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Power of Empathy in Contemporary Atmospheres: Unveiling the Profound Narratives in Holly Sabine Nerreter's Practice

Joana Alarcão

In her poignant mixed media drawings, Holly Sabine Nerreter delves into the stories of women, senior citizens, and the homeless. With "Protect the Past to Save the Future," sparked by outrage over the mistreatment of older individuals during the pandemic, Nerreter intricately details every wrinkle to challenge ageism and ensure their stories are heard. Through her compelling work, she urges us to embrace our elders, offering a profound reminder of their wisdom and beauty.

24 November 2023

I create my mixed media drawings using pencil, graphite, ball point pen and paint . My driving force is to highlight the beauty and stories of woman , senior citizens , the homeless and also due to personal experience trying to unearth the pain due to loss. My series “ protect the Past to save the future “ started as a outrage over the treatment of older people during the pandemic. For many viewed as not important or “ canon fudder“ I felt with deep urgency to highlight their wisdom and beauty . I wanted to spend lots of time „seeing them „ so included a hyper amount of details. Every wrinkle tells a story , and so many more stories are there to be told . Ageism feels like an ongoing pandemic and we need to embrace our elders and be on their side. Not forget about them.

In a world increasingly centred around the self, where empathy becomes a luxury rather than a normal human characteristic, the importance of nurturing that sense of care and empathy skyrockets to nearly unheard-of levels. The persistent attacks on human life and the moral ambiguity seen during COVID-19 concerning human life, especially in older people, need to be questioned. This is the aim of UK-based artist Holly Sabine Nerreter, who, through our recent conversation, unveiled a profound empathy for the human experience, creating intricate and emotionally charged drawings.

Protect the past X by Holly Sabine. Images courtesy of Holly Sabine.


One of Holly’s standout pieces, Protect the Past to Save the Future II, crafted during the tumultuous times of the 2020 pandemic, creates a critical commentary on ageism and the neglect faced by the elderly, particularly in nursing homes in the UK. The artist was truly "horrified by the adopted stance of leisurely deciding it would be ok that people die of COVID because they reached a certain age or/and are disabled or ill, immune compromised. Giving the impression they are worthless, and not of any importance."

Even though the concept behind these drawings is of a dark nature, Sabine's detailed portraiture of elderly woman and man also speaks of hope—hope for a better future and for better days to come. In our interview, the artist discussed the power of empathy as a means of addressing contemporary issues and promoting positive transformation.


“We would not be here without them; we would not be who we are either, so it's important to appreciate, support, be kind, and protect them in times of crisis”, the artist told me. “If anyone looks at this drawing and remembers an old dear friend, family member, or just a beautiful or inspiring older person sitting in front of you in the bus, then this makes me happy, and my art went full circle.”


Protect the Past VIIII by Holly Sabine. Image courtesy of Holly Sabine

A closer look at Holly's artistic practice reveals a deliberate choice of subjects rooted in her personal experiences and desire to "highlight the beauty and stories of woman, senior citizens and the homeless". Her meticulous portraits, which take 30–50 hours to complete, transcend mere representation; they become a fusion of real people and her emotional connection to them. The exaggeration of the eyes in her drawings becomes a window to the soul, offering a deeper glimpse into the shared human experience.


Furthermore, in examining the artist's chosen material, we encounter an exploration of the idea of space that extends beyond its physical structures. Holly’s choice of materials and mediums, such as fine-grained paper, pens, pencils, markers, and paint, adds layers of texture and depth to her creations, transforming them into a sensory experience both for the artist, who, almost in a meditative state, creates dimension and meaning behind every pore and hair, skin texture, eyes, and lashes. But also for the viewers, who are invited to look closer and question their thoughts about vulnerability and inclusion. 

Protect the Past VII by Holly Sabine. Image courtesy of Holly Sabine.

Holly Sabine Nerreter's work goes beyond aesthetics and serves as a platform for addressing pressing contemporary issues. And, despite the challenges she has faced, including battles with depression and personal losses, her art remains a therapeutic outlet and a means to confront adversity and embody resilience through her artistic expression. Her commitment to advocating for the most vulnerable extends beyond her art practice. Sabine also participated in Dementia Spring, a project in the U.S. that linked Alzheimer’s patients with artists and their artwork, while also inspiring patients to engage in artistic expression.

“I strongly believe activism can only succeed by being powered by emotion and provoking emotion, and if I can do that with my work just once, I have succeeded.”


Lost Like Tears I by Holly Sabine. Image courtesy of Holly Sabine.

During my analysis of Holly Sabine Nerreter's art, I was confronted with an acute sense of empathy both for the people portrayed in her work and also for the viewers. Through her intricate portraits, she invites us to pause, reflect, and connect with the often marginalized voices in our society, fostering a deeper understanding of the shared human experience. Holly's dedication to creating art that speaks to the heart is a genuine contribution to the evolving narrative of contemporary art.


For those intrigued by Holly's work, I highly recommend exploring her website and interview on Patreon, which provide valuable insights into the artist's creative journey.

Cover Image:

Protect the Past II by Holly Sabine. Image courtesy of Holly Sabine.

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