Death and Life

Through September and into November, in between marathon Art Bag Lady writing sessions at the Berea College library, I have been engaged in a number of art experiences with at-risk and artistic youth via the after school program with William Wells Brown/LEXengaged @UK, and the Day of the Dead festival at the Living Art and Science Center.  I’ve also been stalking (well, walking!) the historic Richmond KY cemetery — thus the title of this post, Death and Life.

Last year, just 8-10 weeks after Owen’s death, was very difficult. Halloween was a nightmare, November, except for a day or two, a blur. I am so grateful, therefore, to have this year’s celebratory life and death holidays and my involvement in them for comparison.

As part of LEXengaged I helped facilitate a field trip and scavenger hunt at African Cemetery #2 with dozens of little and big students taking photographs of headstone symbols and writing about the unique markers they found. It was a beautiful day, and beautiful to watch the kids interacting with the space and one another.

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I am most grateful to have been involved in the upbeat and positive Day of the Dead Festival hosted by the Living Art and Science Center on November 1. The nearby Episcopal Cemetery was open and embellished with candles and decorated altars; there were colorful dances in the street, food vendors well worth the wait, and art activities inside that I helped facilitate.  It was a joyous, wondrous evening despite the rain showers.

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In looking for a place to get my daily walk in Richmond, KY, I decided to check out the old, historic cemetery,  have been entranced with new memorial art every time I visit.  Some of the stones are quite old, and many so personalized it is heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time. It is a bummer that picnics are not allowed!

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ArtVention Installation, September-November 2017

I’m Still Here banner, collaborative art from ArtVention September 2017

Gallery on Main, a community gallery in downtown Richmond, KY, invited SAFE project coordinators/facilitators to install ArtVention artworks for viewing from September to November.

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ArtVention is an art empowerment and healing project focused on suicide education, prevention and awareness, funded through the EKU SAFE program within the Psychology Department at Eastern Kentucky University. I coordinated and supervised the ArtVention event on 9/13/17, in which suicide bereaved and survivors engaged in three visual art projects, one of them collaborative, creating a sense of community and healing from suicide experiences.

ArtVention at EKU, September 13, 2017

On 9/13/17 I had the pleasure (and awe) of helping to create an art-based, post-suicide prevention experience at Eastern Kentucky University’s Noel Studio For Academic Creativity. Held in honor of World Suicide Prevention Day (a concept I am only beginning to tolerate and consider, since my own loved one’s suicide), ArtVention is a unique art experience for all who have been impacted by suicide. Participants are encouraged to identify and visually express feelings about suicide via guided visual art activities. It’s not art therapy — it’s art empowerment led by a working artist who uses art to help herself and other vulnerable  people survive and thrive.

We began with a hand “sign in” with medium on a blank sheet of muslin, which disappears when it dries — like the loved one we lost. Halfway through ArtVention we hit it with paint to make our marks reappear, a metaphor for the love we will never lose.

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Participants also created  a “before/after” collage guided by words and materials chosen for their positive/negative impact.

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Lastly, ArtVention participants made Tribute Flags for themselves or the person they lost.

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The best part of all, as usual, were the revealing and healing conversations that struck up while I interacted with participants, and they interacted with each other.  Both the flags and the collages will be part of suicide awareness exhibits coming up in 2018.

Thanks to the EKU Suicide Awareness and Focus on Education (SAFE) grant, the volunteers who helped with ArtVention, including recent EKU graduate Abigail Emerson who came up with the idea, Crystal West who found and transported the cardboard and fabric (cut out lots of collage material!) and Dr. Melinda Moore who invited me as a teaching artist to make it happen.

 

O’s Cover Art

Late in April, the facilitator of my bereavement group asked if I had any artwork of Owen’s — or any artwork we made together — that might suit as cover art for a book she co-edited and is about to be published. And I immediately thought of this stained glass mosaic Owen created in 2015, and finished in early 2016.

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Owen’s Omega RedWolf Flying, 2016

This, and many additional stained glass mosaics were part of an economic empowerment project I created at the homeless shelter where Owen and I met in 2013. Dozens of artistic shelter and Art In The Annex guests engaged in the project, and were willing to have their mosaics shown and sold (with a percentage of the proceeds going to the artists) at an area gallery, then a special sale space called AIM (Art In The Margins) in the church across the street from the homeless shelter.

Here are images of Omega RedWolf Flying in progress, including two of Owen working on it:

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It was so painful to shut down that space in the fall of 2016, and collect Owen’s artworks from it as well as the Annex at the shelter, and bring them to Berea. It was also painful to read the title of Dr. Moore’s book: The Suicide Funeral or Memorial Service.  But there is also something incredibly redemptive and hopeful in that image of a wolf flying through a blue portal, and in knowing Owen, through this artwork, will live on and hopefully be of help to others impacted by suicide.

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Book cover, with Owen’s Omega RedWolf Flying.

New Year, New Artworks

I am proud to announce that two of my artworks, one the first in a series about O, will be part of a long term traveling exhibit sponsored by the Kentucky Arts Council, entitled The Illustrated Word. The exhibit will travel to libraries across Kentucky from February 2017 through 2018, with a special exhibit in Lexington at Kentucky Crafted: The Market, April 21-23, 2017. I am thrilled that O will go out into the world in this way, giving viewers a chance to experience the incredible person he was and the impact he had and continues to have on me and my creative life.

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Ode to O: Inordinate

Ode to O is one of a six panel series that I began with a matrix of dictionary pages collaged during the time we shared a studio space in Haynie’s Corner, Evansville, in 2015. My initial intent was to make them a single, multi-paneled piece with a tree form visually tying the panels together. However, when we had to move out of the studio due to irreconcilable differences with the gallery/studio owner (which included insistence on collecting commission on artwork created by the homeless) the panels languished. I left them stacked in a corner of a guest room in Indiana when I left for Berea, KY in May, and didn’t work on them again until the day before O took his life.

By November I was finally able to pick up where I left off in August, rendering words from the dictionary pages that reminded me of O — and with his tattoo ink.  As I worked it soon became clear that in both form and content I was mimicking an older and much smaller artwork, entitled Obsessions #1 that is also about a man I loved and lost that will  be exhibited along with Ode to O in  The Illustrated Word.

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Obsessions #1

Becoming Aware…

I attended my first suicide awareness event on 10/26/2016, at Eastern Kentucky University: Walk For Hope sponsored by the Richmond/EKU National Alliance for Mental Illness. I became aware of this event through a support group I joined after losing my beloved friend, close companion and artistic collaborator to suicide on August 22, 2016.  As anyone who has suffered such a shocking loss can tell you — Owen’s death has changed my life.

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I believe this was the first event of its kind at EKU, and it was very well organized. The speakers, one who lost a son to suicide, were wonderful, and passionate as they told stories and explained their mission to help those affected by suicide — including the bereaved. Here is a link to a unique organization represented at the Walk For Hope, Shelby’s Way. The music was moving too.

I wish I could include more photographs of the crowds that attended — but I can’t. They weren’t there.  In fact — and maybe because I am one of the bereaved — I felt the curious and anxious eyes of pedestrians that passed us upon us as small, tight groups of supporters and sufferers sat and listened to wistful tunes and powerful stories of love and loss.  I could actually feel the stigma associated with the taboo subject of suicide as if it was catching, like an easily communicable disease.

With numbers of suicides in the area rising, this has to change. I hope I can be part of initiating that awareness-building and empathy encouraging change.  I think the very first thing I will voluntarily do is facilitate the creation of a beautiful, eye catching banner to hang at next year’s event.