The Nobel Peace Prize awarded jointly last week to Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee and pro-democracy leader Tawakkul Karman of Yemen was sweet news to Nell Hillsley of Minneapolis.

Hillsley, 84, also has devoted her adult life to peace. This weekend, she'll continue that effort in a big way.

Hillsley is donating more than 150 of her paintings and drawings to Art For Peace, a benefit for the Nonviolent Peaceforce ( The Peaceforce, with international headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, and a U.S. office near Minneapolis' Loring Park, brings trained but unarmed civilians into high-conflict areas to restore calm and build relationships.

Four years ago, Hillsley's first art show single-handedly funded two peacekeepers for a year. This time around, she'll be joined by about 40 Twin Cities artists donating their work, ranging in price from $50 to $1,500. There's no telling how many peacekeepers their pieces will support, but Mel Duncan, co-founder of the nine-year-old non-profit, hopes for at least three.

"More important," Duncan said, "is that people will be introduced to a new way to deal with violent conflict that doesn't involve huge military buildups and the introduction of more guns."

They do what?

More on this impressive art show in a minute, but it's hard not to emphasize, and feel humbled by, who these peacekeepers are. Duncan laughs when I ask, "Could I become one?"

"Well," he said, pausing, which isn't a "no" exactly. The better question is: Do I have what it takes to become one?

130 working across world

About 130 civilian peacekeepers work inside some of the world's most volatile areas, including the Philippines, South Sudan and Sri Lanka. Median age: 34. Gender breakdown: 55 percent male, 45 percent female. Peacekeepers come from 25 countries. They are police officers, college professors, judges, journalists and mothers. Their strategic presence, coupled with their clear expectation of accountability by warring parties, has diffused tensions repeatedly.

They are paid a monthly stipend of about $1,500, and must commit for two years. Expenses are paid, including one trip home a year.

"One of the things that surprised me the most is that we never lack for recruits," Duncan said.

"For one recent class with 23 slots, we had over 200 applicants from 55 countries," he said. The screening process for peacekeepers is "very intensive," he said. Participants must follow strict security protocols or they're out.

Having what it takes

"We take people who have demonstrated an ability to work in cross-cultural situations, who can work under pressure, and who have demonstrated resilience. We do see and experience some pretty gruesome things. You have to get up the next morning."

In eight years, two peacekeepers have sustained conflict-related injuries. None has died.

"They may never be known internationally," Hillsley said of these individuals, "but they are literally dedicating their lives to peace."

The artist's life captivated Hillsley as a little girl growing up in South Carolina. "I was absolutely seduced by color," she said.

Her mother signed her up for art lessons in second grade, an indulgence during the Depression. She studied art for one year at Colorado College, married at 18, and has taken art classes and volunteered in poverty programs through the years.

First effort brought in $64,000

Many may remember Hillsley's Children's Faces Project about a decade ago, in which artists and school children painted 3,000 portraits of children's faces to represent homelessness. The faces were used at the State Capitol and at churches around the Twin Cities to build awareness about poverty.

A widow with three grown daughters, Hillsley remarried five years ago and now paints in the studio of the contemporary home she shares with husband, Van Lawrence, overlooking Cedar Lake.

In 2007, she dreamed that her 125 art pieces would raise $30,000, enough to fund "one courageous peacekeeper. Do you know that we made $64,000?" she said. "I was never happier in my life than I was after that weekend."

Like Duncan, she's giddy about this weekend's possibilities. "In a world of ongoing wars and senseless violence," Hillsley said, "this organization gives me hope."

Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350