The Art of Grief

The Seattle Times
July 21, 2002
By Alex Tizon

This is a brief story about evolution, and how one thing changes into another. How grief turns into paint, how paint can turn into art, and how art can set you free, or at least make you feel better.

It’s also about personal grief melding into civic mourning, as happened to artist Louise Britton on the morning of Sept. 11. Britton’s ache over the loss of both parents coalesced that day with a sense of national loss. Her newest paintings, like the work of other local artists who have addressed 9/11, show a haunted, surreal blending of the personal with the apocalyptic.

In Britton’s case, the sudden death of her mother in 1984 and the violent murder of her father 10 years later were as cataclysmic to her life as 9/11 was to the life of the nation. One cataclysm recalled the other. The terrorist attacks, a slaughter fueled by religious fanaticism, she says, “brought back what I went through, what my family went through.”

Britton, 48, speaks in a plaintive voice that lilts with the subtle Southern twang of her Georgia upbringing. She is tall and reserved, with an elegant lankiness about her. She and her husband moved to Seattle three years ago. She says she has been painting “pretty much always.”

Her grandmother and mother were also artists. Her mother, with whom she was very close, died of cancer — unexpectedly, quickly — when Britton was in her early 20s.

And on July 29, 1994, in Pensacola, Fla., her father, Dr. John Britton, was killed by a protester outside his abortion clinic. Dr. Britton was shot in the head multiple times at point-blank range. The shooter, a former Presbyterian minister, used a shotgun.

Painting gave Britton a way to confront her grief. But images, like dreams, can take a circuitous route through the subconscious. “It might take awhile before it appears,” she says. Sometime after her father’s death, cemetery images began to appear in her paintings. The images were from Oakland Cemetery, near where she lived in Atlanta. They took the form of concrete angels and statues of robed figures. The images would appear in her work for the next decade, symbols of loss and grief, and of unremitting permanence.

Those same figures from Oakland Cemetery have infiltrated Britton’s newest works, most of them done after Sept. 11. Now those same concrete angels, as in her painting, “Apparition in the Borderlands,” move through a changed world of vast deserts, ominous skies and flames ripping through cracks in the earth.

Another painting, called “Sentiment and Structure,” shows a statue of a winged cherub praying and looking upward at a yellow sky. In the backdrop, almost as a mirage, are the diaphanous silhouettes of two identical towers.

Most of her new works don’t depict such an obvious connection to Sept. 11. Most of them, though, do emanate a particular foreboding. “Unease” is Britton’s word for it. Unease at a world that has crept up to the edge of apocalypse, a world where any of us could go at any moment.

Disaster and personal loss

Whereas Britton’s paintings seem fearful of the future, the new works of fellow artist Jeff Mihalyo seem weighted with the melancholy of a past loss. Not that his work is a downer. In fact, one of the striking qualities of his paintings is the juxtaposition of things that sink with things that float. Grief and buoyancy. Loss and recovery. A barn next to, say, a giant, naked, floating woman.

“That’s intentional,” he says.

Mihalyo, 37, tall and wiry, with intense dark eyes, has been exhibiting as an artist in the Seattle area for 10 years. He designs software by day and paints by night.

Two months after 9/11, his wife of 10 years left him. He says a lot of people in his circle reassessed their lives, and as a result, some broke up and some came together. For Mihalyo, 9/11 has become so intertwined with the end of his marriage that, in his mind, they are part of the same experience. National catastrophe merged with personal calamity.

His post-9/11 paintings show a lot of detached and deconstructed buildings and bridges, like wreckage from a battle, rowboats with lone rowers, figures of ghostly floating women in various stages of recline.

The image of jetliners piercing the World Trade Center became so deeply imprinted in Mihalyo’s mind, he says, that monstrous, man-made creations flying through the air became a motif, as in “Shipping Lane,” where a giant metal tanker hovers past what appears to be ancient ruins.

It’s hard to know the exact provenance of such images, and most artists are loathe to give definitive explanations for their work, but Mihalyo freely admits that his latest paintings have been to some degree therapeutic.

“The function of creation,” said the writer Richard Rhodes, “is always, always, the alleviation of pain.”

‘Welding with tears’

In the case of Mount Vernon artist Pam Hom, 56, the death of a close friend 10 years ago made her rethink her life and eventually return to art work after 25 years as a mariner. She worked at various times as a captain, a first mate and as a cook.

One of her closest friends, David Tippett, a prominent Seattle shipyard owner, one spring day in 1992 was shot in the head in the presence of 40 customers as he ate lunch at the Fremont Dock restaurant on Lake Union. It was a murder-for-hire stemming from an old grievance.

Hom sought refuge from her grief in art: ceramics and papier-mâché, and eventually metal sculpture. Years went by in a flash. Then in late 2000, she began working on a large metal-screen creation depicting the skylines of Seattle, San Francisco and New York City.

She finished construction of New York’s Twin Towers a week before Sept. 11. Afterward, she superimposed the jagged skeleton of the fallen towers as a memorial.

“If you can picture someone cutting metal and welding with tears, that was me,” Hom says.

Pain seems to fuel her art, she says, and art heals her life.

“They all go together,” Hom says. “When something so terrible happens, like David’s death, like Sept. 11, you can feel so disconnected. It doesn’t make any sense, it’s chaos. It’s cliché, but art work is like a Phoenix rising out of the ashes. From death comes something alive and bright.”