Honoring the End of Life
This issue of AHN News is dedicated to Honoring the End of Life. Whether working with stitching, song or photography, the artists featured here demonstrate how creativity can offer comfort at the end of life and open an important dialogue about the nature of dying.
Here you will find an interview with artist Deidre Scherer about her thread on fabric works that both honor the end of life and spark conversation about the nature of death. Also I feature the project/book, Presence and Absence, in which art students collaborated with Zen Hospice to crochet pillows of meaning and comfort. In addition there is a link to the Threshold Choir which offers the free service of singing at the bedside of the dying, and a link to the photographs of Kristen Zellmer who is examining the beauty that can be found in death.
May this issue inspire you to approach endings and transitions with creativity and grace.
-Mary Daniel Hobson, Executive Director, Arts & Healing Network
“Doing this work has made me more open to the incredible mystery of life.” ~ Deidre Scherer
Deidre Scherer is a fabric artist who uses needle and thread to create portraits with amazing depth and detail. Recently she completed two series of work – The Last Year and Surrounded by Family and Friends – with the intention of opening a dialogue about the often avoided topic of death and dying. She also offers workshops that help people uncover their feelings and beliefs about the end of life.
Mary Daniel Hobson: I am very moved by your project, The Last Year. Can you tell me a little bit about what inspired this project and how you came to know the woman depicted?
Deidre Scherer: While creating a series of "Tarot Queens" in my medium of thread-on-fabric, I decided to give them more psychological depth, so I began visiting a nursing home to find models. After being introduced to a number of people and drawing many portrait studies, one particular woman caught my attention. She‘d been a knitter and self-taught artist, gave me feedback about my work and shared stories – we developed a special bond during which I realized that I was getting a wonderful mentor and model and she was getting my pure attention during the many hours that I drew her.
During the course of that year, I slowly developed the work – each evolved very organically. She saw and responded to the early drawings before she died. After her death, feeling very strongly about keeping these works together, I bought back two of the pieces that I’d sold. This group of nine works that depicted her final months became The Last Year. The project seemed to demand public access so I began to travel the show.
As a result of this work, I enrolled in a course for hospice volunteers. You could say that my art grabbed me and turned me in this direction. Personally, I think everyone could benefit from learning more about hospice work.
Mary Daniel: You have also done a project called Surrounded by Family and Friends. What was the origin and impact of this project?
Deidre: Surrounded by Family and Friends was my response to witnessing death not only as the personal death, but also as the death’s impact on the community. We don’t die in a vacuum – we die out of a community. This was the kernel I wanted to reveal which grew out of focusing on the individual. While finishing the first tableau and doing research about caregivers and the people who were dying, I was awarded a grant from the Open Society Foundation’s Project on Death in America which allowed me to complete six life-sized tableaux. I knew ahead of time that these pieces would stay together and I wouldn’t have to break up the series.
Mary Daniel: You write on your web site of wanting your work to open dialogue about the end of life. What has surprised and/or inspired you in the conversations that have been sparked by this work?
Deidre: To this day I am stunned by the ongoing flow of emails, letters and calls that I receive thanking me for both series. I still remember one man’s response to The Last Year. After solemnly viewing each piece, he told me that he got to see his grandmother, his mother, then himself and even his own daughter, seeing each death proceed through each generation. He had never considered death as a natural evolution of life.
I developed a workshop that grew out of responses to Surrounded by Family and Friends where participants are encouraged to sit in front of a piece of their choice to write and share their reactions. Memories of deaths that they have experienced come up and there is an opportunity for contemplation and completion. They discover how this experience is a key to a personal foundation of how they look at life and death.
Mary Daniel: Has making this work changed your feelings toward aging and dying?
Deidre: I am becoming my work. Doing this work has made me more open to the incredible mystery of life. I still approach the invitation to be present and draw with great trepidation, feeling there is no way I can effectively witness the core of our lives. Slowly I am aware of a transition from that initial fear, to a sense of participating in a miracle.
Mary Daniel: There is such amazing technical skill in your work. Can you share a little about your process, and what it is you love about working in fabric and thread?
Deidre: I love the odd technical approach of drawing with a pair of scissors. My line occurs between the blades in the course of free cutting. It feels as if I am sculpting as much as drawing. The same can be said about my machine-stitch that occurs between both hands moving and turning the fabric. Most drawing tools are applied in direct line with the hand.
Without projecting or making patterns, I prefer to eyeball directly from my sketches and photo studies as I translate and cut freely into the material. After years of consideration, I name my medium "thread on fabric" (as in "paint on canvas" or "pastel on paper"). Fabric is a beguiling medium that resonates with our sense of touch, pulling us in closely with its familiar and intimate texture. What I really love is the magic that comes through a work and gives presence as a living truth in the final piece.
