Where does my creativity and my grief meet? How do I use one to process the other? An exploration of how I use art to move through grief.
It’s been a hard few months.*
My aunt died. A pet died. A family friend died.
These griefs stacked on top of each other over the past few months with no appreciation for the pandemic swirling around us. My father died in January 2021 and I grieved his passing then but somehow my aunt dying made his death feel like a fresh wound again. Losing a family friend who is younger than I am snapped me awake like a face full of freezing water. It’s breathtaking in the worst possible way. I seem to be of an age where the deaths are coming more often and they seem somehow more visceral than when I was younger.
It’s unsurprising that I look toward making as a way to process this grief in particular and these ongoing griefs that the world serves up so often. “I am but a simple bird,” as my youngest child famously once said of themself but oh man, does it ever apply to me too. Shiny things capture my attention. Making marks on paper lifts my spirits. Letting go of the sadness while I focus on something beautiful, even if it’s only for 15 minutes, seems like good intervention to me.
After my Dad died
In the early days after my dad’s death, I wanted to make. I wanted to sort through my thoughts and feelings and memories and make something dedicated to his memory. A testament to my feelings for him even as complicated and unresolved as many of them were. I wanted to make something good. Because something good coming from this pain seemed the very least it could offer up.
What I made was garbage. I was distracted and emotional, trying too hard to make a memorial instead of soothing my soul by swirling colors on a piece of scrap paper. Trying to make something for posterity but ended up just making a series of bad drawings.
In retrospect, I realize there wasn’t anything in that moment that would have been *good* even if I had produced a “Starry Night” type work.
I was just too close to the event and too full of sadness for anything to be good.
I knew what was waiting for me when grief came calling this time. I didn’t try to run at this new grief head on. I’ve been sideling up to it. Just trying to brush the edges of it instead of running toward the making and processing My first impulse is to tackle it all at once to wrestle it to the ground and dispose of it.
Instead, I’ve been in my art journals and thinking through good memories of these people I love. Solidifying things I want to remember. Leaving myself a breadcrumb trail in daily art practice.
At the same time, I’ve been working on a series since January exploring deconstruction of the canvas form. Crocheting the canvas into a sculptural ground for composition. I have one piece that started with a waterfall of crocheted pink and maroon fabric, simultaneously standing in for a bridal train and mensural flow. But as I’ve edited and refined and pulled together the pieces of it, I’m finding it’s about my aunts who are gone. Once again, even in this new form, I’m talking about the women around me and what they’ve represented to my life. The structure and form of what they’ve provided.
This one piece belongs very firmly in this series and yet it stands separately. It holds both the before-grief energy and this current grief. And if I had been trying to make it, it would have been an awful mess. Somehow in the waiting and watching and editing, it has become more than itself. A whole thing representing these people, this grief, the universality of aunts.
I am struck by how much of art making is waiting. I never knew there would be so many things I wanted to do that I would learn to sense the timing of and wait on something to come of it. Waiting on this moment to develop and be a building block for something I might make in the future. “Why can’t I go now?” my internal toddler whines.
Today I recognize that there is work brewing inside of me that will be about my dad. But for now it is still incubating. I’m in the process of absorbing the things I need that will make that work later. And being patient in that process is the worst thing in the world. Because I never want to wait for anything.
Maybe without these losses I would have stayed undiscerning and my work would have retained a certain shallowness. Is this how all big emotions and art making work? Seeing them in the context of grief makes them more obvious to view somehow. Maybe I’ve always done this and I’ve only just figured out this pattern.
Regardless, what else is grief besides waiting? Waiting for the proverbial sun to shine again. Looking for a way to be on the other side of the pain. Whiling away the time for the memories to be sweet again instead of bitter. May my art fill this time.
*Please know I’m not attempting to solicit your sympathy or pity. We all have times of grief and I’m trying to both work through my own grief and provide some mile markers for others.