CAH301: reflections

Gates of Grief is a practice-based work comprising studio practice and critical research into theoretical texts, artists and visual art practices. Inspired by Francis Weller’s writings on the five gates of grief, the artwork is the research and the methods and pathways I took in creating it are inseparable from the resulting artifact. I’m interested in the deep undercurrents behind any endeavour so reflection was paramount at every step. Below are five reflections on the process of this major project.

1. On being in the mystery

My first impulse when approaching the theme of grief was to be in the mystery, to understand what it is to not know, to act without clear direction and simply show up to the job at hand wherever that might go. Grief is like that for me: the mind cannot grasp it, plan it or control it. Each week, I was given practical drawing tasks with no overriding directive except to explore. From time to time, rabid confusion and doubts chomped on my heels about what (if anything) would result. It was scary not having a clear idea what I was doing but I kept on. I drew some mundane scenes from domestic life and attempted to frame them in interesting ways. I worked with drawing materials as if they were sculptural objects and got a felt experience of dimension and perspective. I explored an apple with line, shading, cross-hatch, pen, marker, coloured pencil, pastel, oil pastel, frottage, collage and abstraction. I did a series of negative space drawings and explored the void. I played with expanding and contracting horizon lines and placement of line. I meditated with a ballpoint pen and drew with different tools such as feathers and sticks and sponges. Three kinds of self-portraiture came next - drawing using a mirror, drawing using only the tactile sensations of my fingertips on my face as the guide and drawing using both mirror and touch. Woven through these specific tasks was the instruction to create grounds, grounds and more grounds so I could understand how they create depth and a sense of three dimensionality. This I did by the bucket load with ink washes, watercolour, frottage, coffee, graphite smudged and polished, rubbings from pencil shavings, drips, splatters and sprays, stream of consciousness writing, pen, chalk paint, sealant, gesso, charcoal and pastel. I also had a go at creating grounds on cardboard, newspaper, copy paper and old works (not particularly satisfying but definitely liberating and low-cost). During these practical exercises, ideas gushed around what my final project might be: a descending black ceiling that slowly lowers down on the viewer lying prone on the floor… a series of full size negative space drawings of the entire body… a dinner table set with varying degrees of meals eaten where the viewer is invited to crawl under the table, lie down and look up at a black void while the world continues on around them… but nothing stuck. I continued feeling confused.

2. On planning and being analytical

On more than one occasion, the desire to be in the mystery collided with my comfort zone of careful planning, action and control. This I met by setting firm rules for myself in the process for a parallel visual arts unit. The rules were as follows: to explore medium in a pure form, to avoid direct narrative and the figurative, to remove my own personal story and feelings, to remove colour, and to investigate sixteen previously identified compositions (Z shape, S shape, L shape, H shape, cruciform, balanced and unbalanced, radiating, horizontal and vertical and diagonal line, curves and circles, group mass, grids, connecting bridges and triangular compositions). I nailed down the mediums to explore in black and white (charcoal, pastel, oil paint and the Tansey method, oil pastel and mask and resist) and armed with a plan and the previously created grounds, I began to investigate through technique. The image above shows an early experiment on a prepared ground that hinted at the direction of geometric abstraction. During this time, a fellow student passed on a study measuring the effects of drawing as expression versus drawing with a plan on mood. The study asked the question: does drawing to distract (by either drawing a design or colouring a design), improve mood more than drawing to express feeling? This study validated my experience as I found my mind became silent and peaceful when focusing on my road map for each composition and contemplating them - the study found that drawing to distract does in fact, improve mood more than drawing to express. In addition to this, there were many happy accidents and discoveries along the way: I got a clearer sense of my limitations as an artist (ie. the subtleties of tone and value have not yet revealed themselves); I also got to understand my areas of competence more (I can tell when something “works” or “doesn’t work” immediately and know what good composition feels like when I see it); I’m also getting more comfortable with failure and waste and the process of review. Creating a series of digital works and research into the abstract minimalist artists Mark Rothko, Agnes Martin and Sol LeWitt in particular, clarified and corroborated my impulse toward spreadsheets of tick boxes and planned execution in my art compared to a more intuitive and free-flowing expression. In a nutshell, I feel safer and more confident when creating with a design and strategy, rules, rulers and protractors. I struggled a bit with this (surely I’m not that uptight??) but I shrugged my shoulders and went with it. Beauty can be created with straight measured lines as well as natural and loose ones. One idea at this point was to ditch the whole abstract thing and removal of my personal story and make a series of works that speak to the Gates of Grief directly (a family snapshot photograph album of chopped down trees… drawings of a wheelchair and single shoe… strands of DNA and red blood cells… groups of people circled around a fire where bodies have been removed leaving only a solitary figure… framing the letter my Grandmother received from the Royal Canadian Airforce in 1944 saying her husband’s plane had gone down and they couldn’t locate his body…). Given more time (and an exhibition space and date haha), these images in tandem with the final geometric abstract works could hold space for a deep narrative that opens the door to grief through the personal and into the transcendent.

