Loss & Remembrance
This issue of AHN News is dedicated to Loss & Remembrance and using the creative process to help grieve and honor those who have passed away. Whether working in stitching, mixed media, journaling or photography, the artists featured here have all found solace in art making after the death of a loved one.
I begin with an interview with artist Lisa Kokin whose series, Raveling, was created after the loss of her mother. I also review two books Ė My Dakota by Rebecca Norris Webb which features photographs taken while grieving the untimely death of her brother; and A Kiss Before You Go, Danny Gregoryís visual journal chronicling the first year after his wifeís tragic death. Lastly, I include a link to artist Sherri Lynn Woodís Passage Quilting, a practice of transforming the deceasedís clothing into new objects of warmth and comfort.
May this issue inspire you to use creativity to help navigate loss and reconcile grief.
Wishing you much grace,
~ Mary Daniel Hobson, Director of Arts & Healing Network
ďWhen I look back on the process, I think that making the work was the way I processed my grief... I believe that the creative process is a great vehicle for healing.Ē ~ Lisa Kokin
Lisa Kokin is an artist who creates mixed-media sculpture, installations, assemblage and artistís books that address memory, history and social commentary. When her mother passed away in 2011, Lisa turned to art as a way to process that loss and honor her motherís death. Working with thread and stabilizer, she created a series of delicate and intricate wall pieces called Raveling, that express the fragility and beauty of the end of life. Lisa is also a teacher and mentor, and she lives and works in San Francisco Bay Area, California (USA).
Mary Daniel Hobson: First of all, I want to say that I am so sorry for your loss. I can only imagine the challenge in losing your mother. My first question is really about how you found your way to art after she died. Was it an immediate thing or did it take some time to incubate? And what piece emerged first?
Lisa Kokin: Thanks, Danny. My mother was five monthsí short of her hundredth birthday when she died. She had been living in a skilled nursing facility for the past seven and a half years. (Incidentally, I teach art one day a week in the facility and my mother came to my classes and made amazing, obsessive Giacometti-like drawings up until a few years before her death.)
She entered the facility with mild dementia and a variety of physical ailments. As the years passed, her dementia got more advanced and, of course, her physical situation deteriorated as well. All this is to say that the process was a long one and there were no surprises. Many times along the way I thought she was dying. She had pneumonia several times, she fell, she stopped eating for several days at a time; each time I was convinced that was "it". Despite her diminishing strength, she survived each of those incidents until finally she wasnít able to survive the last bout of pneumonia.
She was a very strong person with a forceful personality. I am her only child, and she was very attached to me, as I was to her. Watching her slow and steady decline was very difficult for me, and many times I returned home feeling sad and wondering whether she had any quality of life left.
People say that when a loved one has dementia, you start losing them before they actually physically go. The grieving process began long before my mother died. That is why I literally started working on the Raveling series right after my momís death. Itís as though it was all percolating during the years of witnessing her decline, and once she actually physically left, all of my pent-up grief and sadness found an outlet in my work.
Two days before my mother died, she started saying (yelling, really), "Take me home now!" She repeated this over and over again, more and more vociferously. I think even the hospice nurse was surprised by the intensity of her demand. It was an incredibly powerful experience to witness my motherís readiness, and I felt that she had done her time and deserved to not have to suffer anymore.
The day before my mother died we had what was to be our last conversation. I had started bringing a notebook with me once I knew that it really was the end. I jotted down things she said, and I wrote down our last conversation in its entirety. I knew that I would use it, although I didnít know exactly how. That conversation found its way into a piece called
Transcript (Kaddish), in which I wrote the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, in Hebrew, and then superimposed the last conversation over it.
The first piece I did was Take Me Home Now #1. The sound of my mothers repeated command reverberated inside my head and I needed to externalize it in some way. By repeatedly sewing the phrase over and over again, in an almost ritualistic way, I made my motherís wish into a tangible form while also processing the experience. For the next nine months I worked very intensively on the Raveling series, which I exhibited at Seager Gray Gallery in October 2012.
Mary Daniel: How did making this work help you process your grief? Do you feel differently about your mother's death since creating this work?
Lisa: When I look back on the process, I think that making the work was the way I processed my grief, which, as I mentioned, had begun years before. I had a visceral need to make the work and make it I did, day after day, doing not much socializing or other activities, other than being with my partner Lia, seeing a few friends, going to work, teaching in my studio, walking the dogs. I allowed myself this time because I needed it, and I also knew that I had a show coming up. Once my mother died, I knew that her death would be the subject of my show.
I donít mean to imply at all that losing my mother was in any way easy, but the fact is that when someone has had such an extraordinarily long life and has deteriorated over a period of years, the loss is somewhat easier to deal with than if someone dies prematurely or suddenly. At least that has been my experience.
