Hello, weirdos! Last month I polled you to see if there was anything you might like to ask me if I did a Q&A for YouTube. At least I think it was last month. Who knows anymore! Anyway, I appreciate your indulgence in what felt like an awfully fun way to connect with you all (and not at all an exercise in narcissism, nope, nope!)
I wanted to make sure I got to everyone’s questions, so this is a lengthy one–over 30 minutes long! Also, the audio is all over the place. I don’t know what I’m doing! But if you make it to the end though, there are some details for another giveaway I’m doing. If you’ve ever thought “wow, what does Sarah do with all of those perfume samples, or what happens if she ever buys an accidental second copy of a book, or does she have too many little pieces of art lying around and what becomes of it?” Well! I have not one BUT THREE boxes of such things, so I will be choosing three giveaway winners! Be sure to leave a comment on the video to be eligible to win.
P.S. I am doing a YouTube giveaway because I reached 10K Instagram followers. Yes! I know! That makes all the sense in the world is I bet what you’re thinking
I’ll admit I was already intrigued by the fanciful enchantments of Susan Jamison’s work after seeing it shared by several friends on social medial over the last few years. My fascination with the artist bloomed wildly after peeking at her website’s bio, describing her lush, luminous imagery:
Susan Jamison’s feminine iconography spans several media, including painting, drawing, textile based sculpture, and installation, all steeped in ritualistic and mythological associations. She is best known for her intricate egg tempera paintings, which present a mystery cult of florid women who foray into the wild and commune with animal spirit guides or familiars.
But in the end, what endeared this artist and human to me was her warm, generous personality, her gentle humor. Her heartfelt and sometimes funny mentions of her mother on Facebook! Seriously, I’d love to spend an afternoon with both of these women. It was our connection that deepened my appreciation of her work, I think, and deepened my awareness of the beauty and power in her paintings, each time I gaze upon them, anew.
Susan was the very first artist to grant permission for me to include her artwork in The Art of the Occult! And as you can imagine, that binds both the artist and the selected work even more closely to my heart, resulting in an even more rare and special connection.
Naturally then, I am quite pleased that Susan agreed to an interview with me for Unquiet Things! This will kick off a series of interviews with a handful of the contemporary artists featured in The Art of the Occult, so you can look forward to more insight and commentary from these visionary creatives over the next few months. For now then, let’s chat about connections, creativity, and crystals with Susan Jamison.
What do you see as the creative mission of your work?
Connection, connection, connection! Ultimately, I hope viewers see themselves in my paintings and identify with a shared story. I want people to feel our sacred connection with animals and the natural world through my images. The animals create tangible entry points to my work, even for children. I’ve seen little ones walk up to my paintings, point and say “bear.” To me that’s enough, for them to indicate they relate to and delight in that animal. Adults might associate more complex stories or myths, both personal and cultural with that same bear adding another layer of meaning and association. A man was looking at my painting, “Power Bear” which is an image of a woman curled up in fetal position inside a goofy bear. He told me he saw the bear as himself and the woman was his feminine side hidden within. I love that interpretation. Perhaps folks will somehow be activated or at least made curious when viewing images of sacred geometry like in my painting “Under the Rose” that you included in your book The Art of the Occult. This painting depicts the flower of life along with roses and stones being artfully and intentionally arranged by a woman’s hand in a crystal grid. Sacred geometry reveals the reoccurring patterns in nature, in life, it is the geometry of connective energy.
Upon seeing my paintings of Divine Feminine figures I hope viewers can imagine, for example, being showered with love and rose petals. Maybe imagining this feeling can help us open up to these feminine energies within ourselves. People always want to hear my stories about my work but I also love hearing theirs. It’s all about honoring our connections.
Can you recall some of your earliest memories of when you began to identify as an artist?
