Empathy, Loss and Painting
A lingering trauma brings relief from the nightmarish suffering caused by loss, even as it perpetuates the grief. Yet through the act of creating, the symptoms of trauma can be lessened. Empathy can be established with inanimate objects and people. When we allow it, our capacity to feel beyond ourselves deepens, and the container of what pain we can tolerate is expanded and extended. The space in which a painting is created becomes protective, comforting and reenergizing. This space is where I go to meditatively and clumsily drag paint across canvas, sensitize my eyes to the nuances of color, and extend my vision through the tactility of physical material. It’s one of the few places where I can feel alone with my thoughts and myself, and prepare for the outer world.
Painting was the way I survived the first six months after my father’s death. I was 21 years old; I threw myself into the world of color, the empathy of materials and subject matter of illness and its pathology, with a wide-eyed faith that hard work and diligence was a singular route to healing. Recently, the echoes of this distant trauma rippled into my present life when I lost my cat in an emergency surgery at the same time I ended a romantic relationship. During the harsh four days that spanned the cat’s surgery to its euthanizing, I wasn’t certain of which loss I was upset about—the sudden vanishing of my pet or the protracted disappearance of my romantic partner. Or was it the haunting memory of helplessly watching my father’s body slowly shut down as I observed a veterinary team encircle my cat, manually pumping his pneumonia-stricken lungs and resuscitating a heart that stopped several times. I wanted to recede from the world.
It didn’t seem to matter. The self-awareness of the intersecting complications was enough. Afterwards, the initial centering activity was an intense return to my work—reclaiming the physical, creative, and psychological space of the studio that I had drifted away from in the crisis and conflict of the relationship’s unraveling. For me the sustained, hard-won gratification of creating stabilizes, reclaims and focuses traumatic experience in a way that few other activities do.
Both making and experiencing art encourage a prolonged and embodied seeing into the real world amidst the disembodied (and disconnected) looking through virtual windows. Art can be an opportunity to empathically connect with both objects and humans. It can’t cure trauma, but it can create a safe space to retreat. Yet, the studio and the painting is only one of many worlds in which painting and empathy exist for me. The painting and its emotional embodiment exist in many worlds at once: the material, the symbolic, the social, the interior, the exterior, the landscape where it is not.
The social healing of trauma, especially when an object becomes a focus or a distraction of conversation, is also wonderfully powerful. Empathy and compassion is what we can give freely to others when we have the capacity. When the presence and attention of our bodies are in the same space, we focus ourselves as mirrors for each other. We become receptive vessels that can hold the pain of others, allowing circumstances to be seen from a distance with perspective. We create community, compassion, shared introspection and love for one another as people who are emotionally equal.
Being around myself and people—from dinner with friends, to pushing myself through the city throng, to focusing my nurturing tendencies on my students’ well being—was healing. One experience stands out: I was attending an art opening with a friend and discovered she had lost her father and a relationship around the same time as my recent upheaval. It was a powerful and perplexing moment we shared and it reminded me that loss creates a unique bond amongst those who experience it early in life. Yet, that connection can be felt by any person, as we all take pleasure and we all suffer. All of this experience is as much living as it is art. We all create, and we all have the capacity to create safer emotional worlds for each other.
GREG LINDQUIST is an artist and writer, and will be participating in the 2017-18 Whitney Museum of Arts Independent Study Programs Studio Program.