Grief comes in many shapes and sizes, and how grief is expressed can look very different from one person to the next. Beware of anyone telling you specifically how you should or should not be grieving the loss of someone or something you love–there is no “one-size-fits-all” when it comes to grief.
We are not in the realms of the rational when we are in a state of grieving. Sometimes, doing something that is not something we would usually do, or even something that feels a little crazy, becomes the best thing we can do for ourselves. And it’s also okay that sometimes, when we are grief-stricken, we don’t feel like doing anything.
When my father died, I was by his bedside for his final few days. The skeletal body in front of me didn’t look anything like my father, despite my having visited him only one month earlier. One of the best things I did after he died was to put together a collage of photos of him, using whatever photos and materials were at hand. The goal here was not perfection. It was not about making sure I had photos from every era of his life represented. It was about commemorating his healthier years (of which there were many). The effect this process had on me was to balance out the image of my dying father; an image that threatened to take over all my memories of who he was.
Did creating this collage heal me? Did it replace my father in any way? Of course not. We take our grief and create art and music for the expression of our own feelings; not out of any desire to “fix” things. Some things, once broken, can never be fixed. Yet I believe there is something of tremendous value in expressing our grief in this way.
I recently spoke with visual artist Shannon Amidon about art and grief. Shannon is a California based artist who creates mixed media artwork primarily using the medium of encaustic painting. She often incorporates repurposed or “upcycled” materials into her work. In a span of five years, she lost seven family members and three work colleagues. I asked her about how her work was affected by these deaths, and if she consciously approached her art with the idea of working through some of her grief.
Please tell me who you lost (how they were related to you) and in what time span.
From 2010 to this past Dec 2015 I have lost (in order of their deaths) my Step Father, Grandmother, Uncle, Grandfather, two work colleagues, Mother, Father, Aunt and another work colleague. So 10 people in about 5 years. Obviously the loss of my parents and grandparents has affected me deeper than some of the others but they all have touched my life in some way.
Was your first response to these losses an artistic one, or did that come later? Was there a time period where you sat around doing nothing for a while?
After my Step Father passed I was having a difficult time creating. I am a professional artist and this is what I do for a living and at that point I had a hard time separating being a professional artist from a grieving artist.
Most of my artwork is inspired by nature and beauty and I was not sure how to or if I wanted to create art about grief and death. It’s strange because I knew that art can be therapeutic for healing and grieving but I was putting too much pressure on myself to heal through art. I was in my head and thinking about it too much.
People would tell me that it must be great that I was an artist and could deal with and process all of this death through my art. At the time I didn’t feel that way at all, I didn’t want my art, my escape and sanctuary tainted by all of the death and dying. So for a time I didn’t mix the two, I still created but it wasn’t a way of healing or dealing with my pain.
It wasn’t until the birth of my daughter and having my Mother pass away not long after that I found a way to process and really heal through art. My feelings were so conflicted, I was just so tired of grieving and pain and at the same time my daughter brought me so much joy and life. That’s when I realized my art doesn’t not have to reflect pain and death, it can be about life and life cycles and honoring and remembering these amazing people.
Please describe some of the specific pieces you did that were a response to your losses.
One thing that comes with death is a lot of stuff, people have so much stuff. My family especially collected everything and never threw away anything. I took all of the ephemeral items, letters, favorite books, paperwork, old cards, photos, receipts, etc. and used them in my work. It was a way to honor and get to know them all over again.
I created a series of work entitled “In the end we all return to the earth” The whole series explored the cycles of life, living, decay, death and all that goes with it. I use a lot of trees and organic imagery to symbolize family, strength, life, memories, relationships and more.
“The Secret of Death” is old book pages with a fragments of a letter hand written by my Grandmother that have been sewn together with golden thread. This piece was inspired by the Rilke quote:
“The great secret of death, and perhaps its deeper connection with us, is this: that, in taking from us a being we have loved and venerated, death does not wound us without, at the same time, lifting us toward a more perfect understanding of this being and of ourselves.”
My piece “Sunday Morning” was inspired by trips to my Grandparents house as an adult. My Grandfather loved hummingbirds, he had about 10 feeders all around his house. On Sunday morning I would wake up and he would have coffee ready for me and was always excited to point out all of the hummingbird at each feeder. It was a peaceful, simple time.
The piece “Never Enough” has a darker meaning behind it. The background of the piece is filled with my Mothers old report cards. I saw how her grades, behavior and teacher comments got worse and worse over the years. It made me sad and frustrated, what was she going through, why wasn’t something done? My Mother had bipolar depression and I often wonder if this was diagnosed and treated at a younger age would her life have been filled with so much turmoil?
Please say something about how using art helped you through your grieving process.
The actual process of creating the pieces has been more important than the finished work. My studio is my sanctuary, being alone in there with my loved ones belongings has been very profound. I talked to them, cried, yelled, laid out pieces their lives on my table and stitched them back together.
Going through all of their paperwork, letters, photos, books and other ephemeral items in my studio made me feel closer to them. I love looking at the handwriting of loved ones and absorbing all of these little fragments of their lives even something as mundane as a hand written grocery list comforts me.
Using their belonging in my artwork is a way for me to keep pieces of them out in the world and to remember and honor them. It has been very cathartic.
If you hadn’t had art to help you process, what do you think might have happened to you (i.e. your mental state, etc.)
I would have shut away all the pain and not dealt with it. I am often the caretaker and the person who has to deal with all the messy and business side of death and dying. Planning memorials, medical decisions, executing wills, etc. because of that I have to keep myself together and strong.
Creating has helped me to actually grieve and remove that armor.
Is there anything else you’d like to mention about your experiences with art and grief?
In a way I feel likes it has made me a better artist. I am naturally a happy and positive person and have never believed in being the tortured artist. I don’t think you have to have pain to create good art. That being said, something about the process made me dive deeper, explore more and find a way to balance creating to heal and creating as a professional artist.
To learn more about Shannon and see more of her work, please visit www.shannonamidon.com