3. On merging both ideas

One of the challenges I faced this semester was the decision to dive into a profound and all-consuming theme. Certainly, I could’ve created something light about COVID19 (goodness knows I had a ton of ridiculous and highly entertaining ideas!) but nothing else really grabbed me. I wanted to explore this theme in both visual arts units I was enrolled in and initially thought of approaching the work from complementary perspectives: one project would be emotionally expressive and the other project would be a conscious attempt to remove personal feeling from the work. The practical process experiments, techniques, philosophy, readings, research, artist influencers, insights, literature reviews, morphological analysis, breakdowns and breakthroughs overlapped, blurred, blended, smudged and fed into each other and I found I couldn’t keep the units separate. The conflicting desires for mystery and strategy detailed above rained down everyday and the sinkhole got deeper. In a sense, all art speaks about loss, memory and moments that no longer exist as they once were. Artists adventure into the question of how technique and variations in mark-making generate theme itself, how removing, revealing, layering, scraping, tearing, scarring, ripping, resisting and masking tell their own stories. Then I had to find a setting for my work to exist within. I had to discover a strong context that could hold impersonal loss. I looked at artists who talk about grief and the transcendent and tried to identify what made my project different. Initially, exploring the formless seemed fruitful. After all, didn’t I want to undo fixed terms of meaning and being? To forgo and reject all categorisation? To sublimate myself? (Rosalind Krauss and Yves Bois). On further reflection, meaning making seemed more appropriate and welcoming in the way human beings are implicated in each other’s sentience (Elaine Scarry). Lyotard also took me on quite a trip with presenting the unpresentable. In the end, reading interviews with, articles on and the writings of Agnes Martin landed a focus point and my resulting explorations in geometric abstraction felt surprising, natural and original to me. With the instruction to use some digital images I was mucking about with and refine them as the final project for one unit, the intention and form for the final project for CAH301 coalesced. I feel I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of this vast topic and am inspired to continue postgraduate art studies around the theme of grief.

