What is the Art of the Dying? An Interview with Deidre Scherer

The fabric and thread artist captures the journey of the dying process

Today SevenPonds speaks with Deidre Scherer, a Vermont-based artist whose portraits capture the journey of others in the various stages of the dying process. Working with the mediums of fabric and thread, Deidre’s work is able to capture the simultaneous power and fragility of our last great adventure: dying. Currently, her collection The Last Year is on display at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles through July 21st 2013, as a part of their exhibit “Milestones: Textiles of Transition.” This coming September-October her work will also be displayed at the United Theology Seminary of the Twin Cities.

Deidre Scherer end of life art

Deidre Scherer

MaryFrances: Could you tell us about your collections The Last Year and Surrounded By Family?

Deidre: The Last Year was the first series, [composed] of nine pieces. I was befriended by a woman at a local nursing home, was drawn to her for many reasons—a very beautiful person. She would comment, give artistic feedback [on her portraits]. And I started turning them into fabric during the months she was dying. So I called it The Last Year and I’ve kept the pieces together. They made sense as a group.

I was really conscious that The Last Year was of an individual; it did a lot of work on its own. But I realized we don’t die out of a vacuum–we die out of community. Surrounded by Family is more involved in the sense that the series shows different situations of people at the end of life, of who is supporting them.

MaryFrances: There is a great difference in tone for each piece of The Last Year. Does the tone of each work depict a particular moment or feeling of the end-of-life process?

Deidre: Yes. I did them all at different times; they have a chronology but I pieced that together afterwards. “Layers” was the first. When I finally did “Release,” I recognized in retrospect that it was [capturing] moments of her last breath. There was a coloration to the piece that a hospice nurse told me captured the true, dense color at that time of death. She was really dissipating, her spirit was leaving her. And I was working from this very solid material [which then] frays out at the edges. Those [frayed] spans of string and thread were holding the piece, extending her energy out to the edge.

MaryFrances: What has your relationship with death and dying been like?

Deidre: Well throughout childhood I was an odd kid, a tomboy. I roamed the woods to find dead animals and give them a proper burial. But I had a motive! I’d dig them up at an appropriate later time and preserve them. Most little girls had shelves of dolls, but I had windowsills of skeletons.

Deidre Scherer the Last Year end of life art

“Layers,” a part of the collection “The Last Year” by Deidre Scherer. Photo Credit: dscherer.com

MaryFrances: What did your parents say?

Deidre: They understood. My father was a diaramacist at the American Museum of Natural History and there was a lot of death there.

Then there was the impact my nana, who died when I was 13. My parents knew she was sick and decided to make visits to see her and one day they came back and just told us that she had died–that on the last trip down they had buried her. They were trying to protect us but I was so angry. Later I recognized that anger as one of those elements in the curve of the grieving process.

MaryFrances: Why work with fabric and thread?

Deidre: As a mom I would be trying to work in a corner of a room while [my] kids were asleep. So fabric seemed the most appropriate medium. I discovered I was attracted to fabric because it was a familiar medium. Even if you can’t touch my pieces your eyes understand the weave; they understand that fabric is read by the biggest sensory organ in our body: our skin. And that makes it pretty intimate.

Deidre’s 3 Tips on Approaching the Subject of Dying

1) Go through your local area hospice training for volunteers.

2) Go beyond hearing those who are dying. Listen.

3) Be aware of using the terminology of Death and Dying: Dying is a process, and death a completion.

MaryFrances: Who are some of your influences?

Deidre: The impressionists, mosaic, stain glass, frescoes. Käthe Kollwitz and Paula Modersohn-Becker — the fact that both were women made a big impression on me. Then there’s also André Tchaikowsky, the filmmaker.

MaryFrances: What’s the experience of working with families in such a sensitive end-of-life environment like?

Deidre: The first thing that surprised me was their completely welcoming me. I would get an invitation [for a commission] often by leaving my book, Diedre Scherer: Work in Fabric and Thread [in hospitals]. They would see these images in my book and say “there we are.” I had a great deal of trepidation every time I went [to work], especially the first time. The warrior artist would take over and push me. I would get upset just driving—could I count on myself? Could they count on me? But I found such beauty and truth in front of me, right up to the point of awe — that spirit of magic at the end of life.

MaryFrances: Art can be an abstract topic — but so can death. Has this made the integration of the two easier, or harder?

Deidre: I think the best way to answer that is with a quote from André Tchaikowsky’s book Sculpting in Time: “The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.”

MaryFrances: Thanks for speaking with us, Deidre.

Deidre: Thank you.

 

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