Updated: Oct 2, 2022
This month I was invited to give a talk for Memorial University of Newfoundland at The Rooms provincial gallery. It was a thrill and an honour. These are my notes for that talk, for those of you who have asked to read them:
When I was last home on the East coast, fifteen and a half years ago, I had come home to be with my mother as she died. It occurred to me recently that never in my adult life have I come home without fear, without someone I love in the middle of dying. Deaths and funerals have brought me home; deaths and funerals have been the backbone of my work, artistically and otherwise, and this is the uplifting topic I’m going to talk about today. So, trigger warning, I am going to talk about specific deaths as well as death more generally, including parental death, miscarriage and animal death. I won’t be offended if you aren’t up for it; it’s not a light way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
When I last came home, many of the things that have conspired to make me who I am had not yet happened. Two of my four children were yet unborn, many of the people I would come to love and rely on were yet unmet. My marriage had not ended, I had not yet fallen in love with a man who was central to my understanding of myself and my work, both during the two years we spent together and in the seven since his early and unexpected death. I will talk about him a bit today, and I’ll talk about death and grief more generally, partly for the sake of giving context to my own paintings and partly because I have come to believe that grief is the work of this time, that it is the foundation of almost everything. I realize that this sounds morbid, but bear with me, because it seems to me that grief contains and distills all of human experience, all love, all hope, all care and all courage. I refer to ghosts in the title of this talk, and ghosts are with me at all times, just as they are with all of us. I mean this as a kind of shorthand, a way of referring to loved and familiar people and places who are no longer here but are realer than real in my memories and in my dreams and in my day to day life. So much of the time, when I paint, I paint goodbyes. All of my paintings, no matter how joyful, contain the seed of longing for a thing that can no longer be. Since I was a little child, I have seen the world through a kind of lens of farewell, a hologram of loss that lies over the living world, and while it feels tragic to say it, it has never felt tragic to me. It has merely felt true. I look at the land where I live and I remember the place where I grew up. I look at my growing children and remember my sister and me as children, I look in the mirror and see my mother. This happens to all of us, sooner or later. It's living in time, it's the rattling of the stones in the current of the river of life.
I don’t think of myself as a particularly intellectual painter; I don’t paint about ideas, my art is not political. I paint phenomena, I paint the world as I see it, sometimes as I dream it, often as I remember it. I am, at this point, less concerned with beauty or even fascination than I am with delight, so I suppose the fact that I have chosen to speak today about apocalypse and grief may seem like a bit of a non sequitur. It may in fact be a non sequitur, but the fact remains that this is the balance in which my work hangs, in which we all hang: in that instant of delight, of discovery, that thrilling surprise in the middle of the storm that surrounds us.
I wrote this short piece several years ago after many days and nights of watching homing salmon spawning and dying in the Coquitlam river:
Now that most of them have died, and the last struggling few are exhausted, and the river stinks of rotting fish, and the crows and the seagulls tug apart the newly dead and the barely living alike, and the older dead show ribs and radial spines of fins and luffing sheets of dissolving flesh, and backbones broken by birds and currents, we go down to look at the salmon and in a way to pay our respects. To the fish and to the force of their lives and to the yearly cataclysm of their dying. Jasper said "I feel sorry for the last salmon, that have to swim over all their dead friends. They must be afraid of what's coming." I think about that a lot- whether they're afraid, what it is that makes this such a profound and moving spectacle. In my heart I think the salmon are full of love for their lives, and that they know from the time of their hatching that their home and their birth and their death are all part of the same thing, and that that thing is a miracle. They seem like a miracle to me. I can't think of a thing in the world that I love more than witnessing the lives of fish with my children. And I think they probably are afraid, in the way that fish feel fear, and I am sure it hurts, the way their skin erodes while they're still alive, and the scavengers peck at them. So I think they are braver than anyone I know, and when I lack courage I think about salmon.
In years since we have returned to that same spot, and year after year the salmon dwindle. There have been successes in other places, creeks around the province that haven’t held a fish in two generations or more which, through conservation and cleanup efforts have seen a return, but overall the trend is grim, and there is a sense when you stand by the river of how it should be, how it must be if all the radiating lives that rely on the river and the salmon are to survive, and those absences are as solid as the fish themselves.
