A Celebration of Life and Death

Nothing heals grief but grieving, a truth that is illustrated in Cathy Weber’s Grief Series, 20 paintings that she began a little before her partner, Jack Crichfield, the father of their infant son, died in 1996.

Through them Cathy has bared her heart, leaving nothing of her suffering, and its dawning resolution, out. By "heart" I mean the depth of our being. It is what Quakers know as the "seed of God" in all of us, and its roots are deeply unconscious. The healing of grief requires us to be open to our unconscious—to the depth of our spirits with their inextricably linked poles of despair, and of joy as new life. As despair is accepted and lived in (and we don’t always have much choice about it) it matures—ripens—into new life and joy. Cathy’s grief, in her words, "had a life of its own. It was my constant companion. The pain was physical and spiritual and extremely intense."

But it taught her to pray. "From the time Jack was diagnosed, I succumbed to an impulse to indulge in constant, desperate, blatant, not-very-cosmic intercessory prayer. I had hoped most of my life to develop a habit of constant prayer. Without much forethought I was establishing that habit . . . mostly as a result of what felt like desperate need. On the first anniversary of Jack’s death . . . I was struck by the realization that this firmly established habit was a priceless gift of Jack’s illness and death."

I did not myself know Jack, but have learned from others that he was a big man of wonderful grace and energy. They met in 1981 at a job in which Cathy was doing the carpentry and Jack the electrical work. Cathy says, "He had a love for his work that made installing a light switch an act of devotion." Within a few months they became a couple, and then had 15 years of a marvelous outdoor/indoor life. Their son, Rio, was born just 17 months before his father died. I have found a special joy in watching Cathy and Rio together; they quietly adore each other.

Diagnosis of a rare malignancy in Jack’s arm was followed by two years of desperate study and traveling in search of a cure that was not found. Cathy was ill-prepared for his death and froze into near immobility. But she turned "to the comfort of my studio" with no "conscious intention to document my grief." There, she sat "quietly, waiting for a clearly articulated image to present itself [and] only then do I proceed to put it in the picture." Productive silences like that are not new to Quakers who, distrusting words as their only spiritual tool, practice what Matthew Fox wrote: "Language can be redeemed only in a return to experience." When we seek what is most important to us, we fall silent until our words can carry what we actually express, and that process is holy, for it is our truth. "It is not a big leap," Cathy says, "for me to view my work as a spiritual practice. It is certainly the exercise of a divine gift."

What emerges from Cathy’s quiet waiting is her all-consuming loss. But these pictures arrive in consciousness straight from unconscious insights—for that is where creativity, honesty, and spirit arise.

To consciousness alone they are strange, and bewilderingly symbolic. We see blood and water issuing from stigmata in the griever’s palms and making elaborate patterns beneath her floating, nude body, and, in another, hearts and eyes bleeding, and watering beautiful pansies down to what appears to be their maker’s deepest and least accessible reaches of consciousness.

We see hearts and eyes, with blood and tears, overfilling two buckets suspended from the yoke on the griever’s shoulder harness, watering and bleed- ing onto her reduplicated (but now corpse-like) body far below.

Not conscious pictures, they belong to the "stream of consciousness" that Gertrude Stein spent her entire literary career trying to perfect, and Stein’s words, in the form of illuminated calligraphy, are penned into many of these pieces. They can best be appreciated if we open ourselves to our own unconscious and to that of the artist. Approaching them reverentially, as the unknown, I was first struck by their passion. Nothing is denied; all pain, all suffering, is accepted and rendered visible.

There is no end to the richness of detail in these pictures; except for recurring themes of blood and tears, they are all different, and each a gift to the artist from the promptings of her own depths. We know that the unconscious, which has no eyes or words except for those borrowed from consciousness, is the divine source of wisdom and longing. Linking it to consciousness is the artist’s task, and she herself undergoes that process as she works. Cathy hardly knows she is exploring her grief until her paintings show her that she is echoing in visual form the abandonment to the unconscious in verbal form of her mentor, Gertrude Stein. Quakers understand that process as divine inspiration.

These pieces are endlessly imaginative. If one did nothing but admire their sheer imagination, the reward in viewing them would still be great. But their imaginativeness is not just mental acrobatics; it has purpose and meaning. Maybe a comparison will help to clarify this. Some of the surrealists—I am thinking particularly of Salvador Dali—are also wonderfully imaginative. But my experience of Dali is that he was a man showing off. That’s legitimate, and certainly enjoyable. But enough is enough. In a recent review I made of Dali’s work, I was surprised—and a little disappointed—to find my interest beginning to flag after the first half-dozen paintings. I can’t imagine that happening in response to Cathy’s work; I have gone back again and again to these pictures and discovered in them, each time, a new and passionate celebration of life and of death.

Nothing heals grief like grieving, and the ultimate impact of these 20 pieces is sheer astonishment, and joy.

Robert C. Murphy

Robert C. Murphy, a retired psychiatrist living in Sheridan, Wyoming, is a member of Wyoming Friends Meeting. © 2002 Robert C. Murphy