What can conflict specialists learn from artists about grief? Certainly both professions deal with grief on a regular basis: many mediators work with clients who are dealing with losses and painful issues; many artists recount trauma and conflict in their narrative output. Often confused, grief is the internal feelings of loss, while mourning is the outward expression of grief. What happens if a conflict specialist is working with parties who are grieving and unable to express mourning through verbal communication? I believe that conflict specialists can learn more about the grieving process by examining how artists process grief through visual means of expression. I am a professional artist who decided two years ago to pursue a master’s degree in conflict dispute resolution at the University of Oregon. Through my thesis project, I have created a research paper with a companion collection of original artwork that attempts to explore the creative process within the context of grief and mourning and its effect in and during conflicts.
Through my artwork, I record emotional responses to the process of bereavement by creating collages and book structures. This recording of mourning started when I was eight. My grandfather, who was my best friend, died unexpectedly. The adults around me were heartbroken at his unexpected death. Even in their shock and awkwardness, they had the forethought to provide me with magazines, glue, and scissors. I learned to be fully present in those sobering moments of youthful innocence about death and refused to lose my sense of wonder. In those moments, I also rejected the dominant narratives about how to act regarding mourning, and I remained open to react in the way that was natural to the way I was feeling. Making meaning out of this bereavement allowed me to reconcile my conflicting feelings about loss and the rippling impacts of harm and confusion from the avoidance culture around me.
I had no idea how well these skills would serve me. Years later, over a five-year period starting in 2005, my father, youngest brother, and mother died. These consecutive deaths gave a deeper awareness of a dominant incomplete loss mechanism leading me to further pursue how bereavement can be facilitated using visual methods and creative thought in mediation with the viewer. Bereavement made me focus on creating more artwork and showing it in a public sphere. Over the years presenting this work, grieving people continually come up to me during my shows, confused by trying to intellectualize their experiences and incomplete relationships with loss and not finding relief. Grief deals with the internal emotion of the heart and the reality of change, this first step is scary to many. Dr. Wolfelt wrote in his 2003 book, Understanding Your Grief, “Our society, western culture, has slowly converted into a mourning-avoiding culture, a culture that attempts to think of death as optional.” Desiring deeper study of the subject, I entered the University of Oregon’s Law School in Conflict and Dispute Resolution program.
During these last two years of study, my art and bereavement practice included obsessively collecting data, images, and information for the creation of collaged images. On completing my degree, I will have gathered 10,000 images, the largest amount I have ever collected throughout my career. During this process, I was trying to make sense and order of the universe through objects and the collection of data, information and ephemera in an effort to make bereavement visible. By making loss visible, it allows me to emotionally and intellectually continue to self determine new meaning and resolution of experienced change created from loss. This practice supplies a foundation for abstract and intellectual understanding of true self, place and the direct experience of being human, at times a substantial essence being covered over by social conditioning and anxiety surrounding grief.
I see my artwork as a portal for the viewer to witness and experience this collection or cabinet of curiosity about grief and mourning. Though this analysis and reflection, I hope looking at this work allows the conflict specialist to consider the unspoken and hidden part grief plays within conflicts in a prevailing cultural norm of grief avoidance.
All the Best,