4. On the process of creation

From the large volume of geometric compositions I explored in a playful afternoon of moving cut out shapes about, I chose five that spoke loudest to me. I wanted them to be able to stand alone as individual pieces but also compliment each other when viewed in a single room. From the beginning, scale was important to me. I wanted to create images that dwarf the viewer and invite them to stand back and feel how the body relates to positioning in a physical environment as equally important as how the being relates to the content within the frame. This created a few technical issues - I had to take the linen wardrobe door off and place it on a table as it was the only surface big and flat enough to work on. The floor would’ve worked too but I knew the detailed lines in the designs I chose would challenge my back and patience bent over and crouched for long periods. Also, I used sealant under charcoal and pastel as a ground because I like the glow it brings and although I undertook small experiments on the same paper with the same techniques, the large paper size resulted in some buckling of the surface. I don’t think this detracts overly from the finished works, there’s an organic feel and it looks like what it is: paper, but I initially wanted them to be much smoother. In the future, I’ll use a heavier watercolour paper than the 200gsm cartridge paper I used. Like us, paper is fragile. Without protection it bends and warps. I chose to encase the drawings in glass because glass contains and separates us from the outside world much as grief does. Grief is divisive by nature, it insulates the bereaved from the everyday and so the artwork is also untouchable, it’s tactility unavailable to the viewer. There’s a loneliness in this that speaks to my experience. Over the prepared ground, using a long ruler, I drew vertical and horizontal lines 0.5 cm apart. Made from graphite and lead pencil, the embedded lines aren’t visible from a distance but only become evident up close. The solid black and white blocks of squares and rectangles amplify focus and are placed in the foreground, obscuring the fine lines. They exist in their own plane, distinct from what’s happening around them and emerge from the surface. I wanted the artworks to allow the materials to be as they are: an edge torn by tape, a line that looks straight but isn’t really, fuzzy, smudged and blurred edges that only charcoal and pastel can bring and leaving certain things unresolved. My main aim was for these works to hold a space of clarity, contemplation and stillness and to speak quietly, without a story. For me, these drawings are not about concepts of spirituality or what happens after death. They don’t attempt to provide comfort or answers but simply generate a void that allows the experience of “I don’t know” to exist. I’m not entirely sure I’ve achieved this but seeking to create a single moment of precision in line or shape where all else is suspended and the transcendent appears, seems like a worthy enough task for a lifetime.

5. On dreams for the future

I’m interested in how drawing and painting can echo the biological changes and psychological changes grief creates. One idea I want to explore in future studio sessions is that grief is an alchemical process. It irrevocably changes us. I’m curious how I can use medium and techniques like burnishing and building up and peeling back layers to capture this aspect of loss and how physical labour, continuing to work back into a surface could change the medium’s qualities making it become more than what it is. I’m also interested in exploring wounds that won’t heal by tearing and scratching a surface viscerally and am learning to be more respectful of medium, to get to know each material and understand its unique process and how it unfolds in it’s own time just as a life shattered by grief does. The idea of portals, entry points into an artwork arouses curiosity too.

I find I’m more inspired generally if I can imagine my work in a real-world setting and my entry point to this project was an invitation to submit a proposal to host a Death Cafe at Woodford Folk Festival in December. The invitation came from a long-term supporter of the Friends of Woodford who recently attended a grief circle I was hosting at a retreat. She said they’d been talking about a Death Cafe for a while as a way to raise awareness of the bequeathing program the festival has. I wanted my art to help create this “temple in a tent”, some sense of the sacred and be a silent voice that gently cradles a space where silence and deep conversations might arise. There’s an ethical concern about inappropriate marketing about the bequeathing program in the tent temple but I feel this can be navigated. Also, queries around professional indemnity insurance and mental health protocols, disclaimers and duty of care have been raised. I have personal resistance to the pathologisation of grief that occurs when viewed via those lenses - for me, grief is universal and no qualification is needed apart from being human. However, the "Holding Your Own Death Cafe" document makes it clear what a Death Cafe is and isn’t so that takes care of those concerns neatly. At this current point in time, it’s unclear whether or not the festival will proceed due to this year’s turmoil.

A tender bright idea is birthing to hire out a Sunshine Coast Creative Space for an evening, hang my artworks and invite my friends to a circle and a live music concert of “songs of grief and loss”. The grief circle is an invitation to share a story of loss and be seen in what is often an isolated and individual journey. There is no processing. It’s not a place to fix each other, try to understand, give advice or identify what’s been broken. It’s a place to honour the inevitability of loss, to witness each other and make space for a communal sharing of what is beyond comprehension. We’ll sit in silence and acknowledge the sorrow inherent in life.


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