I was born knowing I am a visual artist. I draw, I paint, I make things. I learned the words for it later but I always knew. My mother still has a little book I made when I was in the first grade, “A Book About Me.” In it I drew myself painting on the page pre-labeled “How I grow” and I wrote about being an artist. I’ve often thought I came into the world knowing I’m an artist because this is such a challenging path to follow. I might not have pursued it if I wasn’t so sure I was supposed to. I know this is part of my sacred contract.
My first introduction to your work was with your Spiderweb series, with messages/directives revealed in the lacy webwork, such as “see me,” “touch me,” and “note to self”. Can you share what inspired these beautiful pieces with their stylistic missives? And as part of that, if you’ll indulge me, I’d love to hear more about your relationship to nature’s mythic little weaver.
The spiderweb paintings were inspired by my favorite childhood book Charlotte’s Web. I loved the manner in which the animals are anthropomorphized in order for us to relate to and spy into their world. Wilber the pig bonds with Charlotte the spider after being rejected by the other animals. She weaves messages into her webs that save Wilber from being sent to slaughter. Although Wilber is spared, Charlotte, having a short natural lifespan, does not escape death, but she leaves behind her egg sack showing us that the cycle of life continues. The spiderwebs are a veil between the world of the living and the afterlife although I’m sure I didn’t see this as a child.
My spiderweb paintings are imaginings of what the spider Charlotte might want to message to an adult Fern, or to you and me really. My favorite of this series repeats the pleading words “Believe in me, please believe in me,” in a bit of a twist, the title of that painting is “Note to Self.” I have long used lace as a motif in my work as an homage to needlecraft or “women’s work” so I continued that in this series.
Garden spiders, specifically the yellow and black orb weaver, Argiope aurantia also appear in many of my works. I see these spiders as symbolic of feminine creation as they weave their delicate lacy webs. My love of garden spiders goes back to my childhood when I would take nature walks with my mother. We would search for wildflowers, plants, animals, birds, insects, and crawling things, and identify them in nature guides. We would discuss the mythical significance or symbolism of their appearance in our path. I remember coming across huge orb webs soaked and heavy with morning dew. They looked so magical. Surely this must be a sign of something special. I learned from a young age to respect nature and associate the viewing of it with deeper sacred and allegorical meaning. The influence of those nature walks, the guidebooks, and nature illustration is quite evident in my paintings.
Your art appears deeply rooted in the sacred feminine, the divine mother/s. Can you trace back to a source for your fascination with imagery of the feminine divine?
As a child I spent an enormous time in nature. I was born in Connecticut on the night of a blackout on the northeast coast. My family moved to Indiana where I lived until age 11. My father purchased 40 acres of heavily wooded land in the southern part of Indiana where we would go and live without electricity or running water like crazy wilderness people over weekends and summers. The woods, banks of moss, streams, and a small lake were my playground. I grew up feeling very connected to nature. I understood myself as a part of it really.
Being Catholic, my mother would always make sure we went to church on Sunday and I felt uncomfortable and confined in an orderly church space. The newer church buildings where we attended mass in didn’t have any of the cool, often grotesque statues, paintings, or stained glass windows that older Catholic churches have. There was nothing I could relate to or look at so I would just go inside myself. My connection to source was in the in the forest among the trees, animals, and wildflowers. Here I found my entry into a spirituality rooted in female power. Even children know the Earth is a mother. My artwork has long had this subject at its foundation, over the years I’ve painted so many naked ladies alongside animals, pointing to our sacred union with Mother Nature, the Earth.
How do you experience the connection between spirituality and creativity?
My spiritual life and my creative life are intricately woven together. I’ll tell you a secret, my images come to me in visions. I see a very clear picture in my head and then I paint what I see in egg tempera, a kind of paint I make from egg yolk and dry pigment. I’ve had these clear visions for about 15 years. It seems like the visions are both from me and from outside of me at the same time even though that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Do they come from my higher self, a spirit guide, source, is all that the same thing? I have committed to just accept them as a gift and do the work. Someone with an academic background like mine feels uncomfortable discussing these things. People with fancy degrees like to feel like we are all scholarly and in control. I had to give that up. Very often I do not know what a painting is really telling me until it’s finished and I look at it or maybe even until time passes.