I donít really feel any differently about my motherís death after making the work. I just feel that I have made a small tribute to her, and really only to a small part of who she was at the very end of her very long life.
Mary Daniel: In this series, most of the pieces are beautiful, lace-like, stitched works. I wondered if you could talk about the tactile process of sewing and what you find so appealing about working in this medium?
Lisa: I have been a sewer since the age of nine when my uncle gave me my first sewing machine, which I still have and which I used to make some of the work. My motherís mother, an immigrant from Romania, worked in a tie factory in New York, like many eastern European Jewish immigrants at the beginning of the last century. My parents had a small upholstery shop, and I spent time there after school. So, Iíve always been surrounded by fabric and sewing and have used it for many years in my work in a variety of ways. Sewing is also a way that I feel connected to my ancestors and my heritage. It is an anchor to my personal history which gives me comfort.
I began using thread as my primary medium several years ago after learning how to work with Solvy, a stabilizer that allows one to make weblike thread drawings. The repetitive process of sewing is meditative; I get lost in the process and I like that. The other part of it is that the process is very labor-intensive and the meditativeness sometimes transforms itself into monotony! In order to achieve the effect I want, I have to do what I sometimes call "extreme sewing" Ė sewing over and over and over again, back and forth and sideways to build up the kind of layered surface I like to have in my work.
Mary Daniel: Could you pick one piece from the series and share the story behind it?
Lisa: Ninety-Nine Leaves #1 is a piece that I made after the Take Me Home pieces. On the day that my mother died, December 12, 2011, I stayed with her for awhile in her room with my partner and my two closest friends until I was ready to let the crematorium people come to get her body. It was a blustery winter day, and the four of us went for a walk around the neighborhood. There were lots of leaves falling and many were on the ground. I gathered a bunch of them, of different kinds and sizes, and when I returned to my studio, I pressed them between the pages of some big dictionaries. Again, I knew that I would use them in some way. In fact, I even knew that I would use ninety-nine of them, since that was my motherís age.
Months later, when I was emotionally ready, I took the leaves out, traced their forms on the stabilizer and sewed them. I based the palette on my small collection of leaf skeletons, which I had gathered on walks in the woods near my home. I loved the beauty and fragility of the skeletons which seemed to be not unlike the way my mother was at the very end. Something dead which is also beautiful Ė these are seemingly contradictory things, but they can exist simultaneously.
I took liberties with the color of the leaves, using a mostly neutral palette with touches of yellows, reds and oranges. Embedded in each leaf are fragments from a Hebrew prayer book which I had found years before at a secondhand store. The book was in a state of major disrepair; that is how I rationalized taking it apart even further.
Mary Daniel: Can you speak about the texts you are using in this series and how they create meaning in the work?
Lisa: Text, whether found or heard, plays a major role in this work. The text is actually the image in the Take Me Home and Transcript (Kaddish) pieces. The other way that I have used text in this series is in recreating in thread four pages of my motherís journal. I had given my mother a notebook several years before she died, but I hadnít looked at what she had written until I was packing up her room. She wrote on ten of the pages. She wrote down her memories of growing up in Brooklyn [New York, USA] and of her philosophy of life. One memorable sentence reads, "Maybe when Iím 100 yrs. old I will feel a little old. But not now." As she got older and more demented and visually-impaired, she wrote lines of words on top of each other. I recreated four of the ten pages, staying true to her handwriting, which in its spidery illegibility, was beautiful and evocative.
Mary Daniel: How have people responded to the work?
Lisa: The response has been very positive. It was the most difficult body of work to put out in the world because of its highly personal nature. I was apprehensive once it was time to hang the show. But people came up to me at the opening and at the closing talk to share their stories of losing parents. Somehow I knew that even though it was my own personal story, it had a quality of universality that would hopefully transcend the strictly personal.
Mary Daniel: What advice do you have for anyone who is interested in using the creative process to heal from the loss of a loved one?
Lisa: I believe that the creative process is a great vehicle for healing, processing and working through feelings, thoughts and ideas. My advice is to do whatever creative process seems like a good fit, either one that one has done already or one that is new and unfamiliar.
Mary Daniel: Are you continuing to grow this series, or is it complete? What are you working on now?
Lisa: I have made four small pieces based on the mother and child motif that I used in the piece Motif. The image is from a photo taken of me with my mother when I was about six. My mother towers over me and we are leaning into each other almost as though we are one person. That photo has become kind of iconic to me, a visual representation of our emotional relationship.
