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Healing Art

A Visual Journey into and through one woman's bereavement process.

Writer/Artist: Megan Prescott 



                                (Oak and Sprout, marker and vellum, 10x10,2009)

It all began with an experience too big for words...


I was eighteen years old when my mother Nancy was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of leukemia and died eight months to the day of her diagnosis, at the age of fifty.Twenty eight days after her death, my 23 year old brother Adam was a passenger in a car that struck a van of college students- he and four other people were killed instantly.


It was unfathomable that suddenly half of my family was gone. My mother's death gave our family some time to 'prepare' saying goodbye to her. While in contrast Adam's accident gave us no time for goodbyes; it was violent and quick.For the months and years following their deaths I morphed from an outgoing and active person into a pensive and exhausted introvert.  I went into a mental and emotional state unlike any I'd ever known before, a 'shock' stage that for me lasted several years.  I did not know how I was going to be able to continue on with my life after their deaths, nor how I could endure the heart break long enough to find out.

My intention is to explain and share the story of how I did survive this traumatic event, and used art as an effective tool to assist in healing the deepest parts of my grief.From the very first days of my bereavement journey through today I have been drawing and painting my inner emotional and spiritual state and wasn't even aware of it.  Now I can see how the light in my artwork became more brilliant and alive as the light in my heart began to return.



      This is the story of how light was rendered at the beginning of my loss...






                                (There is No Gray, marker and colored pencils, 8x11, 1987




                                and then 20 years later.



                               (Meditation Mountain, Acrylic, orig.16x16 2007)


Part One:A sketchbook,3 Sharpies,and some colored pencils(1987-1992)


I discovered early on that one way I was able to "unload" my deep and intense emotions about the deaths of my mom and brother was through drawing. I had kept a diary since my youth (my mother was a high school English teacher and I grew up loving to write) and since drawing was another hobby of mine the two ideas came together naturally. I began this visual journal one evening after returning home after a difficult day at the hospital. My mother had been given her first bone marrow test that afternoon and the doctors had me stand outside her room alone while they administered the painful test to her. She was crying,screaming that 'they' were hurting her and for someone to make it stop. I stood outside her room alone and helpless listening to her calls. I wanted to scream out loud myself at that moment with all the anger and fear I was feeling. Instead of screaming for real I went home and drew it, instantly feeling a sense of relief when I was finished. (See No! below.) 






                                             (No!  Colored Pencil, 8x11, 1986)


This began my use of pictures to express my complex and deep emotions associated with death. With my sturdy black sketchbook and 3 colored Sharpie markers I drew only what I was really feeling inside- the good, the bad, all of it. Drawing communicated more complex ideas and feelings than words did for me and I was amazed at how calm I would feel after drawing for a few minutes.


I liked and needed the portability of a sketchbook at that time. Something I could take with me anywhere which was symbolic of my  life at 19 years of age, active and on the move. This book became both a security blanket and friend, drawing after drawing tumbled out on to the pages.  It didn't matter to me if the proportions of the figures were correct or if the images were dark or difficult to look at.  All I knew is that when I drew, I felt better. Quietly and for the next two decades, I would be an art therapist for myself, expressing and ultimately healing my broken heart one picture at a time. 


Tear was drawn the night after hearing my mother's leukemia diagnosis. My left eye is covered, symbolic of 'not wanting to see'. The black tear and intense red hair express my inner sadness, anger, and feelings of having no control with this situation. With these early pictures I picked simple colors to represent emotions and used very basic and symbolic shapes to express my ideas. This one took only a few minutes to draw, the quick process of making the lines and using color was very calming.




                                          (Tear, Marker and Pencil, 8x11, 1986)



Another picture from the original sketchbook, Speak was drawn about a week before my mother's passing. I knew she was dying and it was terrifying to watch. I still don't have a very good interpretation of this picture,the symbols are as odd to me now as they were then. I can say the obvious:both the moon and the flying woman's eyes are closed,her fingers are gnarled unable to grab or hold on to anything.This picture is one of many I made with the moon and strange line designs that even now I don't completely understand but I do know it has something to do with too many thoughts and feelings going on inside at once.



                                (Speak, Marker and Colored Pencil, 8x11, 1987)




                                           (Time Heals All Wounds, Marker, 8x11, 1987) 



"Time Heals All Wounds"  was done about four months after the deaths and is also from that first visual journal.Time healing my wounds seemed like a crazy idea for me then,it didn't seem possible.The clock reads 12:00 am, the time of Adam's car accident and the skeleton hangs shackled with emotional pain.I did not do any artistic study of the human skeletal system previous to the picture and I was indifferent to whether the bones were technically right or not. It was really only about one thing: choosing symbols that could truly relay what I was thinking and feeling.



Part Two: The light and dark of pastels (1992-2001)


After a few years I began feeling the need to draw something bigger than my sketch book paper- some really 'big emotions' were brewing inside. So I found an old box of oil pastels, bought a pad of 18x24 pastel paper, a big drawing board and my experience with a new art medium had begun. With the change of mediums came a change in the images and techniques as drawing with pastels is very different from drawing with pencils or marker. Pastels were more laborious for me requiring many layers of color to get the look that I wanted. Most of my pastel pieces took several weeks to complete and is the medium where some of my most intense and surreal work comes from. The figurative light source in my artwork began turning into a more literal representation of light when I worked in pastel.   


