Painting A Gift Of Hope

| By Haley Steinhardt |

Few would argue that art is a necessary part of culture, an expression that – in its many forms – reveals truths, begs questions, and challenges hearts and minds. For these reasons and many more, art is intrinsically valuable, but what value can it impart on the global stage when we live in a world where many still struggle to sustain food, water, and shelter? Is art for art’s sake enough? Asheville artist and painter Nancy Hilliard Joyce has taken the time to ask herself these questions, and to explore how art can make a positive global (as well as personal) impact.

Nancy Hilliard Joyce with her painting 'Standing Tall Against the Rain'

Nancy Hilliard Joyce with her painting ‘Standing Tall Against the Rain’

“Art is very narcissistic,” said Joyce. “Generally speaking, artists, we paint to help ourselves. It’s like our self-therapy, and it makes us feel good when people like our work and buy our work, and it’s a little self-serving. It’s great because we’re all supposed to be doing these things that we love, but it’s like, how can I do something I love and give back?”

In answering this question, a couple years back, Nancy was inspired to create a series of paintings of 13 women, including Annie Oakley, Jane Goodall and Mother Theresa among others. “I studied all these women with my daughter. I really wanted to bring back the role model. [I was] trying to get young girls to – instead of looking at people like Miley Cyrus or Lindsay Lohan, these people that are out there in this world that you are kind of bombarded with – [to look at] who are the role models for women that we should have, because it seems like men have so many… I gave 13% back to Girls on the Run and I partnered with them, which was so interesting, and they embraced me… It made me feel fulfilled in a way that I had never felt fulfilled in my art before. I felt like I was giving back, like I was doing something for a greater good. It wasn’t just for me.”

Wheels of Connection

The new sense of fulfillment Nancy garnered from her work with Girls on the Run planted a seed that she began to nurture. Late one night in August of 2014 while doing some online research, Nancy honed in on her longtime love of painting wheels. “I’ve always painted wheels,” she said, “everything from cogs, to Ferris wheels, to bike wheels. Sometimes it was about the bike, and sometimes it was about women. I would just have these motifs a lot – and I didn’t know why – of women on bikes with umbrellas, and everyone would say, ‘That looks French’ or ‘That looks very nostalgic’ and they were pulled or drawn to it. They’d ask me, ‘What is it about the wheel?’ and I’d say it was about the cycle of life, but then I had this kind of awakening.

“I was on Pinterest, trying to get inspiration from bikes and wheels, just kind of playing around. It was 2:00 a.m., and I ran across this quote from Susan B. Anthony that said, ‘Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.’ And it hit me. That was in 1887 when Susan B. Anthony said that, and it was like an ‘aha moment.’ I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s it!’ And I wasn’t even looking for a reason, it was just, ‘That’s it!’ When people would ask me why I paint the wheel, I would say, ‘Oh, the cycle of life,’ and I knew it was more about the wheel than about the bike but it just didn’t feel genuine. When I read that, it felt so genuine. I’ve had this connection forever. I paint these women with long dresses, and it was almost like I was already painting the late 1800s; I was already attracted to this time in life.”

Joyce2Nancy continued down the Pinterest rabbit hole, uncovering more images related to bicycles and Susan B. Anthony. That’s when she first saw the photo of a young Cambodian girl that has come to inspire her latest painting series. “I see this photograph of this little girl,” Nancy shared. “She’s about my daughter’s age, and she’s holding a drawing of a bike. I start reading about her and it says, ‘This little girl has just received a bike from the not-for-profit Lotus Pedals, which provides all-terrain bicycles to young girls.’” The Lotus Pedals program enables young Cambodian girls who would not otherwise be able to get safely to school and back to have access to education. The rural areas of the country can, sadly, be very risky for young girls traveling alone, and hiring a taxi service is too expensive for most families, who need the money for food.

That very night, Nancy found herself writing a letter to Lotus Outreach International, the nonprofit group that operates the Lotus Pedals program. “I wrote them an email,” she said, “and I decided, even though I had no plans, I said, ‘I’m going to do a show in Fall of 2015 where I’m going to be painting women on bikes and women with umbrellas and I wanted to know if I could give 20% back to Lotus Pedals.’ I said it all that night.” The organization enthusiastically agreed, and Nancy set out to create the show she had promised them.

Here we are a year later and Nancy’s solo exhibition Bicyclette is showing on Friday October 16, 2015 at the Asheville Art Museum. Then in November, Nancy is traveling to Cambodia to meet the girls who will receive bicycles from the proceeds of her artwork. With her, she will bring a special card for each of the girls, and plenty for them to share with friends. The card features one of Nancy’s paintings with an empowering mantra that she had translated for the girls: I am smart. I am brave. I am determined.

“Even if one girl really feels that thought,” said Nancy, “then if something has happened to her or her sister or her cousin or her mom – or even if not – she can feel like, ‘I can do this.’ Even if it’s just one person that remembers this random American girl that comes over, and it wasn’t about the bike… it was just about hope, [maybe that] will get her through something.”

To learn more about Nancy Hilliard Joyce’s upcoming Bicyclette show, visit or tour her studio in the Cotton Mill Building in Asheville’s River Arts District. To learn more about Lotus Pedals, visit

Haley Steinhardt is a freelance writer, editor, and owner of local business Soul Tree Publications, based out of Asheville, NC. Find her online at

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