After Death: Into the Great Beyond Through Painting

2014 / acrylic on canvas / 54" x 54"
After Death / 2014 / acrylic on canvas / 54″ x 54″

THE DEATH OF A PET often strikes one as intense as the death of a fellow human. There are distinct differences and consequences, but the feeling of loss remains the same. In my experience, a pet is an extension of oneself, a living spirit animal that one takes care of and integrates into daily life. It is both a part of oneself and an independent entity; it is separate and utterly dependent. The relationship a pet owner develops with his or her pet is often as transformational as a relationship with another human, if not more so. After all, animals are people too.

Last week I was faced with the task of helping my family’s dog of 16+ years pass into the great beyond. He had been ailing, blind and deaf for quite some time, and finally his strong little spirit began to lose precedence over his weathered Pomeranian dog body. Ceasing to eat and moaning in undeniable pain, the best action I could take as a pet owner was to have him put to sleep. I reminded myself that outside of human care, he would have been long gone long ago, and that it is a service of kindness to our animal companions that we relieve them of their pain in death. This was my first time being present for euthanasia, and the reality and finality of the scenario completely evaporated my clinical phobia of needles.

Holding him in a breathless embrace, his weakened lungs silently took their last breath. At his last moment, I had been repeating over and over in my head a prayer about rainbows, having had a dream awhile back where he flew up into the sky, his eyes flashing the colors of the rainbow as he fell back down to earth. I now took a breath of my own as he took none, bursting into tears out of combined sadness and relief, carrying in a blanket his dog body, limp as a soft watch, to the car. Heading for home where I would bury him with dozens of flowers from his backyard, I remembered another pet death I had experienced many years ago, which had prompted me to make the painting After Death.

After Death came after the death of my rabbit of 5 years. In May of 2008, I rescued Rabs from a parking lot at my alma mater, CalArts. It was the final day to move out of the dorms, and I had just completed my first undergraduate year of study there. My blue Volvo was completely jammed with my stuff. I already had taken my tortoise back to my parent’s house in Ojai. But it was over 100 degrees that day, and being a white rabbit with brown spots, I knew she was not a native bunny, and would not survive long in Valenica, California’s wilderness. So, upon leaving CalArts that day, not to return until the Fall, I scooped up the white rabbit, and put her in the front seat of my car. Thus began the weaving of the strongest bond with an animal I have yet experienced.

5 years later, after Rabs being by my side the rest of my college years living in my studio, coming home with me during the summers, and living with me and my guinea pig Geep in post-graduate land, L.A., her health declined. Her age, I never knew, nor did I know the exact illness that lead her into delirium and pain. In early January of 2013, I was already in grief and depression from the passing of old Geep 2 weeks prior. Still, nothing could prepare me for the emotions and experience that commenced after setting free the spirit of Rabs from her ailing rabbit body.

During the course of several weeks after her departure, I was pushed through the obstacle course of the “seven stages of grief”: shock, anger, bargaining, guilt, depression, and much later, acceptance. I had lost pets before, but never had I experienced loss on such an intense roller coaster of emotions. In addition to this, I was blown open into an awareness of the other side to a degree which I had not been before. For weeks I had what felt like a non-stop involuntary psychedelic trip, in which my usual sense of body was disrupted, the atmosphere and ground of Earth no longer seeming solid. The veil separating physical existence from that which is beyond had lifted–and there was no putting it back down.

So I made a painting of what I saw when peering into the great beyond. After Death is my attempt at translating what I saw of the infinite space of formlessness which lies just beyond this side of paradise. Being a medium-large square canvas (54″ x 54″), After Death encompasses the viewer’s visual field while still being intimate and approachable. The image is a flat surface of formless texture which at first appears nearly colorless, but is actually composed of a rainbow of colors layered over one another. The painting is outside any genre, but does most appear like an Impressionist painting, particularly those of Monet. With the alchemical substance of acrylic paint, it captures the fluctuating light and dark of formless existence. It presents a paradox of simultaneous qualities: flatness (that which cannot be penetrated) with depth (that which is infinite); muted color (dull ambiguity) with rainbows (piercing vitality); formlessness (nothingness) with detail (specificity). The after death state, as are the truths of the Universe, is a realm of paradox: everything and nothing at once.

After Death is a meager attempt at depicting the immediate after death state: that which is nearest to the physical realm just beyond the veil. What I painted is hardly a shadow of the intricacies, vibrancy, detail and constant change I was presented with upon the physical loss of a significant part of myself, my dearest pet. It is a shallow penetration into the infinite abyss which is the wellspring of creation. It is the space out of which the physical world comes, but also out of where ideas come from–the life which human beings channel and bring into being through their creations. It is, essentially, the source and energy of artistic creation.