MOORHEAD — Growing up in Wahpeton, N.D., with six older sisters, Barbara Benda Nagle and Beverly Benda would watch as their mother fell into a creative “trance” while applying glue and glitter to cloth designs.

“Every now and then, she would clear the big dining room table, lay out all her bottles of glitter, spread out the material and make these glitter pictures,” Barbara recalls.

Despite their pleas to “help,” she’d insist on doing it alone.

“She was very selfless with everything else, but this is one thing she had to do by herself. We would talk to her, but it was like she didn’t even hear us,” Barbara says. “She had a very hard life, and I think this was her therapy.”

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Both sisters, identical twins and in their 60s, now better understand their mother’s need — one they say everyone has, along with the interior gifts to address it.

“God is the great creator, and we’re his children,” Barbara says. “We can all tap into his great creativity — there’s enough to go around.”

Barbara Benda Nagle (left) and twin sister Beverly Benda stand in front of some of their work inside of their gallery on Friday, May 22, in Moorhead. Alyssa Goelzer / The Forum
Barbara Benda Nagle (left) and twin sister Beverly Benda stand in front of some of their work inside of their gallery on Friday, May 22, in Moorhead. Alyssa Goelzer / The Forum

When Barbara decided to go into the art business full time in 2014, she asked God to “turn the faucet on,” she says. “It’s gushing out now. I can’t adjust the spigot.”

Along with nature and their mother, who provided basic materials to keep their young fingers busy, both were influenced by their high school art teacher, Aimee Sanger.

“She was very out-of-the-box,” Beverly says. “So many people get turned off from art because, according to the teacher, they’re not painting right or drawing right. She was about self-expression, and the more you do it, the more you learn what principle works best.”

But for years, art took a back seat. Sports consumed the twins’ early lives as top tennis players in high school and beyond. In college, Barbara pursued education, and Beverly, dietetics.

Focusing on worldly pursuits, Barbara says, they lost sight of God. But eventually — at separate colleges and only three days apart — they each found themselves stumbling back. The moment of conversion was marked for both, miraculously they say, by the gift of tears — something denied them earlier through being born with dysfunctional tear ducts.

“God continues to give us tears now, but not freely; only on special occasions,” Barbara says.

Psalm 56:8 speaks of how God “keeps track of all our sorrows,” she adds, recording them in his book. “To think God cares that much for each of us.”

"Blessed Are Those Who Mourn," Barbara Benda Nagle's submission to this year's Rourke Midwestern exhibit." "I did it as an idea for a children's book idea I had on showing my graphic interpretation of the Beatitudes. It also reflects grief over losses I've had in my life," she says.
"Blessed Are Those Who Mourn," Barbara Benda Nagle's submission to this year's Rourke Midwestern exhibit." "I did it as an idea for a children's book idea I had on showing my graphic interpretation of the Beatitudes. It also reflects grief over losses I've had in my life," she says.

Healing nature of art

The sisters certainly have needed tears. At 10, their father, John, died of a heart attack, and at 26, they lost their mother, Katherine Rose, killed tragically by a train. Both have suffered additional afflictions, including effects of sports injuries.

But in days of sorrow, art has become a helpful companion once again, comforting them like in days their mom gave them crayons and paper to doodle away the day. Barbara initiated the trajectory back to art; her portfolio and information on art classes can be found at www.barbarabendanagle.com.

More recently, Beverly has followed suit. They share their work together at barbarabendanagle.company.site.

Mourning Dove Studio is seen covered in original artwork created by Barbara Benda Nagle and her twin sister Beverly Benda in Moorhead. Alyssa Goelzer / The Forum
Mourning Dove Studio is seen covered in original artwork created by Barbara Benda Nagle and her twin sister Beverly Benda in Moorhead. Alyssa Goelzer / The Forum

Gerry Lucht, a student of Barbara’s, says, “What impressed me so much was her patience and kindness. I learned so much and we laughed a lot; I felt like I’d always known her.”

And when a cross necklace sparked a conversation about faith in class one day, she learned another dimension.

"Barbara talks about the Lord as if he’s her best friend, and I really think he is," he says.

As the sisters have merged their creative pursuits, Lucht has gotten to know Beverly, too, and admires their work as a team. “They’re both so gifted in their artistic ability.”

"A Spiritual Place," acrylic mixed media collage painting made by Barbara Benda Nagle for last year's Rourke Midwestern exhibit. Special to The Forum
"A Spiritual Place," acrylic mixed media collage painting made by Barbara Benda Nagle for last year's Rourke Midwestern exhibit. Special to The Forum

Burdened by debilitating pain through degenerative disc disease, Lucht says the Benda twins have helped remind her of art’s healing capacity.

“I often don’t sleep well, so I might be up at 3 a.m. doing watercolor in my little corner,” she says. “With my last knee surgery, I was in quite a bit of pain, but I was still retrieving my watercolor for solace.”

Debra Griffey, a longtime friend of both, shares their artistic passions, and appreciates both sisters individually.

“I love how they can finish each other’s sentences. There’s a beautiful, connected bond,” she says. “They had a falling-out time, so thankfully God has restored that, because what they’re doing together now is so powerful.”

Barbara Benda Nagle and Beverly Benda as seen in 1958 on their first birthday in Wahpeton, N.D. Special to The Forum
Barbara Benda Nagle and Beverly Benda as seen in 1958 on their first birthday in Wahpeton, N.D. Special to The Forum

Griffey calls the sisters “strong, independent women” who have been “softened” through life’s trials.

“They are givers. They see the one in need and really reach out to them,” she says.

She describes Beverly — the youngest, trained also as a life coach — as the more nurturing. “Not that Barb isn’t. But she’s the determined, directed, keep-you-on-task one.”

As an art teacher herself, Griffey says she appreciates how the sisters encourage everyone to use their unique gifts. “The gift of empowering people to believe that they have something to offer is something they both do so well, and our world so needs that today.”

“Everywhere you look, God’s creation is crying out,” Griffey adds, in sunsets, spring blossoms, and the breeze. “A lot of the subject matter that Barb and Bev paint shows their view of this world God created.”

"Connected," an acrylic painting on canvas by Beverly Benda, conveys the connection between mother and child. Special to The Forum
"Connected," an acrylic painting on canvas by Beverly Benda, conveys the connection between mother and child. Special to The Forum

Barbara describes their art as “realism to nonobjective with everything in between.” While she paints more in watercolor, Beverly is often drawn to acrylic mixed-media collage.

Beverly says she considers Barbara an exemplary teacher — for others and herself — but she appreciates her just as much as sister and friend.

“When we were little, we’d point to people and say, ‘Where’s his twin? Where’s her twin?’ Mom explained not everyone has a twin, and we felt so badly,” she says. “I can’t imagine my life without my twin. What we would do without each other?”

“Double Trouble,” their mother would lovingly call them as little girls, Barbara says — and it’s true, they agree, in all the best ways.

Salonen, a wife and mother of five, works as a freelance writer and speaker in Fargo. Email her at roxanebsalonen@gmail.com, and find more of her work at Peace Garden Passage, http://roxanesalonen.com/.