Recently, I re-arranged some of the artworks in my home. One of my walls housed one of my black and white circle drawings titled Preservation, coupled with a black and white bird painting by local artist Gabby Willmott, two pieces that come from very particular times of my life. I recently added a third piece in the middle of these two. This piece is titled The Name of Grief, and its style and colour settle nicely beside the original two, complimenting in style but, more importantly, in theme and meaning. This piece began with quite a specific idea, but now that I see it housed beside these two other works and in relationship to their meaning and narrative, I have begun to recognise and engage with its potential for encompassing a broader experience of grief. And there is a lot of collective grief at the moment, both for what has happened but also for what hasn’t. Much of my experience of grief is for things that haven’t happened due in large part to chronic illness, even though this piece didn’t originate specifically within chronic illness, nor within COVID-19.
This piece had a gradual creation. I first thought about it a few years ago and I’ve begun it a few times without success. A few months ago, I picked it up again eventually figuring out how to complete it. I discovered that my original ideas had been too neat, with the names neatly written in rows and columns. Once I figured this out, I began scribbling the names over and over, eventually filling the page, at last recognising something that worked. I started again on another piece of dry, already ink-stained paper, building up the words in layers, gradually increasing the size. I then left it where I could observe it as I went about other things. It felt alone. In some ways this is an appropriate feeling for this piece, but it wasn’t quite the right type of ‘aloneness’.
Soon after, I broke the glass of a frame I was putting a new alcohol ink piece into. Not being one to ever throw out a frame no matter how damaged, I kept it – broken glass, and all – and this is where working within a bit of mess is quite useful. The broken glass and frame lent against the table leg. The unfinished names sprawled across the paper lay on top of the table and this proximity allowed me to see how they might interact. The image of the red thread spilling out of the frame was prompted by the placement of the broken glass and my ongoing love for, and use of, a spool of red thread I found in an op shop years ago. It is useless thread – it is so thin and fragile that it breaks immediately; but it is red and glossy and looks beautiful cascading down a white wall.
I began to see how it might all go together – the names, the thread, the broken glass. The broken glass allowed the thread to be both inside and outside. As I experimented with framing using the mat board, I was initially annoyed that it was one that was just the tiniest little bit too big for the paper. I placed them all together, so I could look at it while I decided what to do. As often happens, it was as I spied it out of the corner of my eye one day that I decided what to do: leave it and allow the slight ripple to be visible. Maybe this was a cop out, but I have always liked the ripple of wet paper even though it is normally then enticed to be flat again. But it worked here, being able to see the whole piece of paper and its buckling, while still being framed. Red cotton underneath the glass and outside of it. Encased but not contained.
The other element I struggled with was the starkness of the white matting. It was too clean, too bright. So, as I played around with the matting and placement, I didn’t clean my hands, leaving fingerprints and marks, adding myself to it. I scuffed it up with charcoal as I tried to merge the different elements together, the black ink, pen and charcoal, the red thread, the now-dirty white matting. I’m not sure if these were the best decisions for this piece but in some ways it makes no difference because each piece is simply the cumulation of the moments of creation and resolution. Sometimes the only choice left is to decide a piece is finished, or to let it be forever unfinished. I decided to resolve these particular thoughts, but just for now. I know I’m not yet ‘done’ with the theme or thoughts entirely, for are we ever really ‘done’ with grief?
Our names for grief may be different, as might be our experience, but the deep well where grief lives within us is our meeting point. Your name for grief might have to do with the loss of persons or people, time, opportunity, potential people, friendship, family or potential family, ability, or any other number of things. Your grief might have a literal name, or it might be something that you cannot yet properly identify, something that, for the moment, can only be glimpsed in your peripheral vision. Grief travels with us, not dissipating entirely, but rather somehow, slowly, becoming incorporated into who we become, affecting how we approach the world and our place in it.
Sometimes we can sit alongside grief, or within it, sometimes we are unable to control it, sometimes unable to name it, and sometimes we have the knowledge and ability to recognise it and walk our way within the experience. Sometimes not. I’m no expert in the experience of grief, but I feel increasingly as though it is something that I must continually recognise and allow myself to intentionally practice and sit with, and this piece was one way for me to do this. I was a practical way to allow my hands and thoughts to come to a mutual place of action and reflection.
Each year, those of us who follow Christ are invited into the practice of preparation and grief (amongst other things) during Lent and Easter, but we are also given the freedom to engage as we can, and year by year this may change. Our practice of Lent into Good Friday, Easter Saturday, and then Easter Sunday may inform our personal, ongoing practice of grief throughout our lives; a grief that sits within and around other emotions and experiences of life. Sometimes we are facing a direction when we cannot see anything but the grief; at other times, it can be experienced alongside other experiences. Neither right nor wrong, but simply how life is.
For now, with the various types of griefs I and others alongside me are experiencing, I have this piece. And for the moment it seems to fit between the two other pieces that speak to very particular times of my life. Together there is a connection and an opportunity for ongoing self-reflection. I treat my house as a mini gallery, showing individual and groupings of artworks. Some of my own pieces have already been exhibited, some haven’t, and others never will be, and some artworks are made by other artists, but each contributes to a developing and ongoing personal narrative. So, for now, this piece will rest on my wall as I try to figure out if there is still further meaning embedded within it that I haven’t yet realised. I expect that there probably is.