I recently completed another piece for a show at Santa Clara University called Dialoguing with Sacred Text: An Exhibit of Sacred Texts Past, Present and Future. The piece is a long vertical one with the text of my last conversation with my mother sewn in variegated shades of blue-green on the top and the Kaddish text stitched on torn fragments of gauzy white fabric on the bottom. The two texts are basted together with orange thread. The piece is called The Sacred and the Mundane, and it is purposely vague on which text is sacred and which mundane.
At the moment I am working on some thread "pages" from my grandfatherís Yiddish edition of Das Kapital by Karl Marx. I inherited boxes of my grandfatherís English and Yiddish books. My parents brought the books to California when they moved here in the 1990s, and I brought them to my home when my mother went to live in the skilled nursing facility. I had thought to work with them as I have with other old books but I canít bring myself to cut into them. They are my intellectual and cultural inheritance. Early on, when I went through them I noticed that Das Kapital was among them. I love that my grandfather had that book in Yiddish. I read it in my youth in a study group trying to make sense of the inequities I saw in the world. I can read the Yiddish letters because they are the same as Hebrew letters, and I went to Hebrew school as a child. I can pick out some of the words, because my parents spoke Yiddish to each other when they didnít want me to understand. I have enlarged random pages and traced over the words, and as I do so, I feel like some sort of scribe mining my personal history. I have sewn the words onto a frayed linen-like fabric.
I donít know where this work is leading. I am just following my instinct to make it and trying to trust that it will lead me to my next body of work. I never know in advance what might turn up in my work. I try to pay attention to signs and cues in my surroundings, letting them influence me. Sooner or later something starts to take shape.
To learn more about Lisaís work, process, and upcoming events and workshops, please visit her website.
by Rebecca Norris Webb
reviewed by Mary Daniel Hobson
ďThere is a silent world, there is a crack, where the dead are smuggled over the border.Ē ~ Tomas Transformer (quoted in My Dakota)
My Dakota combines strong imagery with a poetic, handwritten text to create an honest and true response to death and loss. As Rebecca Norris Webb writes in the afterword, she began photographing her home state of South Dakota in 2005, and then a year later, her brother died unexpectedly of heart failure. As she writes, "For months, one of the few things that eased my unsettled heart was the landscape of South Dakota. It seemed all I could do was drive and photograph. I began to wonder Ė does loss have its own geography?" This book of forty-three photographs eloquently answers that question. So many of the images seem to be wrestling with the divide between two kinds of reality Ė the solid, in-focus world and the dreamy, reflective, otherworldliness beyond. This book is a fine example of how using the creative process in response to powerful emotion manifests work that not only can heal the maker but also deeply enriches the viewer.
My Dakota was published by Radius Books in 2012 and can be purchased by clicking here. You can learn more about Rebecca Norris Webb and view a selection of the photographs from My Dakota on her website (shared with photographer Alex Webb).
A Kiss Before You Go: An Illustrated Memoir of Love and Loss
by Danny Gregory
reviewed by Mary Daniel Hobson
"I'd love to chat on the phone with you as I walk to work, Pat Ė just once. Iíd like you to reach out in the dark and stroke whatís left of my hair. But failing that, I will remember as well as I can what it was like to put my arm around you and I will treasure every day I have left, rather than lying worried in the night. My new life will be bright because you light it.Ē ~ Danny Gregory (from the last journal entry in A Kiss Before You Go)
In this illustrated journal created in the year following the tragic death of his wife Patty, Danny Gregory shares his challenges and insights in the midst of grieving. He records the story of their life together and the pain of losing Patty Ė rendering it all visible and accessible with bright color and bold drawing. It is by turns honest, dark, uplifting, raw and beautiful. You feel the true love and deep appreciation he had for his wife. Even more, you see how the act of drawing and writing this story allows him to recover and heal and move more fully into life again.
A Kiss Before You Go was published by Chronicle Books in 2012 and can be purchased here. To learn more about this book and the art of Danny Gregory, please visit his website.
by Sherri Lynn Wood
Sherri Lynn Wood is an artist who specializes in creating and helping others create Passage Quilts, sewn from the clothing left behind after death. Rather than packing the clothes up for storage, sale or donation, instead these items can be transformed into an object of warmth and comfort. As she explains herself, ďIt is my role as a quilt maker to help you make your quilt and to be present with you as you attend to your outer and inner work. Often people express a fear that they may be overwhelmed by grief, and I remind them that they are simply, always making a quilt. This process provides a safe yet active container, which will enable you to literally touch your grief and stay present to the task at hand... The resulting quilts reflect the relationship of the maker to the materials, retain a sense of the body, and in the case of bereavement, carry the consoling essence of the beloved."
To learn more about Passage Quilting, visit the website here, and to learn more about Sherri Lynn Wood and her other work, visit her main art website here.
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