Twenty five years ago, when I was less than half the age I am now, my father lay dying of leukaemia in the old Victoria General Hospital in Halifax. I was finished my undergraduate degree, and I had moved home to be close, because we knew what was coming. I was trying to be helpful, but I was mostly sullen and angry and in the way. I was taking courses in the Russian department at Dal to occupy my mind, and burning through the money I had saved for grad school, and fighting with my mother, and hanging out in the hospital. I was in love with the person I would later marry, and much later leave. I was sitting around in the palliative care ward, drawing, and my dad's oncologist said "oh, you draw. You should have a look at the art in the NICU." I was in my early twenties, not a mother yet, vaguely embarrassed by babies and birth and all of that, but I hated the hanging around, and my father hated being watched almost as much as he hated being alone, so I traipsed over to the neonatal ward, and there, displayed along the shiny yellow hallways were the most beautiful drawings. They were done in pencil and conte; sensitive, accurate, brutal, clinical, true. They were drawings of very premature babies, of intubated babes, of babies who might be dead, of babies who could not have lived, of babies who might live, of babies who existed outside of hope and fear, who lived, for however long, in a place of this moment, of this might be all there is. They were wrinkled and wizened and innocent and fierce. They were drawings that transcended life, that built around life like a cocoon around a pupa, that supported life without telling the lie that life is for good or forever. When I saw them, I understood powerfully and all at once that art is an act of care and of love and has power over life and death, and I knew, in a rush, at that same time, that I would do whatever I could to make art like that. You can find these drawings and the poems that accompany them (she was also a Governor General Award recipient for her poetry), by the way, in her book called Drawings from the Newborn by Heather Spears, published by Ben Simon Publications. Years later, when I was living in Northern British Columbia, in the bush, without money, with many children, the artist who made those drawings appeared as an instructor at the Island Mountain School in Wells. It was the unlikeliest thing; she lived and worked in Denmark. But there she was, and I was able to go and draw with her, and she gave my children their first paid modelling gig, and she drew them for me, and she became my very dear friend.
Heather Spears is the reason I had the guts to be an artist, and it was my privilege to be able to speak with her in the hours before her death. Her son Daniel was beside her deathbed in Copenhagen, and held the phone to her mouth. ”Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye," she said, and then "I love you, I love you, I love you." I told her I loved her and that much of my life is built from materials she gave me. She said she was ready to die. She got tired. We hung up. A few minutes later she called back and said "have you ever heard of anyone taking so damn long to die?" I said listen, I don't know how long it's going to take, but I promise you, you're definitely going to die. It will definitely be soon. Be patient. And then a few hours later, she did.
I think about her every single day, but more than that, I carry her all the time in every part of me. Loving her was a surprise and a gift, and her love was the best, fierce and true, shocking and excellent. I don't miss her. I love her exactly the same way I did even before I met her, the way I love life itself, as a fact outside of my own consideration.
It’s comparatively easy for me to look at Heather’s work, at the work of any one of the many, many artists I admire, and to see them in this way, as love letters, as praise poems. It’s the work that really interests me, it’s the work I try to make myself. The difficulty now, I think, is that we are living in a time of collapse, and it can feel disingenuous, hopelessly privileged to praise a world that’s in such pain. Because we live, by and large (and here I mean people like me who are members of a colonizing culture) in a society that fears death, that seeks to banish it , that has been largely successful (if that’s the word) in keeping death out of our houses, out of our daily lives. Because we see suffering and death as an aberration and not as part of the job of living, we behave as though death is the worst thing that can happen. The one experience that we all share, that all life on this planet shares, rather than making us a part of the great community of living things that must die, alienates us from the most important parts of living. We are alienated from grief, and because we are alienated from grief we are apart from one another, we are cut off from intimacy, we are cut off from the kinds of connection with one another that lie at the foundation of the movements that might yet save the world.
Being around death is a skill, and as you have the opportunity to do it more, you get better at it, and now that we are in the middle of an extinction event, it’s a skill we need more than ever.
When my parents died, I didn’t think that I was learning anything. It broke me down, it didn’t give me hope or strength or energy. It wasn’t until eight years later when Tim died that I understood that I knew what to do because I had done it before. Every death is different, each completely its own, but being near it is hard, always hard, it’s like keeping your hand in a fire til the flame sputters out. You can’t do it calmly the first time. You have to get the panic out of the way, you have to learn to put your own fear and your own hope aside. You have to learn to be a witness.