In 2017 I saw images of the crystal grids and the sacred geometry. This seemed odd at the time because I didn’t really know much about crystals but I did some research and I made the paintings anyway. While I was working on that series at The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, a residency center, I went into town with another artist and we stopped a a liquor store. The lady on duty looked at the necklace I was wearing, a silver hand on a chain and she said in a distinctly Southern but someone cryptic way “Honey, you need to go to Stones N’ Bones…STONES N’ BONES!” I told her I certainly would. When we got back I looked it up on the webs. It’s a rock and crystal shop. I had been painting the crystals from photos but the next day I went over and I bought some, maybe even a lot of…Stones N’ Bones, well the shiny stones anyway. A few days later the curator of a big corporate collection came to visit the residency center. I told her I was working on some weird crystal grid paintings and I started trying to explain them. She knew exactly what the grids were and later purchased two of them for a meditation room she was putting together for her workplace. None of this is earth shaking, it’s just a little string of odd synchronicities.
In 2018 I started actually hearing a message, “Depict the Divine Feminine. It’s time for her return.” Um, what? I had to do some searches online to see what this might mean. Who exactly was returning? As I mentioned, I was raised in the Catholic church and although this religious practice is not for me I looked for her there anyway. Of course, the Goddess is hidden for safe keeping as The mother Mary, as Mary Magdalene the partner and most beloved follower, and within the symbolism and structure of the rosary. The patriarchy can try to eradicate her but her people never let go of her even if she is diminished, hidden or has purposefully laid dormant. Ultimately we must have balance between masculine and feminine energies. Coming soon to a heart near you, it’s the Divine Feminine.
I had visions of two horses in 2019. The first was of a black horse running at night with red roses around its neck. I titled this painting “Fearless She Is.” This was closely followed by a white horse on a white background with a garland of pink roses running under a rainbow. This horse’s feet are tied with red strings that she is breaking loose from. The second painting is titled “I Will Always Love You” and it’s hanging above my couch helping me get through the pandemic. I think these paintings are about moving through this time of radical change and restructuring. Oddly enough, the white horse painting is the only piece of art my cat Sophie has ever really spent time looking at. She looks at it quite a lot. I wonder if she knows what a horse is?
Honestly, life is much weirder than I thought it would be.
Do you have a particular process you use when entering into your work? What gets you in the mood to create? Any rituals or practices?
I have to clean first.
I have to be in a positive, peaceful mindset to work because I believe that my energy transfers to the physical object I am making. This can mean meditation, walks in the woods, diffusing essential oils, burning frankincense, or a combination of those things.
I always listen to music when I work.
The physical process of making my paintings is for the most part, a very controlled ritual. I start by making what is called a cartoon, a full size drawing of the image on tracing paper, then I transfer the drawing to a pristine white panel. I make my own egg tempera paint. Cracking the egg and separating the yolk from the white always feels solemn as I’m handling the stuff that life can be made from. I use free range chicken eggs, not for the darker yolks as these are less desirable for my purpose, but for the greater chance of decent life for the chicken. I mix the yolk with water and a small amount of dry pigment to make the egg tempera. It seems like an almost alchemical process. The first layers of paint that I put down are fairly loose. I look at this stage of the painting and I’m pretty convinced that it’s complete crap and I have no idea what I’m doing. After that first layer cures for a day or so, I use mostly small brushes and tiny hatching strokes to refine the painting, layering and layering. The painting starts to match my vision and I become reassured that somehow I’ve remembered how to create an image. It’s like a mini miracle every time I make a new painting and realize I can do it again. The action of laying down all these tiny brushstrokes is very meditative so that in itself is part of the energy infusing ritual.
