The A Graceful Death Exhibition and Project by Antonia Rolls is about what it means to die. Portraits, paintings and words from the end of life. Powerful, moving, loving, uplifting, inspiring. The A Graceful Death Project includes talks, presentations, discussions, events connected to awareness raising of end of life issues. The latest news, exhibitions, events and developments will be available here.
What Is It All About? What Is A Graceful Death For?
A Graceful Death is an exhibition of paintings from the End of Life. The story begins with the death of my partner from cancer in November 2007. I painted him in his last few weeks, days, and the day of his death, and have produced some very raw, powerfully real and beautiful paintings of the human body as it folds away into death.
The exhibition has grown over the last year to include other stories, images and experiences from those who are moved by the paintings to want to include thier own loved ones to be remembered. I have been working on portraits of people no longer with us, painted from images loaned to me by relatives of the person concerned, for inclusion in the A Graceful Detah exhibition. I have poetry sent in to me and I have now, at every exhibition, a small pot of flower for a young man called David, from his brother, who misses him and didn't want a painting or poetry to represent David.
Wy am I doing it?
I am doing it because I feel so passionately that dying is the most important part of our lives. I am doing this because I can communicate and reach out through paintings. I lost the man I loved, but, I am not the only one to have suffered bereavement. I know how it feels and I know how surviving it feels, and I can use these paintings to go far beyond that which words can say.
It is not a comercial venture. It makes me no money and the paintings cannot be sold. Somehow, the exhibition is growing and is travelling from place to place, and somehow it is being supported. The only way this exhibitioncan and does surbibe, is through donations and funding from indiiduals who have bisited the exhibition and have understood the importance of enableing this conversation on Life and Death.
The paintings are about Love and Loss and about How We Die. I will carry with me forever my loss of Steve. I will never forget how it feels to watch him die; there will always be a Before Steve and an After Steve. The paintings are meant to hold you. They are to strike that buried chord in your stomach, of recognition and understanding. I am doing this so that your experience is givern a small shock of empathy, and to ask you to Remember. The love is present in the care, the compassion and the detail that I paint into each picture. The love is in the fact that I want to honour those at the end of their journey, and that I am not afraid to do it.
And there is always the survival of those of us that are left behind. I have one painting which is dedicated to the fact that we do carry on, and life becomes good again, and happiness is not only possible, but right.
Our lives will end. We will die. After someone we love dies, the pain we feel, and the difference in our perception of life and death, is horribly real. These paintings are abut that pain and that difference. They are also about the Power of Life that continues regardless, whether we wish it to or not. I am painting dying, death, loss, illness, hope, love and redemption.
Sometimes I lie in my bed, tired and a little fractious, and think that if I was fighting an illness, how would that be for me? I imagine Steve feeling so exhausted during the day that he needed to lie down and sleep. He was full of energy and liked to go fishing in his beloved boat Illusion, to get things done, to be active and to participate in the day. For him to be tired enough to have to go to bed in the day was very unusual. So did he feel like I do sometimes; uncomfortable, dissatisfied, unrelieved? I can feel the lack of peace when I lie down in my bed. I can feel that my limbs are too weary to relax and I can feel that I am not benefiting from my rest. But I can get up later and move around without questioning how my energy levels will cope. There is always a point at which I can gear myself into action and get back into the swing of things as if I had never had to pause and rest. But for Steve, and others who are ill, there is no change. There was no moment that Steve felt that he was rested enough, and that it was time to get up and join in the day to day routines around him. the exhaustion in his body kept him lying down, and when he decided to get up and join us, it made him move slowly and pause for breath, and to decide to do as little as possible in order to stay in the loop with us.
But sometimes, as I lie in my lovely bed, anxious and unrestful, I think What if this was the best I could feel? What if this is where I would stay and the world out of my window was gone for me for ever? How would I feel if I could no longer get up, dust myself down and drive off in my car to meet someone, do the shopping, get something done? I find it very scarey. I think that if I had to stay here, no matter how red my sheets are and how many wonderful pictures I have on my walls, I would feel frightened and trapped and terrified that this was as good as it could be. I would remember with longing how I took for granted the moving around the house, the choosing of clothes, the way I could just Do things. I don't think I would be comforted by the lovely things that surround me in my room.
