St Albans Art of Grieving Festival aims to encourage conversations around death

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Rebecca Gibbs flowers artworkImage source, Rebecca Gibbs
Image caption,
Exhibiting artist, Rebecca Gibbs, said: "I'm so grateful I've found a medium to move through my grief"

The "taboo" subject of death and bereavement has inspired a group of artists who have lost loved ones have come together to explore their own feelings and encourage conversations. Organiser Kate Ray said death was "a part of life that is too often ignored or hidden away".

'Uneasy truce' with Grief Demon

Image source, Gary Andrews
Image caption,
Gary Andrews first Grief Demon drawing is from the first month after his wife's death when "grief was an oppressor"

Illustrator and author Gary Andrews' life changed when his wife Joy died unexpectedly in 2017. He is one of 50 artists taking part in the Art of Grieving exhibition and festival at St Albans Museums in Hertfordshire.

Known as Gary Scribbler, his daily doodles had previously been a record of family life that was seen only by his family and and his social media followers.

After his wife's death, he said they became a form of self-counselling that also resonated with a wider audience, eventually ending up in a book called Finding Joy.

"It had become a bit of a habit, so the day she died I sat down and drew a broken heart because that's all I could think of, but then I just kept drawing every night," he said.

He said they became a "moment of meditation" as he "tried to make sense of my grief and the changes to my life".

"So I would just draw what had struck me that day, whether it was a good thing or a bad thing, and the act of drawing that emotion, that moment, would be like releasing the pressure cooker and you didn't mull over it anymore, it didn't fester and I could sleep," he said.

He said the three Grief Demon drawings in the exhibition show how his relationship with grief evolved.

"For me it was like a rollercoaster... and using creativity on an up and on a down was interesting in how that would contrast," he said.

Now he says, he and the Grief Demon are "able to co-exist in an uneasy truce".

'Drawn to the therapeutic aspect'

Image source, Mary Down
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Mary Down said the void left by death was echoed by the casts of the insides of her mother's shoes which "carry all that history, all those meanings and memories"

On bringing the exhibition together, Ms Ray, founder of Rennie Grove Hospice Care Bereavement Advisory Group, said: "This coming together of artist and audience generates new and important human connections around a shared desire to explore these often taboo subjects."

Speaking to BBC 5Live, she said she wanted to find a way to support people that was different from the talking therapies that hospice group already offered.

"I felt that art was a really good way to connect with people and draw them in through their own creativity, but also allow for conversations with those that came to view the exhibition," she said.

Image source, Stanley Greening
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Stanley Greening's Spirit Unravelled came after the death of his son Louis in 2020 which had a "major impact on my life and subsequently, my art"

She said some of the artists had "been touched by a terrible loss" so they created work different from their usual style.

"Sometimes what you create is honouring somebody that you want to remember... you make it beautiful and you make it personal to them and you remember the little details about their relationship with you and how you felt about them," she said.

"Just the act of making a piece of work itself can be therapeutic."

'We opened up a massive can of worms'

Image source, Unity Productions
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Ugly Bucket Theatre said their performance "constantly teeters on the line between comedy and tragedy"

Theatre and performance art also features as part of the exhibition.

The show Good Grief, by Ugly Bucket Theatre, came from a comedy lecturer's dying wish to have friends and former students create a 10-minute comedy about death for his memorial service.

Co-artistic director, Grace Gallagher, said it was one of the last things her friend asked her to do following a terminal cancer diagnosis in 2019.

She said the group interviewed him to inspire their short piece - but it "snowballed".

"We found we had opened up a massive can of worms - there was so much more to talk about and we wanted to reach out to so many more people," she said.

"So it's developed into a full hour-length show."

They have subsequently turned recordings of people's bereavement experiences into techno music or used them to create clowning scenes.

Gallagher said that at first they had been scared about discussing grief and saying the wrong thing, but once they started the floodgates opened.

"I think because a lot of people weren't being asked these questions, it kind of ended up that we [the producers] really didn't have to say a lot - they were just so willing to talk," she said.

The performance, at the city's Abbey Theatre, was a "high-energy electric experience full of memories" and one which "constantly teeters on the line between comedy and tragedy", she said.

"A lot of the comedy in the show does come from this British way in which we deal with grief, like covering it up and pretending it doesn't happen, when it's literally the only guarantee in life."

'It's a huge, huge processing tool'

Image source, Rebecca Gibbs
Image caption,
Rebecca Gibbs says "finding and connecting with others in similar positions has been so crucial to my grief journey"

Rebecca Gibbs' "amazing" mother took her own life two years ago and she found the first year of grief "totally debilitating".

"I struggled to pick up a pen to write my name, let alone draw," she said.

"Then the pandemic hit and I had time to really sit with my feelings and it just sort of flooded out of me.

She said that since then art had been "a lifeline for me to unpack and find a form for something that is so intangible".

"It has helped me to not only process and claim a power over my experiences, but also acts as a way to express all the love I still have, and always will, for my mum," she said.

"It's a huge, huge processing tool in coming to terms with the reality that she is gone.

"I will never 'get over' the tragic loss, but I'm so grateful I've found a medium to move through my grief, promote better mental health and, most importantly, connect to others."

'Mum is guiding my paintbrush'

Image source, Dawn Elliot
Image caption,
Loss II by Dawn Elliot, who said her mother told her she "would be guiding my paintbrush"

Dawn Elliot's mother died from lung cancer in February, three months after her diagnosis.

"When she passed away, even though we had been prepared, I was nowhere close to being ready and I was in complete shock," she said.

Her painting Loss II was produced a month later on Mother's Day.

"It represents all the emotions that I was experiencing - the loss, the guilt, the emotional isolation and hopelessness," she said.

"Ironically it was the first piece artwork I ever sold and I feel she had a little something to do with that from above."

Elliot said that "everyone has their own grieving journeys".

"I had so many emotions running through me and I didn't know how to process it."

She said her art in the exhibition portrays "how lost I felt by not only losing my mum, but not knowing how to deal with all of the emotions I was going through".

The Art of Grieving free exhibition runs at St Albans Museum and Gallery until 4 September.

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