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A Scientist Grows Art in NoMa at Gallery NK

By Janie Velencia

Tucked away amid the rowhouses of NoMA is a once run-down warehouse transformed into a clean, modern contemporary art gallery. The charming studio, Gallery NK, is the creation of Turkish-born artist Nihal Kececi. With genuine Turkish hospitality, Kececi and her daughter Julie welcomed this reporter into their gallery with coffee, tea, and desserts. There, we chatted, and I learned of her journey from Turkey to K Street, and more specifically, 321 K St. NE. As a child, Kececi demonstrated a knack for painting and was encouraged by family and friends to pursue art school. But Kececi had different plans in mind. “I wanted to be a more important person in life. I wanted to be a doctor or engineer. So that’s what I did,” she said. She studied physics and got her master’s degree in nuclear engineering, one of a handful of women in Turkey at the time to attain such a degree and become a scientist. She had also started a Ph.D. in bioscience when an opportunity to pursue a fellowship with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission came up in 1996. So, she and her 10-year-old daughter packed up and moved to the D.C. area. After the fellowship, she began work as a faculty associate at the University of Maryland. During her career, she published more than 20 papers and presented her research around the world. She recalls of one conference that she organized in Istanbul, “after I introduced I looked around, and I see 150 men all clapping for me,” she said. “I was proud.” In 2000, she went to work at the University of Montreal and when she returned to the United States in 2002, she found a much different atmosphere than the one she had left. “My work was mostly about safety critical systems and after the 9/11 attacks the security clearances changed.” As a Turkish citizen, she was no longer able to continue work in the same area and at the same level that she had before. Not knowing what she would do next, Kececi started painting again as an outlet. Pretty soon her house was flooded with her work. “Whatever I do, I do a lot,” she said. “I lose myself and time when I start working.” The self-trained artist began traveling to art shows, and exhibits and in 2007 sold her first piece. Kececi realized she could make a career out of her talent and soon was doing 25 shows a year. She characterizes her work as “the gap between representation and obstruction.” Her work consists mainly of pastels, oils, and acrylics. Kececi’s paintings have transformed alongside her as she has moved through different stages of her life and grown spiritually. “All of these are subconscious paintings; I don’t know what’s going to come out. It’s a journey. It’s more than shapes; it’s about feelings. My experience with the universe,” she said of the work in her studio. In late 2013, Kececi decided she wanted to become more established. She found an old warehouse in the alley off K Street Northeast and turned it into a chic and modern gallery that doubles as her residence. She says she created the “intimate space” to display and sell art. Kececi’s pieces range in price from $250 to $13,000. She showcases different artists from around the world each month. The gallery is appointment-based and is also available for events, such as happy hours and catered parties. It can accommodate up to 75 people standing and up to 30 people sitting, she said. Kececi wants to share her art with the community and allow people to enjoy the space even if they are not purchasing the art. Asked about her journey from scientist to an artist to gallery manager — and if she misses her previous career — she said, “I don’t live in the past. Once I leave something, I’m done with it.”

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