to lose her vision. With both eyes open, she could see fairly well, but with one closed, when looking through a viewfinder, almost half of her eyesight was obscured.

At first, Keintz was derailed. But while she was still healing, she started to take pictures again. She couldn’t go far, but she would stand in her driveway in the morning, taking pictures of the sunrise. With her unconventional technique of movement, she didn’t need to squint through the camera to make pictures. Creating her art became an essential part of her recovery.

“Getting into my photography and really diving into that after my second surgery, really helped my brain to heal,” she said.

The work she did during this period became her most recent exhibit, “Unlimited: Healing Light.” The works in the show were all created at Keintz’s home, at daybreak. To Keintz, the sunrise represents the kind of healing and positivity she wants to share through her work.

To share her healing message more directly, Keintz started a Healing Arts Program in collaboration with the Holter Museum of Art in Helena. In the program, she will bring artwork and art activities to patients in Helena’s St. Peter’s Hospital. The program includes a maker station in the cancer treatment waiting room and a traveling art cart, which Keintz will use to teach short classes for cancer patients while they receive chemotherapy treatments.

Through this program and her new exhibit, Keintz hopes to share what she has learned from the many difficulties she’s faced throughout her career.

“With all of the challenges, I felt very limited,” she said. “But when I … started creating, it became clear that the limitations were really just in my mind. That I was truly unlimited.”

See Nicole Keintz’s exhibit “Unlimited: Healing Light” at the Hockaday Museum from June 28 to July 27. There will be an opening reception at the museum on Thursday, June 27 from 5 to 7 p.m. Her website is

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