Art After Loss: Hopes new exhibition will spark conversation around bereavement and grief

A unique exhibition of art by people who have lost loved ones is coming to Harrogate, with the aim of helping to make it easier to talk about bereavement. Andrew Vine reports.

EACH exhibit tells a story that is moving and intensely personal – of how somebody coped with losing a loved one, whether a parent, spouse or child. In paintings and poetry, holiday souvenirs and even a knitted shawl, lives are remembered and celebrated, using art to help the process of grieving.

Art after Loss opens at venues across Harrogate on August 1 and runs for the rest of the month. The work of professional artists will be displayed alongside that of people who found solace in turning to art as a way of coping with bereavement.

The exhibition has been organised by Full Circle Funerals, of Skipton Road, Harrogate and grew out of an online gallery on the company’s website, which was set up to give the bereaved a way of working through their feelings via art.

Andi Robinson found ‘immense comfort’ in art after losing her parents in quick succession

Talking about death, and coping with all the emotions of its aftermath, are difficult and deeply upsetting for many people, says David Moon, funeral director at Full Circle.

Turning the online gallery into the exhibition is aimed at encouraging people to open up about their loss, which can help them come to terms with it, he adds.

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“We’re very well aware that in society today, having those conversations for some people can be quite triggering and bring up thoughts of anxiety and fear and awkwardness, and we thought that the exhibition would provide a means for people to engage in a way that worked for them.

One of the artists whose work will be on display is Diane Shillito, from Leeds, who lost her husband, Chris, in November 2018.

“We’ve found that some people have taken comfort in the arts as a means of expression where they can’t always find the words. They’ve shared them with us and we’ve featured them on our website.”

David contacted artists who had a story to tell about how they used their art to cope with bereavement, which was a way of starting a wider conversation about dealing with loss.

He adds: “Whilst this exhibition is a gentle nod to the conversation, it might stir up some emotions that might be quite challenging for people.

“If they turn into conversations about their own personal experiences, that’s fine, but it doesn’t have to be that way. There’s something to be said about how in society we find it difficult to talk about death, and we know from families that talking is the first step to achieving an improved sense of wellbeing.

“If we can provide a space where these conversations start to happen and we are helping people to speak to each other, they can be supported, maybe in informal fashion with a friend or signposted to a support service that can help them. We want to help to open up the conversation.”

The intensely personal emotions of bereavement – and how people react in differing ways - is illustrated by how the artists express themselves.

Pat Sowa created a knitted shawl and the loss of her son is evoked in the fabric itself. David says: “When you look at the piece, you can see there is stress in the stitching where the raw emotion is there, and that was quite telling when she was talking to me about it. There is a sense that the art is telling more than you can just see.”

Sarah Charneca has laid out a scene that includes treasured objects from holidays with a loved one, and Shirley Vine has submitted a watercolour of the North Yorkshire Moors, where she went walking with her father.

For Harrogate artist Andi Robinson, the circles in her painting Circulus Plenus – Latin for “full circle” – represent family. Her art was of immense comfort when she lost her parents, Ian and Jennifer Nelson, in quick succession four years ago.

“Mum developed dementia and it basically took over the family’s life, looking after her and visiting. You lose your creative flair a bit, so I put the art thing on a back burner and then Mum died, and then Dad died soon after.

“That grief is horrendous and with dementia, you are grieving while she’s got it. Dad was diagnosed with lung cancer and died in six weeks, and that was a different kind of grief, like falling off a cliff. Learning to deal with both those was hard, so I did fall back on my art. When you’re totally absorbed in your artwork, there’s nothing like it.

“It was complete escapism, and there is also an order to my work, so it gave me a routine.

“When you go through grief, you think, ‘What do I do, where do I turn to?’ Having that focus was a release.

“I was lucky in a way that I did have the art as a fallback. Some of the artists involved have come to art as a result of grieving, but I was fortunate to have it as a tool, which does drive me.”

Andi hopes that Art after Loss will start people talking about bereavement. “People don’t talk about grief enough. Everyone goes through it and I think unless you have been through it yourself, you are quite reluctant to talk about it. It’s almost scary and you might not know what to say to somebody who is grieving. But when you go through it, you realise it’s a process of life, and life has to go on, and you have to deal with it.”

Another of the artists whose work will be on display is Diane Shillito, from Leeds, who lost her husband, Chris, in November 2018. They had married the previous April after being together for 25 years.

She has brought together images of slowly decaying plants from her garden to create What Lay Beneath. Diane has also written a poem, An Elephant at my Back, which evokes Chris’s absence when she sleeps. Some of her work has been displayed at a bereavement conference run by Full Circle.

She said: “Up to him dying, and afterwards, my art was a way of channelling energy. I don’t think my work expresses grief, it expresses much more love and gratitude.

“Art after Loss gives all the people participating a channel to express what they’re feeling, whether it’s words, or visual and that’s a wonderful thing to be able to create. Some of the work is absolutely beautiful. People can just pop in and take something away from it that they can relate to.”

“We’ve all seen that there’s a lot a grief around us in the past few years because of the pandemic, and that highlighted something that was already there - and that is British people are so poor about talking about death and dying. Anything that gives people permission to talk about their grief and what they’re experiencing is great.

“But it’s also about the celebration of somebody’s life, and that the people who are grieving are moving into a different life themselves. I don’t think the conversation always has to focus on the grim bits, it ought to be celebratory as well.”

Art after Loss will run throughout August at four venues - Horticap, at Otley Road, Henshaws Arts and Crafts Centre, at Bond End, Knaresborough, Crimple in Pannal and Harrogate Library. Each will showcase eight pieces of art.

The artists whose work will be on display include Shirley Vine, Pat Sowa, Sarah Charneca, Jodie Beardsmore, Julie Badon, Antonia Rolls, Martin Morrison, Shaeron Caton-Rose, Geraldine Montgomery and Fiona Odle.

There will also be contributions from Mindful Memorials and Yorkshire charity The Swan Song Project, which gives people living with terminal illnesses or dealing with bereavement the opportunity and support to write and record their own original song.

Full Circle Funerals’ online Art after Loss gallery can be found at fullcirclefunerals.co.uk/bereavement-support/art-after-loss