People have a right to these skills and an obligation to learn them, but we don’t die very often, and when we die it’s treated as an exceptional event. Grief is a problem that needs to be solved. We get caught up in how grief should
feel, we’re very judgemental about emotions that seem inappropriate, but grief contains and in some cases distills every emotion, not just sorrow, not just anger. Because it’s so huge and all consuming, we tend to be fearful, to shut down, but we can learn to let it move through us, and if we can lear to do that, we can be with pain and we can be with death; the deaths of loved ones, the deaths of animals and people, and in the end, inevitably, our own deaths.
The anxiety and the grief that surrounds the climate catastrophe is complicated because there is no definitive end. We are simultaneously grieving things that have happened, things that will happen, and things that might happen. We need to see our own grief mirrored back to us, but in climate grief we can’t even be sure that other people will acknowledge that the thing we are grieving exists, so we can start to feel crazy or betrayed, we can start to lose trust. There is a way to connect with the hope that lives inside grief, and that is through ritual. That is what funerals are for, but it’s also what protest is for, what organizing is for. It is also, in my view, a large part of what art is for. Grieving people touch things and look closely at things, notice things much more, we notice absences but we also notice small miracles, we look for signs. Once I saw the moment when water in a ditch froze, just a couple of months after my partner died, and it felt like the world coming back together. In the moment of suffering, rituals often reveal ourselves to us, and very often art making is that ritual. As my marriage was ending, I had a late term miscarriage. When Blue died, I carried his ashes around with me for months, and eventually I made a series of paintings about them, about finding a place that I loved enough and in the right way to put him. I didn’t want to be pregnant. I was already up to my eyeballs in babies, my marriage was a disaster, we lived in the bush. But I was pregnant and the baby was moving and I loved it. I wanted out, and I wanted the baby and I didn’t want my life. And then one morning I woke up and I thought, I haven’t felt this guy move since yesterday. And I went to the bathroom and there was just a tiny bit of blood, and I thought, I remember this so clearly, I thought “Everything can go all the way wrong”. Some of us know how it goes, and like all births and like all deaths, it’s the same and different for everyone and it’s private and public at the same time. It was terrible, though some things are more terrible. I know people who have lost infants and children. That’s worse. But it was terrible. There was an ultrasound to confirm that he was dead, and there he was, and the tech said “what a beautiful baby”, and he was.
I remember thinking a lot about rabbits, and how sometimes when they’re stressed, mother rabbits eat their kits. It seems awful and barbaric, and I can’t pretend to know what motivates rabbits, but if I had to guess, I would guess that they’re keeping them safe. I would guess that they’re getting their babies back into the safety of their own bodies the only way they can. I couldn’t return him to my body so I did the only thing I knew how to do. I held him in my hands and I drew him. Later I made paintings of his ashes. Through those paintings, I found out that there were places I loved enough to put him, and in time I did. For me the painting was the ritual that connected me to him and him to the earth.
The title of this talk is Ghosts, and ghosts are something of a theme in my work. This has to do both with the way I paint and with the fact that I feel surrounded, much of the time, by ghosts, by the way I remember all these people and others as well, by the remembered landscapes which lie under their present iterations, by the fact that the spectre of climate change overlies the way I see the places I love like a hologram, the way I look at the tree where my baby’s ashes are scattered and I can see it burnt down as clearly as if it has already happened. Paintings of ditch water, paintings of puddles are a subject that has carried me for several years. Growth in water, the sky reflected, speaks to me of a will to live and of perseverance, but also it’s a very literal representation of the way grief feels to me, that the world is under this surface, but the surface changes everything, it covers everything, it refracts and emphasizes some things, it drowns and occludes others. It’s disorienting and unmoored, a kind of separation from the known world, a way that the world is both the same and different, things aren’t quite where you expect them to be, they don’t include you and your perceptions in the way they organize themselves. In my own painting and in the world at large I seek a certain tension between spaces. After a bright full moon, ditches are full of drowned moths who have flown toward wrong light source. Uncertainty about direction, the sense of nearly drowning, thinking about two distinct lives at once, the one where the thing has not happened, the other where it has, the solid concealed by the liquid, these things force a kind of dance. What we see of the world is fragmented by the way we prioritize information. Other worlds, the worlds of insects and fish, of wild births and wild death, are outside of the worlds of money and goods. Even though we often create these worlds as consequences of our infrastructure, they neither know about nor consider us, and while they are impacted by the catastrophes we manufacture, they do not experience it in the same way we do. The other worlds are all around us and they do not conceive of us. Even if we are an imminent threat to its whole species, a moth does not know what you are.