Mary Daniel: Do you believe your art can be a catalyst for healing and if so, how?
Deidre: The public discourse has amazed me. People have used it in conjunction with policy-making, discussions about how to handle aging populations and providing care. Many of my exhibition venues have set up panels that look at the medical, legal and religious issues, and the very structure of public guidelines. They are more able to talk openly about the very difficult issues of aging, dying and death.
One group wanted to figure out how to deal with a dying homeless population and determine lines of responsibility and action. Initiated by encountering The Last Year, participants could move through their personal processes and come to an agreement. My workshops deal with medical narrative, writing groups and drawing as a means to develop empathy and give attention.
If the work is on display for a while, I can sense the city's/region's reaction and re-assessment of their own programs. Public access to the work feels like an essential part of the mission of these exhibitions. These collections belong in a public setting rather than in a private home.
I am so moved that my art could receive such an enormous response. People have used and responded to my work for social and personal change. It is miraculous that art has that power. The visual can pass through the conceptual and verbal boundaries.
Mary Daniel: What excites you most about your work these days?
Deidre: After focusing on narrative, figurative work for most of my career, I am delighted to include a current abstract series. Abstraction seems to be the basis of every narrative work and now as I am letting go of the figurative associations, this is a real opening for me creatively. Recent road trips to the southwest and to the Canadian Maritime provinces have fed my creative well through the abstractions of nature.
I am collaborating on a commission for the lobby of an assisted living home and I think they are determined to portray how they care for their residents at the end of life. This will be a new way to open conversations. I am also working on several direct portraits – without drawing studies or photo preparation.
Mary Daniel: What advice do you have for other artists who would like to make work that honors the end of life?
Deidre: Do not be afraid to be courageous by recording, writing, and drawing what you see and feel throughout the process. Stay open and present without preconceived answers. Don’t judge your work. In sitting with your truth, use your art as a way to navigate your feelings and emotions and discoveries. Ask and take support from others who are empathetic to your project, whether peers or mentors.
To learn more about Deidre Scherer's work including information about her upcoming events and traveling exhibitions, please visit her website.
FEATURED PROJECT & BOOK:
Presence and Absence
In the Fall of 2010, nine students from the California College of the Arts collaborated with the Zen Hospice Project for a course entitled Presence and Absence led by artist and professor Anne Wolf. The students learned about end-of-life care as they worked together to create crocheted pillows for the Zen Hospice’s newly renovated Guest House. The pillow imagery was created using a "free-form knit and crochet" technique in which small handmade pieces are brought together to form larger designs.
The image for the first pillow was inspired the shape of the calligraphic brush circle called the Enso, which has many symbolic meanings including the idea of wholeness. Other students' pillow designs incorporated reflections on the beauty of all of life's phases, the uniqueness of each life while still being connected to others, and how a life grows and develops outward from its core. As they spent more time in the Guest House, a wide range of new insights and observations came into the pillow designs. These included themes like: external and internal environments; the tension between chaos and calm in daily life; trying to meditate; light and sound from outside the windows; non-visual "seeing"; and feeling rooted in one's home.
The pillows once completed, became interactive objects that embody the qualities of touch, memory, intimacy and comfort. A lovely book was also produced to commemorate this project and includes the students' words, poetry and insights.
To learn more about this project and see more photographs, please visit the website. You can also view and purchase the book online via Blurb.
Founded in 2000 by Kate Munger, the Threshold Choir is a network of a cappella choirs who use music to "bring ease and comfort to those at the thresholds of living and dying." When called to a bedside they offer songs that suit the taste of the patient. Often family members will join in with the singing. Their service is free of charge – as they say on their website, "We offer our singing as gentle blessings. Families have said that our presence helps them to 'be' with their loved one after the 'doing' is done."
To learn more about the wonderful service that the Threshold Choir provides, please visit their website. Also, in July 2012, The New School at Commonweal recorded a podcast interview with Threshold Choir founder, Kate Munger and you can listen to it here.
The Art of Kristen Zellmer
“I try to find the beauty that can be found in death.” -Kristen Zellmer
This beautiful mandala created from bones, teeth and quail eggs is from Kristen Zellmer's series A Still Life. As she explains this series is about "honoring the simple beauty found in nature. By creating these vanitas [a 17th-century Dutch genre containing symbols of death or change as a reminder of their inevitability] – often using bones, wilting plants, and dead animals – I was trying to represent the new life given to the remains of discarded creatures.... I try to find the beauty that can be found in death."
To see more images in this series, please visit the artist's Flickr page. This photograph can also be found on the cover of the November 2012 issue of Orion Magazine.
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