What is it like to be ill in bed? If you are terminally ill, how do you think? What do you think? What are the silences like when no one is coming to visit you and you have to endure yourself inbetween distractions? I imagine myself into a state of mind that is as near to this as is possible in a healthy inexperienced person. I find my focus changing utterly. I feel my body much more profoundly, and feel it as if it is not a part of me. When I am dispirited and lie down at night to sleep, and don't feel any benefits, I think Ah. So this is a fraction of what it must be like to have your body slowly succumb to an illness that will eventually kill you. If I were in that position, I may find the memory of how I took for granted my health and life before it began to fade, almost unbearable. Or would I feel so physically weak, ill, unwell, that I would find the lying down in peace in my bed a relief? Would I concentrate on how I felt now, and not find time to remember how it was to do as I pleased during the day? I know that when I try to imagine how Steve must have felt as his symptoms became more and more obvious, that I was not as understanding as I could have been. I was simply ignorant. I had had no experience at all of such a thing as cancer and the inevitable decline and eventual death it brings in the sufferer. Nor, I have to say, had Steve. Between us we had no real idea of what to expect. We feared that he would die, but until the disease had rendered him visibly and mentally incapable, we hoped he wouldn't have to. I knew he would die before he did. I think. But as I sometimes try and imagine how I would feel if I had a terminal illness, I think that perhaps Steve always knew it was the end and that he would die. He just would not admit it. I wonder if I would? If I were in his position?
Lying restless in my bed sometimes, in the night, with my limbs finding little relief from exhaustion from lying down, and worrying about it, I think This is how Steve felt. All the time. And for him there was no getting better. It wasn't just a temporary discomfort, it was total, and constant and forever getting worse. This, for him, was never going to improve.
And how is it for anyone who is bed bound? Anyone who contemplates their own death? I may be in that situation one day. I hope I don't drop dead or die in my sleep. I think I would like to prepare myself to die. I think I would like to know it is coming and get ready for it. That is what I think now. Not having ever had to deal with my own mortality, everything I write is just theory. And this is why I am writing this - what is it like to lie in bed and consider your own end? I just do not know.
The paintings will all be going to stay in Dublin for the next showing of A Graceful Death. I am interested to see how the Irish will react to the exhibition. The paintings will be shown over the half term week and I will post the reactions and comments I get then. There is a chance that the paintings will then go on to another Irish destination, for a Festival. But as that is not finalised I will say no more just yet.
What is happening in A Graceful Death at the moment? It is a time of organising, of painting and of expanding. I have two more paintings to complete, and some more poetry to write up from people who have come to the exhibition and want to participate. I am looking to find ways of making the paintings reach more people, and am researching new and interesting venues. Along with this, I am finding much new support and help in the finding of new material and assistance in the whole organising of the work. I still make no money from it, so funding has been important. Donations to the A Graceful Death fund have made a huge difference - even the travel costs to the places in which we exhibit is huge. There is enough now to take the paintings to Dublin, and to Manchester in February and to Birmingham again in November of next year. This is excellent.
The exhibition is no longer just about me. It started with my story, of the death and the loss of my partner Steve, who died so gracefully in November 2007. All the paintings I needed to do to help myself in my grief are done - except for one more. I want to paint a large self portrait of the Survivor. The pain of loss is devastating but it does not always remain as bad. You can and often do, move on and surprise yourself with how normal and happy your life can be. I want to paint myself at the other end of this experience. I want to paint the next stage in the life of a Person Left Behind By The Death Of A Loved One, and I look forward to seeing how that will turn out.
After this final Steve painting, I will be concentrating solely on those who want to be included. I am open to suggestions. I would love to paint those at the very end of life, but they would have to know about this exhibition and agree to it. It has happened, with Anne and Peter Snell. That painting features in a previous post; Peter wanted to be included in A Graceful Death before he died, so that his death could help others. He did not live to see the painting finished. His widow, Anne Snell, is now an ardent supporter of this exhibition. I would like to paint those who have just died if the relatives wish it and give permission. Each person in the exhibition will be given a write up, to explain their story and their involvement in the A Graceful Death. Every image will be true entirely to the person involved, their story will be very specially documented to be shown with their painting, which of course, I will do.
I am also helping with a project on Angels at a hospice near here, in September. That I very much look forward to, and will find myself learning more and more, from the people who are taking this journey into the end of life.