State of the Arts: Creating art helps in the mourning

Catherine Owen coated her body with her lover’s ashes to feel close to him on her birthday, three months after he died suddenly at age 29 from a heart attack.

Her best friend, photographer Karen Moe, shot Owen caked in ashes, shot her again when she slipped into her deceased spouse Chris Matzigkeit’s clothes and on Valentine’s Day, when Owen donned the spiked choker Matzigkeit had made for her to wear when they performed in their heavy metal band, Inhuman.

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The series of photos, called Skins (of grief) form part of an event Owen has organized called Visualelegies: Art, Act, Artifact — Four women artists speak to grief at the ARC Gallery, Aug. 8 to 10.

“I want to convey the sense that there are many ways to commemorate your loved ones,” said Owen, a writer who has published 10 collections of poetry. “Our society is very awkward or resistant to acknowledging grieving and the need for rituals and ceremonies… We’re generally told in our society you can have a little grieving period and then you have to move on and people don’t really want to hear about it, you know? You should medicate or get counselling or otherwise detach from it.”

Photography, paintings, video and installations by artists who are coping with early deaths of close family and friends will be exhibited at Visualelegies, which will also include live music, a writing workshop, readings and a roundtable discussion.

Like Owen, artist Jennifer Safronick was told to be strong, take pills or seek counselling following the death of her twin brother from cancer in 2011.

Safronick created seven sequencing video vignettes called Big Game to signify her passion for safeguarding natural spaces, ecology and to mark the death of her brother. The vegetarian artist filmed the ritualistic act of burying the moose, deer, trout and salmon her brother hunted and caught.

“I quickly realized how this would become a ‘big game’ for me to play within my own psyche,” she says in her artist statement. “I experienced symptoms of isolation; I became a subject of disapproval. I discovered there are minimal resources to cope if one does not follow a sanctioned orthodox religion. Naturally, I turned to the land, as it is all I know.”

Some couldn’t understand why Owen would want to rub her spouse’s ashes on her skin, but she says his death became so bureaucratic she needed a way to reconnect with the man she’d spent more than eight intense years with.

“Most of us won’t even have seen a corpse by the time we’re 60, never mind knowing what to do with it. Until our parents die off, and even then we don’t get to see it,” she said. “There’s not always an open casket. We don’t wash our dead. We don’t anoint them. We don’t clothe them. We don’t have a wake. We don’t have them in our home… I wanted to absorb him in a sense and I wanted to show that I wasn’t afraid.”

Friday night’s events include live music, the gallery opening and Owen reading from her latest publication, Designated Mourner, between 7 p.m. and 12 a.m.

Saturday afternoon activities include a grief writing workshop from 1 to 2 p.m. Owen will performing a reading Saturday evening.

A session about grief for children where kids can speak, sing or make art based on what they feel is planned for noon on Sunday

“You can be seen and heard,” Owen said. “That’s important.”

Owen hopes both men and women will participate in the weekend events but she says 98 per cent of those who attended her writing workshops during her latest book tour were women.

“I’m sure if a man cried as much as I cried after I lost my partner he would be looked down upon more than I was,” she said. “I feel sorry for that situation because that’s one of the outfalls of patriarchy is it suppresses men in that way.”

Visualelegies opens at 7 p.m. at 1701 Powell Street. For more information or to register for the writing workshop, email or phone 604-787-1806.

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