Brush strokes soothe grieving heart of former resident

By Dean Shipley

April 25, 2014

This week is particularly memorable for Melissa Kaelin-Priebe. Within it falls April 24 (Thursday), on which four members of her family died in an automobile accident at the intersection of U.S. Route 40 and state Route 38. They were returning from a family celebration of Easter when their vehicle was struck crossing the divided National Road. Her mother, Paul Bunsey, stepfather, Tom Bunsey and twin half brothers, Thomas and Lawrence, all perished in the crash.

“I’m glad you didn’t call yesterday,” Kaelin-Priebe said Friday in a phone interview. Because it was the actual anniversary day of the devastating accident. It remains a source of deep sadness and grief for Kaelin-Priebe, who honored their memory with her husband in a quiet, meditative way. They lit candles in their memory.

While the anniversary is marked quietly, channeling her grief into more creative expressions helps her manage it the rest of the year. She has been painting, in acrylics on canvas, since 2012. Her first painting,”Longing for Darkness,” was produced approximately one year after the tragedy.

Kaelin said that incident ignited in her a creative fire. Even though she has had no advanced art training, she ventured forth anyway as a way to “channel negative energy.” She said she felt a surge of creativity following the accident.

That surge in three years has produced 30 paintings which are being shown in and around her residence in Apple Valley. They were accepted in a juried show and will be part of Art-A-Whirl, which will be a show May 16-18 in Northeast Minneapolis.

She paints on days when her thoughts of her family, especially her twin brothers, are running high.

“I wanted to emphasize how much this creative path is about honoring my twin brothers and parents,” Kaelin-Priebe said.

While she took grief counseling following the accident, she has also been able to express her grief through her painting. She called her first painting, “A meditation. A place of therapy and healing for me.”

“It’s really a way to honor them,” she said. “As I’ve been painting and met others, who have gone through grief, I’ve felt the connection speaking to people.”

She has discovered healing for herself and moved others to find healing.

It’s no accident her paintings bear similarity to one another. They follow a pattern she established for herself with her first painting. A lover of nature and the extremes of sunlight as seen at sunrise and sunset — she prefers the latter — she brushes on the vibrant, vivid colors first.

Then she adds shapes in silhouette, mostly trees. It is during the creation of the trees, black and leafless, that the connection with her departed family fuses.

“As I painted the trees, black and silhouette, it becomes meaningful for me,” she said. “Drawing the branches for each tree takes two to six hours. As I paint them, I think of my twin brothers and parents. It’s a way to be present with them and try to remember everything we experienced together.

“With the tragedy it’s difficult to experience memories in a normal way. Trying to think about four people you’ve lost, it’s a situation almost too much to process at one time.”

In addition to her painting, Kaelin-Priebe writes a blog. See it at

Kaelin-Priebe is a former copy editor at The Madison Press. She currently works part-time for the William Mitchell College of Law as a writer and social media editor.

Dean Shipley can be reached at (740) 852-1616, ext. 17 or via Twitter @DeanAShipley.