"An Artist Grieves," read the title card at the door. The visitor steps in to a brightly lit room with a long conglomerate of images across three walls. The shape is best described as a timeline, and from afar, the images cluster to form their own organic shape. Step closer, and each individual image shines on its own. In one image, shiny pencil graphite lines trace the face of a middle-aged man, disproportionately large eyes standing out from the face. In another image, a painting of a young girl wearing a pink dress is jumping into the air, mirrored by her shadow image in deep blues. As the visitor walks around the room, they find a shattered mirror painted with a figure bowing down, and next to it a dancer leaping into the air, juxtaposed with rows of dried leaves and butterflies in straight lines. Coming away from the experience, a visitor might feel overwhelmed with the sheer quantity of imagery, slightly sad, and most profoundly, introspective.
I was a senior in college, looking for something to research and write about for my thesis project. My advisor suggested I write about two things I know very deeply: grief and art. I spent six months researching the lives and work of other artists who also experienced the loss of a loved one. Each artist came from a different cultural background, and thus had not only their individual expression, but a cultural understanding as to what death means and what norms are appropriate for the period of grief following a loss.
I studied my own work, too, as to how I was or wasn’t able to express my grief through my art. When I was young, I never consciously tried to address grief in my art, instead, I mostly skirted around the issue. I discovered I did a lot of “self-editing,” making darkness or confusion not look so bad, and always made sure to add a touch of hope so that no one would worry about me. I also discovered that I could not make sense of death outside of my religious perspective, nor could I make sense of death and grief without the use of the arts. I presented my research in the form of both a paper and an art exhibition. Stepping away from the grueling and soul-searching experience, I thought I was “done” processing my grief. It had been 10 years since my dad died, anyways, wasn’t I “healed enough”?
I experienced subsequent losses in my twenties, both in my health, job, and family. And because of what I had learned in my retrospect thesis, I began to intentionally use my art to help me process what I was going through. And then I began to intentionally teach the people I worked with a few things about art as well. We’d have deep conversations after a painting session. I’d work with young women I mentored and after struggling to express what they felt, I’d hand them a box of crayons. I LOVED making sense of their drawings with them, asking “why did you decide to paint it this way?” or “what if things were different?” and asking them to draw that. As I taught others, I also learned about my own journey. And most of all, I’ve learned the importance of talking about hard things, to avoiding the darkness, but bringing light by sharing our stories.
Project Grief was born out of my life story. It was made clearer through my thesis research, and then it was validated by my husband, whom I married in 2017. He was the first one to sit me down and ask me to tell my story, from start to finish. He spent hours filming me, editing video, and making the websites presentable. My brother, who was eight years old when our dad passed, has grown up to become a successful young businessman and the champion and first patron of this project.
I hope that out of Project Grief comes a flood of beautiful and not so beautiful artwork that expresses the deepest things about our humanity. I hope that artists and people who would never call themselves as such, find greater freedom in self-expression and greater understanding of their deepest thoughts. And finally, I hope that through hearing my story, those who are grieving right now see the first glimpses of hope. I hope they can begin to image a future where no, things aren’t as they had hoped, and yet there still is more to live for. And I hope that one day, they too, will be able to paint out and share their story.
(Photographs by Beth Notturno)