I received a call from a woman who had recently lost someone very dear to her. She asked me, “Can I ask you to draw a portrait? I would love to have something special to remember my brother by.”
Unexpectedly, she added: “But, would you be able to draw him with his ashes?”
I was asked by my friends at New Masters Academy to write this article in hopes to inspire you as an artist not only in the cultivation, but application, of your skills.
Perhaps by the end of this story, you will consider the unique possibility of using your talents in service of those searching for perspective after a most challenging time.
Maybe already reading the word “ashes” moves something in you. …Curiosity? …Fear? …A bit of both? My hope is that by being open to these coming words, you will be provoked to further your talents in deeply purposeful ways, honoring your artistic abilities as priceless tools to cast light on the darkest of shadows in a suffering and scattered world.
At the time of writing these thoughts, we bid welcome to the month of May. There is a warm sense of rebirth as the roses that line my walkway are now open and fragrant, bees collecting pollen to share with their neighbors.
Here in Southern California, you can look out my studio window and see the evidence of spring all around. As artists, we paint blooms of young flowers after a truly unique season, a testament to a proverbially harsh and historical winter.
In my early twenties, I was led to simultaneous careers after years of studying nursing and art at different schools. Eventually finding myself working as a hospice nurse, I was given a door into the rawest and vulnerable moments of people’s lives. The years 2020 and 2021 have been spent walking alongside those afflicted by staggering circumstances of isolation and change. It has been an indelible chapter of realizing mortality, fragility, who we really are when faced with the truth of death.
The other portion of my duties during this time were those of an artist. Opportunities like that before-mentioned phone call allowed me to introduce the arts to these typically private environments of people’s lives, and what I have since discovered has been a remedy to much of what I had found lacking in my previous experiences as both an artist and as a medical professional.
In general, would you agree that our modern society has a difficult time addressing the topic of death? Given our day-to-day obligations of life, why would we want to dip our toes into such a grim subject?
It’s as though this “guest” arrives unexpectedly, and now suddenly everyone is scrambling to clean up the place – or in more cases, barricading the door.
If we knew that such a guest was on the way for quite some time, how better could we prepare a table for it? Could we calmly invite it in for a cup of tea to converse and philosophize with it – or dare I propose, learn from it? What if we had it sit for a portrait, to deeply engage with it, and show it on the wall for the rest of us to reverently remember until it returns again?
Perhaps we lack certain tools to familiarize ourselves with the reality of this common destiny. Do we have anything to gain from entering the darkest cave – to explore this elusive element of our inevitability? Maybe what we need is something of beauty to bring the potential of hope and inspiration to such an occasion. Maybe, as artists, we are uniquely equipped to do so.
In my personal adventures to investigate such ideas over the years, the ceremonies of Mexico have struck me by their rituals of remembrance. The aesthetics of the “Day of the Dead”, particularly in the regions of Michoacán and Pátzcuaro, have left lasting impressions on me. The people build altars to symbolize the entities of their departed loved ones, utilizing imagery of photographs and decorative elements of legacy to bring their loved one’s memories to life. This abiding ritual seems to kindle a fire within the living, inspiring courage to face change as well as foster a sense of mystical potential for what awaits on the other side.
For others who may not feel so attracted to the mysteries of an afterlife, what can be utilized for a more pragmatic, stoic point of view? If this short life is all that we have, then what benefit may come from considering oblivion? Perhaps then, it is ALL about what we leave behind, and the lasting influence we have on others is what matters most after we are gone.
Let’s go back to the phone call I received that morning.
We arranged for this woman to drive out to my studio in the high desert to deliver her loved one’s ashes. My hands were shaking as I received them, remembering that this is what was left of the man I had cared for as a nurse only weeks before.
As my mortar and pestle ground the ashes into fine dust to combine with the charcoal powder, a combination of emotions overwhelmed me. I felt sadness for the pain of loss, as this man was very loved. I also was surprised by a calm sense of duty, as if the artist in me knew already that something profound was in progress. I also experienced a striking humility, realizing that I too would become dust someday.
All of the stories his family shared with me about this man, the courage that was instilled in their hearts, the love that remained after his last breath, guided each stroke of my brush. I composed his new expression, letting the memories direct the reconstruction within this incredible communion.
On the afternoon of the final presentation, there was a rich stillness to the moment. As the family beheld the portrait, they held their hands to their faces and said, “There he is.”
Now that some time has gone by since that day, we have identified a number of meanings that have continued to thrive from this art form.
First, the art becomes a physical beacon to the living, a memorial of the qualities symbolized within the face and form of this person who has since departed.
Second, within the context of them being drawn with their actual remains, it becomes a visceral statement of reality, a mirror for us all to gaze into, to examine our own lives in a more precious and immediate sense.
Third, it allows the sufferer and the artist to engage in a beautifully hopeful ritual of pain and transformation, where the one who passes over the ashes is literally surrendering a physical representation of what they may be refusing to let go of. This makes way for the creation of something new, akin to the life of spring coming forth out of the dead of winter.
And lastly, it establishes an opportunity to return to love, while a part of this person is brought back to life within them each time they see the image.
Such is the power of art. I spoke with a colleague recently in regards to all that has occurred to us after this year of great change and loss, the likes of which we have never before experienced in our lifetimes. We considered the current potential of how we artists can aid people in discovering the next steps, where to go from here, pathways of growth from new awareness of fragility. We respected the fact that most people in this world don’t have the luxury of a developed art form to facilitate processing and symbolic expression.
In writing these words to you, I consider the truth of my own brevity. I hope this can inspire you, as it inspires me to strongly and continuously consider the message within the work, the accumulation of legacy, and the dedication of service through the disciplines of art. Engaging creativity and humanity in this way allow us to turn towards the mystery that so many of us understandably turn away from.
Through these experiences I have found incredible hope after the winter, life waiting beneath the snow, as we artists draft the potentials of oaks from acorns.
We are the pioneers, the lantern bearers, the architects of ideals. May we venture forth together courageously and bring about beauty. A world of need is wanting, watching, and waiting for us to help them rise from the ashes.