“Creativity helps us envision ourselves as whole and complete, it’s a part of our healing process,” says Nja Onê (pronounced Inja Ōnay), an artist, performer and entrepreneur who came to Globe from Las Vegas with her husband Dan two years ago. “You have the right and the power to be creative,” she adds.
Nja has worked in stage production and costume design, wrote plays and poetry, performed on stage, painted murals, taught art, and worked in interior design. Her art has been displayed in Las Vegas, Chicago, Australia, France and Canada. She was the first female muralist involved in the the annual Gateway Beautification project in Las Vegas, for which she was invited to participate in three years in a row, and she was chosen by the National Endowment for the Arts to represent Nevada and share her story of the importance of art in her life and community.
Drawn to its history, ambiance and community, Nja and Dan unexpectedly fell in love with Globe after Nja was offered a position as Creative Director for the French American School of Arizona in Tempe. Soon after their move to Arizona, they decided to take the scenic route back from Tucson to their home in Mesa, driving through this little town in the high desert on the way. Nja’s gut told her, “This is good.” They left Mesa to settle in Globe.
Here in Globe, Nja keeps a busy schedule making art, teaching sewing at Gila County Community College, and conducting art and craft workshops in her gallery. She is developing a readymade clothing line, provides sewing machine maintenance, and hosts a monthly open mic with her husband Dan. She also provides art therapy.
Hidden behind her New York accent, sass and attitude peppered with laughter, a life of hardship has helped shape Nja into the artist she is today. Perhaps it’s from her combined Portuguese, Choctaw Indian and West Indian ancestry, perhaps it’s from the stories of the souls who visit her, or, perhaps it’s from a life filled with challenges to overcome – Nja is wise in ways that are hard to explain.
Growing up in the Bronx, the youngest of five children, her abusive father left her and her family when she was young. She still remembers his violent outbursts. She refers to him as her mother’s husband, not as her father. But even after he was gone, three of her older siblings continued to abuse her. She grew up the youngest in a troubled household with only one brother and her mother to stand in her defense.
In the late ‘70s, Nja went to the High School of Art and Design in New York and dreamed of making a career as a fashion design illustrator, but she had to leave school when she got pregnant at 16 with her first child. Four months after her son was born, she asked to return to complete her education. The school said they couldn’t accept a teen mother on their campus. She tried going to night school, but that proved to be too difficult to manage with work and a baby to care for. She found a vocational school in Harlem, where, with the help of her mother, she was able to complete high school and learn job skills needed to be a secretary.
At the age of 22, as a wife, the mother of two and a foster parent to one, Nja went to nursing school in New York. From a young age, Nja felt driven to help and protect others, especially her mother, whose abuse she had witnessed regularly at home. Caring for others had become her internal mechanism for dealing with her own emotional struggles. She completed nursing school, going on to practice nursing for the next 15 years in hospitals, hospice and private care.
About 15 years ago, Nja’s mother died, and that’s when her world seemed to collapse around her. She had left the Bronx for Las Vegas in 1987, and had been working there as a nurse ever since. After the death of her mother – the person she most needed to care for in order to keep her own sadness at bay – overwhelmed by grief, her childhood traumas surfaced like a tsunami of pain and loss. Nja refers to it as “The Dark Time.” She rarely left her home, the earth beneath her feet no longer felt safe, and the line between reality and fantasy became unclear. At first she thought she was just grieving, but as time passed, she began to understand that her struggle went beyond the grief for her mother and that she needed professional help. She went into therapy and was diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder, a condition in which adults with a history of childhood abuse can sometimes find themselves drawn into the thought processes and emotional maturity of their wounded childhood selves. In order to heal from this condition, slowly, one by one, Nja confronted the wounded personalities she was carrying, felt their pain, and let them go. This Dark Time lasted about five years.
The name Nja means “safe place,” and it is the name she chose for herself after her mother died, after she fell into deep depression, after she recovered from Dissociative Identity Disorder, and after she was able to face the physical and emotional abuse of her past and began to rebuild her life.
After Nja’s mother died, Nja began having spirit “visitors,” and she started creating what she calls “spirit paintings.” Her first visitor said to her, “Paint my portrait and tell my story,” and that is what she did. Others quickly followed: the young African princess struggling to continue her father’s legacy, a free-spirited prostitute from the roaring ‘20s, an old man who shared the wisdom of the forest. Her artistic style changed as she tried to recreate the colors, light and layers that she was seeing, which were more vibrant and fluid than what we see in our “physical” world. It is with her spirit paintings that, besides bringing her peace and helping her heal, her art has become noticed and sought after. This is when Nja began to rebuild herself anew as an entrepreneur in the vibrant city of Las Vegas.
Nja believes that you know who you are and what you’re meant to be from the time you are born. Nja knew she would help or heal people from the time she was little, and she has. Though she is no longer a nurse, Nja is now starting a survivors of trauma support group here in Globe-Miami, called Safe Space, beginning this spring.
She will also exhibit her art at the Cobre Valley Center for the Arts from April 20 through May 31, and her art space, The Art of Nja Onê Gallery, is open by appointment in Globe. More of Nja’s art can be found at Plumm Pikins in Gold Canyon and at Jim Coates Studio Cafe in Miami.