During those long hours spent in the anatomy lab, stooped over dissected anatomies with heightened senses and pencil in hand, I’d often find myself pondering over the juxtaposition of the animate, breathing, metabolising living bodies, and the stiff, stone cold, grey toned cadavers, curious about the space in between them. I’d focus on drawing my experience of the donors’ anatomical wonder, their deathly aura, and their personalising features. I'd look closer and closer, drawing deeper and deeper, reaching beneath the surface of their skin and fascia, in search of something I could never entirely be sure of. There was always a sense of something missing, or rather, something I just couldn't put my pencil on. I would often ask the donors what it was they thought I was missing in my experience. I imagined they had a voice, and from their gapping mouths, they would try to tell their story.
With hindsight, I came to realise that this sense of absence was manifested by my longing to capture something through drawing that is void in the anatomy lab. This being, dying. These donors would often rouse feelings of great sadness in me, and a distinct sense of loss for not knowing anything about them as people who had lived and taken their last breath; as sacred and profound as their first. The more attention I paid to this longing, the more I found my experience in the lab became less about the context and much more about the materiality of the dead bodies as the aftermath of their dying processes. This is when my ideas began to formulate for my chapter ‘The body beyond the anatomy lab’ as I started to see beyond the bodies as anatomical subjects and listen to the part of me that longed to access their missing dying experience.
In Summer 2015, I became a carer for terminally ill people in their homes. It was a strategic move for my art practice. In providing intimate care for people approaching certain decline and death, I could position myself where encounters with the dying process were more palpable. No sooner had I completed my first care shift with a client at end of life than I realised I had found the profession I was born to do. Caring for a lady who was to arrive at her death only a week after this first shift left me with a feeling of certainty as a carer, of ‘coming home’ to my purpose in life and a great sense of being of service to others. I could go as far as to say it was a creative awakening of some kind. From this point, my attention turned toward more care giving, building relationships with clients and their families, caring with intuitive compassion and empathy whilst remaining acutely aware of individuals’ mortality and experience of terminal illness. Subtly applying all the knowledge, awareness and experiences gained so far in my career as a visual artist, my care grew whole and expansive, nurturing and transformative.
Moving beyond Dead Weight is about tending to the roots of my creative practice as opposed to flowering more art outcomes. I continue to draw and record my reflections as they come, with the marks acting as testimonies to my sensorial encounters, everyday experiences and conversations with others, whilst also researching all things relating to death, dying and bereavement, palliative care and end of life matters that broaden my knowledge and awareness of the inherent social, cultural and political issues in the field.
In Spring 2018, I will complete training in Soul Midwifery (www.soulmidwives.co.uk
) to become an independent Soul Midwife (also known as a ‘End of Life Doula’ and 'Death Midwife') providing holistic and spiritual care and companionship to those at the end of life and their loved ones. I aim to incorporate this into a much larger collaborative arts and humanities project on the interrelation between the language of drawing and death, dying, bereavement and care giving.
What strikes me the most about this unfolding relationship between my arts practice and care giving is that seeking new knowledge and understanding about life and mortality is essential for both introspection and being of service to other human beings. My experiences as a carer are not the building blocks of my arts practice but the mortar that holds them together. I am not interested in making ‘art’ out of my encounters as a carer, nor do I want to have my own ideas and concepts at the centre. Art is about truth, presence and insight, beyond the limits of my own mind and experiences. Creativity flows through the act of caring and drawing, and is expressed in the sharing of stories and marks on a page, bringing together the voices, minds, hearts and souls of us all.
Beyond Dead Weight is the fertile soil from which new ideas and insights about life and death will grow, watered by care giving and cultivated by my artistry.
By producing works of art, you contribute to the work of the collective awakening of our people. (It) can be an act of love. Your art is conceived in the depths of your consciousness while you’re not thinking about it. The moment when you express it is only a moment of birth, the moment you deliver the baby.
Thich Nhat Hanh