Making Art to Manage Grief
After a four-year battle with cancer, my beautiful, talented, kind stepdaughter – and Muse – Melanie Ham died a few weeks ago. Throughout her battle, and our attempts to manage the looming loss and grief, I made art as a respite.
Creativity and audiobooks re-routed my anxious thoughts and cushioned me with micro-moments to breathe inside my obsession over her failing health.
Grief feels like walking underwater; heavy limbs, muffled sound, grainy light, and muted color. All of our Familiars now feature a sharp, unaccustomed absence. Moments of previously unfettered joy are stuttered with hesitancy now: How can I laugh when I feel so sad?
I knew this already, but it has been profoundly confirmed to me: Artmaking and the deliberate practice of creativity is a safe, grounded haven from the earthquake of endings.
Make Paintings of the People You Love
Making art – even when I wasn’t making it yet – has always guided my attention. (My artistic journey meandered/stalled for years.) I started photographing Melanie to make ‘future’ paintings of her when she was eight years old. I have 28 years and thousands of art-intended photos of her in my reference folder. They all mean something very different for me now.
When Melanie was a teenager, I used to trade her early-morning posing time for a tank of gas in her car (or pancakes). The painting at the top of this post was from an early morning photo session in 2004.
As she got older, my preferences for reference photos became less posed and more candid. She never balked when I aimed my camera at her during family gatherings. She knew she was my muse, and I learned how to paint with the gracious help of her willowy figure and lovely face.
Paint a Path Through Grief
I’ve written about the joy of making paintings of the people you love (you can read posts about painting your family here and taking more photos of your own tribe here). Painting from those photographs becomes a way to spend time with my favorite people, and you can do that too, in the quiet alone-time of your creative space.
Flip through your family albums, and scan inspiring images of your tribe from recent gatherings. Observe people and poses in photos snapped decades ago – or explore vintage images before your time.
Now, more than ever, making art from images of Mel in my photo stash will be a salve for the empty space her death has left in my heart.
Fairy tales and blended family distress stories depict stepmothers and stepdaughters in a strained, jagged light. When I mention that I have stepchildren, I can count on seeing curiosity that leans towards assumed conflict.
In case you’re wondering about that – my husband Don’s children are *my* kids – not by birth, but by Heart. They are his kids, their mom’s kids, and my kids, all shared together. Loving each of them, and their spouses is a galaxy of twinkle-heart stars in my life, and I wouldn’t trade a day of it for anything. All those years of memories – and artmaking – will be a tool I can use to soften the sharp edges of this grief.
Art Related Links for You
- Writer Maria Popova started her wonderful newsletter Brain Pickings/The Marginalian in 2006. She shares her most important life lesson after 15 years of writing here.
- Artist and Printmaker Catherine Kernan has published her 2022 workshop schedule, with sessions coming to New York, New Mexico and Massachusetts.
- Artist and Author Austin Kleon wrote this nifty post about using spiral doodles in a sketchbook to help alleviate stress or anxiety at the beginning of each day.
- Painter and Printmaker Nanette Wallace will be teaching an outdoor, open air monotype print workshop in Central Oregon this summer.
I’ve been absent from blogging and social media posts for a long time due to circumstances at home that consumed my attention.
I look forward to easing back into sharing with you here. Your patience and support are much appreciated.
I hope you and your loved ones are all happy and healthy as we approach the next season of artmaking together.
Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you in the next post –
P.S You can follow my son-in-law Robert Ham over here.
After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains? Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.Walt Whitman