Death by Abstraction
Bowl of Apples I, mixed media on canvas, 2015, 12" x 12"
Bowl of Apples II, mixed media on canvas, 2015, 12" x 12"
Bowl of Apples III, mixed media on canvas, 2015, 12" x 12"
Thirty-five days before the Day of the Dead, my fiance, Matthew, lost his mother from complications of open heart surgery. The timing of this tragedy meant that we were thrown into an unwitting kinship with this season of decline in nature. As blooms silently withered, and layers of fallen leaves decomposed without protest, the whole world seemed to be facing the same inevitability of loss.
In the weeks that followed the funeral, Matthew voiced his "anger with God" and continued to question his own beliefs as well as those of his Christian family. By his side through this loss of faith, I stood there helpless while someone I love with all my heart endured unspeakable despair. In my futile attempts to provide support or compassion, I realized that my own inner resources for dealing with such things were based not in words but in art. Painting, for me, has been a lifelong exploration of this world and my place in it, and one of the things it teaches is getting comfortable with the unknown. In painting, there is no certainty. There is only the canvas of possibility. There is only the adventure of discovery.
Painting teaches us about motion, change, transition, flux, metamorphosis - the idea that nature does not stand still. Things are constantly breaking down and building back up in an endless cycle of destruction and creation, death and rebirth. I explored this idea in my 2010 piece, "Becoming Sand" - what we see here as today's sea shell is what makes up tomorrow's beach. The clouds and waves that continually show up in my work also arise from a subconscious desire to grasp the ephemeral nature of things, forms that are here one instant and gone the next. The difficult part about this when dealing with grief is that it isn't about feeling better. It is about embracing the pain of the mystery, the pain of letting go of what we know.
I recently read an article entitled "You Want a Physicist to Speak at Your Funeral." It suggested we find comfort in the fact that, from the point of view of physics, all the particles and energy that made up the deceased still exist. The author described our post-mortem bodies as simply "less orderly". We see this mirrored in abstract art. All the elements of the form are there, they just aren't arranged into the representational structures anticipated by the mind. We are forced to think of things in a different way. Working with abstract art helps us to break down the perception of form and trick the mind into an unknown space. We could think of death as presenting us with the same invitation to truth. It is only when we lose the comfort and familiarity of our solid beliefs and notions of the way the world should be that we open ourselves to revelation.
But if the beauty of autumn is any indication, Nature also gives us clues that there is calm within the storm. Art helps us find these clues. The ocean is in constant turmoil, yet nothing is capable of evoking a greater sense of peace. Even though my work is comprised of a lot of violent scribbling and ripping of paper, I notice there tends to be a soothing sort of serenity in the images that emerge from this chaotic process. It shows us that somewhere in each emotional challenge is an invitation to peace.
While art has not helped me understand why Matt's mother is gone or where she "went," it has given me the inclination that the answer is encoded all around us. Its in our bones and in our dreams, and we breathe it when we sleep at night. The practice of art has a vital gift for all of us - a living exploration and intimate connection with the universe and our place in it.