Making Art Awash in Grief

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In this incisive essay at Guernica, Traci Brimhall explores the human need to create art in a bid to process death and loss. She relates a 100-day project in which Janet, an artist and photographer, mourns her mother’s passing by photographing flowers and other elements from condolence bouquets, assembling and publishing a single image each day. Brimhall relates her own efforts to process grief through the creative process by crocheting afghans for those in hospice, as well as handmaking paper made of found love letters and cards from her ex-husband.

Someone in my group for hospice workers shares the article on flowers as a grief ritual, and that’s how I discover Janet. I quickly read the news story about how Janet uses the dried flowers from her mother’s funeral to make new images for 100 days. Each day she uses the petals and stems to create and photograph a new form, and each day she takes it all apart, tucking the dried floral pieces back into storage. I start to follow her Instagram account, eager for the inevitable startle of old roses rendered into birds or flattened carnations transformed into the segments of a caterpillar rising off a branch. It’s common to see birds and insects as visitations from the dead. Every flying thing from monarch butterflies to Emily Dickinson’s buzzing fly has been associated with death, but I love that in Janet’s work, the visitations are like a form of summoning, a new life from a dried petal.

Scrolling through the 100 days feels like a catalog of grief. The work seems to change so fast: on some days she plays with the shadows each dried bloom casts; on others she makes abstract shapes. Towards the end of her project, she’s creating more mimetic pieces. Some natural materials she returns to often, using a leaf until it breaks apart. Some of the broken pieces are cast aside and others get used again for what they now resemble, the leaf crumbling and leaving only its hard veins, which suddenly becomes a bird’s foot. I love that nothing is wasted. Everything is ripe for transformation. It reminds me of the jewelry and tableaux the Victorians made from dead loved ones’ hair, somehow taking what feels ephemeral or like detritus and making something nearly permanent.

We talk about how to grieve with hope—how to acknowledge, to ask, to be honest. When I pour the bright pink pulp of a stranger’s love letters mixed with mine into a deckle mold, I acknowledge that even all these years later, I am still sad. I don’t know what to ask, but I know what I need will come from process, not product.

Read the essay