I also think that part of witnessing involves memory vs evidence, something about the feeling vs the fact. When my parents died, my sister appointed herself the family archivist, which seemed reasonable since I lived in a yurt, but it meant that I ended up with no photos, and as our relationship deteriorated it also meant that I second guessed all of my own memories, almost as if without evidence to back them up, I couldn't have ownership of them. Many of my paintings are an investigation of that: of what belongs to me and what doesn't. There is something about the need to make things real with my own hands, with my own specific memories.
If you walk down to the river at night, from far away you will hear the interruptions in the flow of the water, and you’ll know that sound is the sound of slim bodies pointed into the current. When your eyes adjust to the dark, you’ll see them, close to the bank at first and then in their hundreds across the span of your vision, hanging still in fast water by dint of slow and constant undulation of shimmering muscle, all together, their shadows hanging beneath them somehow more solid than the forms of the fish themselves. To see homing salmon is a miracle at any time of the day. To see them at night when theirs is the only sound, when you are the intruder on their story, not a narrator, not a friend, not necessary in any way- that is a wonder that defies language. I am thankful to be contained in a world I can neither understand nor articulate; I think that this is an important part of humanness and one to which we have dwindling access. Still, we can find it in ditches and beside rivers, along shorelines and in the woods. We can find it inside us if we look, and paint and music can connect us to that wilderness.
When I am painting I am not thinking about communicating with other people. My paintings do not contain messages for other humans. My paintings are my own dreams and thoughts, my own language that I speak to the people places and things I love, and more to the point it is the language they speak to me.
This is the last painting I’ll show you. This is a pretty personal one; it’s also very big so likely at some point I will take it off the stretchers and roll it up. It’s not the kind of piece I usually make at this point.
Sonja was old before we ever met her and we met her long before she was ours. She was one of a pair of fjord ponies we drove past, sometimes in their field, sometimes out on the dirt road, having stepped over broken barbed wire where the cows had pushed through the fence. We’d stop the car and herd them off the road with our arms thrown wide, they would turn their wide golden bums to us, cock a hind foot, plunge through the ditch and back into the high grass. They were self authorized, unfriendly, beautiful, rough, their forelocks so long that only their muzzles poked through, small ears pinned back, hooves overlong and broken. My ex husband was the care taker at the historic site at the end of the road, and community pasture rolls away from both sides. My eldest son made a deal with the very old man who owned them. He spent his savings, the vast sum of 800 dollars on two ponies: Sonja and her daughter Sunny. He spent months getting close to her, bringing her feed to her in the winter and standing with her while she ate. He alone could touch her, lead her, eventually put her in harness. She remained suspicious of the rest of us even as her daughter grew exuberantly and indiscriminately affectionate.
One afternoon last February I was in my studio and my phone rang. Elliot said Sonja’s lying down and there’s blood and she won’t get up. Dad’s getting hay, can you help? Can you hurry? It was February, their place is half an hour from mine but it was 2:30 in the afternoon and I was caught behind schoolbuses most of the way. I knew she was old, probably in her thirties. For two years it had been difficult to keep weight on her, and the previous spring she had given birth quite by surprise to a foal sired by my daughter’s colt. A covid baby, a consequence of overwhelmed vets and a postponed gelding. She was not the boss of the herd, but she was its matriarch. When I pulled in, my two older boys met me in the driveway. I sent them for blankets and told them to plug in the kettle, I tried to make them feel useful, to make it seem to them like I knew what to do. I didn’t though. It was clear that she had fallen. The blood on the snow came from a cut inside her lip. She had fallen and had knocked her face against the frozen ground, and now she lay breathing steadily, not wild eyed, not panicked, but also definitely dying. The cell phone reception at my ex’s place is finicky, and I didn’t want to leave my boys. She wasn’t getting up but she wasn’t suffering as far as I could tell, we counted her breaths, I had my eldest count ten seconds and then multiply by six. I know how to keep them occupied and calm, I know how to give them the kind of work that will keep them just busy enough to be steady. I can teach them a practical thing: you can count the breaths, here’s how. It’s a little fast and shallow, see that? That’s ok, she’s not struggling, she doesn’t look stressed. See how she’s looking at you, pet her, tell her you’re here. Here, under her cheek, if you press this vein you can feel her pulse. How does that feel? Take your own pulse and compare. Yes, I think you’re right, hers feels a little thin doesn’t it, a little rough, So here’s what I think, boys, I think she’s in a bit of trouble here. It’s ok, we can be calm for her. We’re going to be with her, whatever happens next. When your dad comes home I am going to drive into cell service and call the vet, and I want you to understand the vet probably won’t be able to fix this. Sonja is very old. She is probably going to die, but dying is not a bad thing. It’s a thing we all have to face and we can help her, so that’s what we’re going to do.
