An Installation of Tears Amid the Advent Season

Installing a work of art inspired by grief might seem dissonant in a season marked by festive celebrations. Yet a traditional understanding of Advent, like Lent, integrates a “penitential” time of introspection and anticipation, noted Frank Burch Brown, chair of the CTS Religion and Arts Committee and Frederick Doyle Kershner Professor of Religion and the Arts.

On December 11, Professor Burch Brown introduced his Church and the Arts class to the installation of Tears, a poignant and deeply personal painting in two parts created by CTS alumnus Peggy McDonald (1984). According to Professor Burch Brown, the painting’s expression of multiple dimensions of grief in the midst of the holidays, assimilates the grief and loneliness that afflicts some people during the holidays, while providing an opportunity for connecting through community and compassion.

An ordained teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church, USA, Peggy painted Tears in 2010, two years after the death of her son Charlie. Earlier, Peggy had experienced the tragic loss of a child in 1986, when her infant son Joel died of SIDS. Though Peggy had never been an artist, a therapist at Saint Vincent Hospice offered her an opportunity to attend one-on-one art therapy as part of her grieving journey.

In creating Tears, Peggy sought to create an expression that was “accessible, honest and attractive” as opposed to a declaration of faith. “This isn’t a faith statement other than I believe all of us have a gift from God that allows us to pursue beauty,” the artist said. She noted that the non-judgmental attitude of the therapist who allowed her to create the painting independent of her faith was important in the creative process.

The Tears color palette, which ranges from pastel and vibrant blues to mud-tinted shades of green, reflects beautiful memories of Charlie and Joel, sorrow for lost relationships and the ugliness and despair accompanying the artist’s grief. The painting’s rivulets dripping from inverted arcs reflect the flow and ebb of tears, splattering in forceful pools. An underlying Lucite mat containing the spilt tears is surrounded with the following statements which Peggy characterized as “the pithiest statements I made to the therapist.”

•    It’s not scary to cry
•    Don’t be afraid of my tears
•    You can’t make me cry
•    Crying is a way of taking care of myself

While the painting has been therapeutic, Peggy continues on a journey in her relationship with faith and recovery from pain. Just this year, she became comfortable praying publicly again. But deep pain does not mean succumbing; as Peggy stated, “Being in really deep water does not mean we’ve drowned.”

She has shared her artwork with others going through the grieving process, including children enrolled in the Brooke’s Place grief recovery program, where she shared with students how she used droppers to create the speckled effects of fallen tears.  

A CTS student commented that Peggy’s artwork is “a kind of sermon in itself.” Professor Burch Brown observed that church congregations might reconsider their environments as venues where people can explore a fuller range of emotions, including feelings of sorrow and lament.

The Tears exhibit was installed in the lower level of the CTS Library and will be on display through January, 2013. Professor Bernie Lyon’s class on Loss and Mourning will also be including the exhibit in their classroom discussion.

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