Cracked and (Tied) marked the beginning of my moving into oil and chalk pastel drawing and putting the pencils aside for awhile. The central figure in Cracked is a pastel drawing that I cut out and glued on to the black background of ink and paint.  I did not really know how to use these art mediums beforehand,  I mostly just experimented and learned as I went along. 

The subject of Cracked is about how I felt being a daughter who missed my mother deeply and how I would wonder if she was sad watching me try to make it through it all.  It's also how I physically felt for years whenever I would think about her-a whirlwind of nausea in my belly.  The raven was a symbol that showed up early on in my work, he represented a companion of sorts for me, a less threatening symbol of death. 




 (Cracked, Oil pastel, Acrylic paint, Ink, 18x24, 1994) 


Tied is a unique picture in that the image is actually scratched out of the oil pastels with an Exacto knife.  Hundreds of tiny scratch marks add to the intensity of this piece when viewed close up and the subject matter is again myself feeling wrapped up in grief and tied to my mom and brother's deaths.



    (Tied, Oil Pastel and Acrylic Paint, 18x24, 1994)



I will be referencing the next two pictures in future posts but they are appropriate to talk about at this point because they are a great example of an artistic (and therefore emotional) change that took place in my artwork over 12 years. The subject is the same in both pieces: my brother's car accident.


Embrace 1 was drawn in 1993 using oil pastels and the Exacto knife scratching technique.  It is night time with a full moon (like the night I was told of Adam's accident) and I am drawn with no clothing or hair conveying feeling exposed and vulnerable.  The figure is trying to bring the skeleton back to life and it's the moment right before she will realize that it can't happen.




                                                 (Embrace 1, Oil Pastel and Acrylic, 18x24, 1994)



 Embrace 2 took over five years to complete and was 'finished' in 2007, thirteen years after Embrace 1.  Here the figure is under a warm sunrise holding a skeleton.  It was symbolic of literally finally embracing the loss of my brother instead of trying to change it.  The way I represented light and the sun was beginning to really change at this point too and I knew this was symbolic of my own inner changes. The shininess of the oil paint gives the image a smooth quality, reinforcing the feelings of gentleness. Something big had changed in my art technique here, so I knew something big was healing inside me too.




                                                                        (Embrace 2,  Oil, 24x36, 2007)



Inspiration can come from anywhere and the image of Dream, of course,was a real dream.  It had ended exactly like this with my mother, brother, and father (who was alive when this was drawn but has since passed) standing in the doorway of my bedroom.This dream made me feel like I had connected to my mom and brother somehow in the dream world and it brought me great peace. Looking at this picture makes me feel happy even though it's a mysterious image that is almost entirely black. Maybe it's the light shining through behind them that gives me hope.


                                                 (Dream, Chalk Pastel and Acrylic Paint,18x24, 1996)


Part 3: In Came the Light (2000-today)


My use of acrylic paint to merely accent my pastel pieces changed in 2000 or so when I began painting 'for real'. I bought a few canvases and tubes of heavy body acrylic paint,and away I went.This medium is perfect for anyone who is interested in creating light using color.Acrylic paint is also easy to clean up and offers flexibility in transparency. Painting is a therapeutic experience for me- the sound of the brush on the canvas, the squeezing out and mixing of the beautiful colors,all of it makes me feel peaceful and calm.


I knew the worst of my grief pain was over when I came up with the idea of Antarctica. It came from imagining what the sun looks like at the bottom of the world, just a tiny spot of light against a quiet winter landscape. It was symbolic of how I felt. After 20 years of only making 'dark' and sad pictures, I was now focused on the light. I knew my own inner spark and fire were returning as there was a different perspective on death represented in Antarctica.  In even the coldest and farthest of places there was light!  After this painting almost all my artwork began to have more hopeful subjects and INTENSE  LIGHT.  Light is the ultimate symbol of knowledge and understanding,hope and inspiration. I knew I had made it through my tunnel of bereavement to a place of hope when I started focusing on it artistically.



                      (I've Never Been to Antarctica, Acrylic paint, 16x18, 2007)


And when that happened I knew I had healed a big part of my heart!

Many happier images followed... 




                                                         (One Heart, Acrylic, 6x6, 2007)





                                               (Rise, Acrylic, 24x36, 2008/10)




There were many steps on the journey from my first drawings of pain and loss to recent images of inspiration and hope. I look forward to sharing the in-between parts of my story shedding more light on how I made it from here to there.  I hope this visual journey of bereavement will remind anyone going through this process of two simple things: you are not alone, and you can make it through your loss to a hopeful tomorrow. 


Each one of us has a creative ability (no matter how dormant!) that can be used as self therapy during times of crisis, or anytime. Making art relieves all kinds of challenging emotions by taking us out of the time/space world which is real therapy for our mind and spirit. Whether the pictures are pretty, whether they tell a story, or are just abstract blotches of "nothing" doesn't matter so much.  Expressing feelings about loss and grief to heal the heart and spirit is what it's all about.

                          (Grackles, Acrylic, 20x24,2008)

Grief tends to make us look backward and the arts are a precious and accessible tool that brings us all right back into the NOW. The present moment offers the calmest and most peaceful place for the heart to heal.  It is my hope that my work gives others inspiration and permission to pick up the paint brush they put down years ago.  The results could end up being very powerful and healing...even beautiful!


Until next time, blessings of hope and light and many thanks for looking and reading!



                                                                  (Bunnies, Acrylic, 3'' x 5'', 2008)

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