Using Art To Process Death

May 8, 2020
Painting of My grandmother and me having tea

We had been waiting two years for her to die. Tiptoeing around whether or not she would be here, my husband and I had gotten engaged in a hurry because we didn’t think she was going to make it. Two years after our engagement, a year after our marriage, she died in her sleep and that’s when the paintings started, the beginning of the journey to process death.

Actually, they started a few months before her death. In knowing that death is inevitable, you think about it a lot. I would dream about the paintings in my head, thinking about them day and night and that’s when I knew I had to paint again. I had to create these images on canvas in order to let them out of me. And in letting the images out of me, I also let the emotions go free. That’s what art does. Art allows you to process the hard emotions that build up in you until you feel like you are going to explode. Whether the finished work is what it was in your head or not, the process still works.

And in letting the images out of me, I also let the emotions go free.

Tree painting hanging in my parents home

In processing the journey of death through my grandmother I started a painting based on a story my mother told me. She had a dream of an Aspen forest filled with trees healthy and colorful. If you don’t know much about Aspen trees, the greatest fact anyone in Colorado likes to share about them is that they are the largest living organism on the planet. One Aspen forest made of what looks to be thousands of trees is connected by a singular root system. Technically speaking, these trees are all one tree.

In the center of this dream forest was the matriarch of all the trees. Surrounded by the other trees still and fading. But even dying, the trees around that center tree were still connected to it, providing nutrients until it was finally time to die. And just like an Aspen forest, even when my grandmother started to fade, her green leaves turning to orange and finally to brown, the family surrounding her would continue to provide nutrients to her. They would stand around her, protecting her and loving her with all that they had.

The aspen forest with center tree covered in golden leaves

On December 17th early in the morning, here golden leaves finally turned to brown and she was gone.

This story lived in my head for weeks. Something I couldn’t stop thinking about. And I, as a portrait photographer and painter had to create a landscape. There was no way around it. So I went back to my paints. After years of not using oil paints, I went to the art store to get all that I needed and spent days on this piece. Layering paint and color and emotion. I’m pretty sure you can even see my teas in the paints on that canvas. I finished it a few weeks before she passed and gave it to my mother as a Christmas present. No one else knowing the story behind it, but her and me. Everyone wondering why we were crying over trees.

Just as the end of life is not the goal, it’s the journey and what we learn along the way.

The week that my grandmother died I had a new vision in my head. She and I sitting at the dining room table in the only home I ever knew her in. One that backed up to a beautiful golf course and had my favorite deck where we would spend the 4th of July every year. We were having tea together but she wasn’t the woman that I had known her as. She was her young self. She was my age. I sat there at the table looking at my grandmother as if looking at myself, asking her all the questions I still have that will never be answered, sipping tea out of the china I now own, smelling the home that only smelled like my grandparents.

It’s clear from the 2nd vision I had more to process and more to paint.

While the paintings almost never come out exactly as they are in my head, the curse of every artist, they do their job. Just as the end of life is not the goal, it’s the journey and what we learn along the way. That’s the secret to being an artist. While others get to enjoy our finished journeys, those paintings don’t mean nearly as much as the process that created them. And that my friends, is the only way I know how to process death.