There is no way, in a farming community with only two large animal vets, to get a vet on short notice to come out and put your horse down. I left message after message, but it was Friday night and then Saturday morning. She lay in her pile of hay, covered with blankets, surrounded by her herd, her daughter, her son, my daughter, my sons. My ex husband said he would have to shoot her. I said don’t be ridiculous, what if it goes wrong, I’ve heard horror stories. It was the middle of a very cold winter even by Prince George standards, and the ground was frozen, and I thought that the children would be traumatized. I thought the herd would be traumatized. I thought that trust would be broken, that the community of children and animals would be broken apart, and the thought appalled me. I did not take the killing of large animals and the disposition of their bodies into consideration when I decided to have children, I didn’t know how to help. The next morning, Sonja died, still inside that circle. The kids held her face, wrapped her mane around their fingers, let their tears freeze along her neck. Her herd surrounded her, sniffed her and nuzzled her. There was no violence, there was no trauma, there was nothing but gentleness. There remained, however, the problem of an 800 lb corpse on the property and while the bears were still asleep, there is no shortage of predators around. There was nothing to be done but to dig an enormous hole, and so that is what they did, all four of my children and their father, working for two days with axes and shovels to dig below the frost line and then deeper still. Grief comes with a tremendous amount of energy . As they were digging the grave I watched them put all of their emotions, all of their love for one another and for her, into that hard physical act, and for the first time I realized that’s what it’s for. It’s because we are an animal that buries our dead. The urge to be a part of the earth, to touch the earth, to return to the earth in the way that your loved one is doing in a very literal way, is also a return to life, to the deep life of the world itself, it’s an act of great intimacy to bury your dead. They buried her with feathers braided into her mane, with apples and oats.
We often take that energy, the energy we are meant to use to bury our dead, and we point it in other directions, often into work, and that can be good if your work connects you with life and with community, but what often happens, especially now over these last years of COVID is that people become isolated, feel overwhelmed and helpless and don’t have access to the normal channels. We don't have structures in place that can contain and contextualize these experiences, so we say things like “every generation thinks the world is ending, and it never does,” and sure, that may be. But deep in our cells we grieve our familiar places as the rising sea levels lap at their edges and the seasons of fire devour them and our growing seasons become unpredictable. We grieve the blizzards of moths of our childhoods and the spring peepers, we grieve the big economic species like the cod and the salmon, the birds whose arrival and departure announce each season. And we grieve animals we’ve never seen and places we’ll never go. We don’t have a sense where one thing begins and another ends. We are overwhelmed and we are distracted. And I am not so naive to believe that attention alone will save the world as we love it; I don’t have very much faith at all that things will work out, either for our own species or for any of those we’re currently but on annihilating. But I do think that attention is what’s required now. Each love contains the seed of heartbreak, and that is why love is terrifying and ferocious, and why grief is comforting and intimate, and endings demand and deserve love; this time demands and deserves to be witnessed. I think all art is an act of witness, and acts of witness teach us something. Paintings and books and dances and poems and songs connect us to our own time and to all others, long past and, with luck, far in the future. When we are broken hearted, when I am broken hearted, these are our life rafts. They hold us in, they keep us bound to this world, this moment, this one life.
There is much work to be done to save what’s left, but there is also the work of witnessing, and that is the work of artists, that is my work. Witnessing dying is a practice, and one we don't have a lot of access to, by and large, and living in the midst of the extinction event is going to require that we learn how to do it well and thoroughly. We're going to have to look at a lot of dying, and we're going to have to honour all of it, love all of it, be with all of it, grieve all of it, grow kinder and more courageous through all of it, let it break our hearts over and over again and come back to loving what's left more than before, better than before, until nothing remains. That's the duty and the privilege of living, of art making, of loving. It’s a privilege to love the world and a privilege to grieve it, a privilege to be haunted by its multitude of ghosts.