There is much in the way of visions of an enchanted world in your art, inspired in part, I believe by the fauna and flora native to your region in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I’d love to hear more about some of your favorite local places and spaces in that vein, and how aspects of those spots find their way on to your canvas.
This is the place where most of the chapters of my hero’s journey have taken place so far. I first moved to southwest Virginia after finishing my MFA at Rhode Island School of Design. I had no plan other than staying with my parents at their lake house for a while to regroup. I felt really lonely and depressed. Late one night I heard a scratching noise at the screen door. In homage to all horror movies, I went to the door to see what it was. A gorgeous Luna Moth had come to visit me. This was the first one I had ever seen in person. It’s a symbol of renewal. The next morning I looked outside and saw a huge prehistoric bird on the dock. It was a Great Blue Heron, symbolic of self-reliance. It was time to get out of the basement and start my life up again. In fact my father did say something like get a job and move the hell out of here. So I did that.
In another chapter of my life here I was married and we owned a home on the side of the little mountain here in my city. The house was on three city lots. I had a huge garden, beehives, and all kinds of wild animals visited me there. At one point I said I felt like Snow White surrounded by all those animals. On other fronts I felt alienated and I was literally beaten down. Even after that chapter ended the joyful feeling of being in the company of my faithful animal friends remained and that started to fuel my artwork. It took me a very long time to feel at home in this region, a place where not many people come or go and locals stick with each other and are suspicious of outsiders. Aside from all that it was difficult to make a strategy to be a serious artist in a non-art center. Again, nature was my entry point to creating a feeling of belonging for myself. The Blue Ridge Mountains are among the oldest mountains in the world, estimated to be around one billion years old. The energy of these mountains is very grounding for me. It’s almost like they whisper to me “You are safe here. No matter what happens, we will guard you.” I believe them.
The Appalachian Trail, affectionally known at the AT runs very close to the city I live in. I often hike on sections of it. My very favorite spot to hike however is about an hour away. It’s a trail that leads to a waterfall simply called The Cascades. It runs just to the side of a river and I’ve been there in all seasons and all kinds of weather including rain and snow. This energy of this place feels intensely magical to me. If fairies and hobbits live anywhere, it is here. I think what transfers to my work about this place is less the specific images of it, and more the spirit of it. When I’m there, I feel giddy like a little child, or maybe even like the double rainbow guy (may he rest in rainbow power.)
The place I walk most frequently lately is a woodsy trail in my neighborhood close to my apartment. It’s not particularly long or strenuous, it’s just a close by place to touch a lot of trees or maybe sit on a big rock. I’ve been working on a commission for someone who wanted a large painting with a woman, a tree, and a white deer. It took me quite a while to receive a vision for this request. I was walking on this trail and I ventured off to check out a stream bed. I looked up and I saw an old tree that had a huge opening in the trunk that looked very much like a vulva. The vision for my painting was right there, the woman was stepping out of the vulva tree and laying her hands on the head of a white deer.
Of course no accounting of local places would be complete without mentioning the switchback trail that transverses our own Mill Mountain which I can see right out my back windows. This trail leads up to an 88.5 foot tall neon star near the top of the mountain. I have walked up this trail to the star countless times. There is an observation deck of sorts in front of the star with a photo identifying all the mountain peaks surrounding our valley which you can see from that spot. The other thing up on the mountain is our local zoo, home to three red wolves that are in a conservation program for critically endangered animals. I will probably never paint the star but I have painted the wolves.
I’m delighted to see that you create in other mediums as well! Aside from painting and illustration, you have a series of 3D installations/mixed media pieces incorporating various textiles, bone china cups, leather gloves, etc. Among my favorites are “crying collar” and “tea with mother.” What can you share about these works?
… and I’m curious as to where, among the mediums that you work within, do you find your true heart?
I’ve always enjoyed making weird little things and I seem to have the dexterity to do it well enough. When I was a kid I would draw and paint, but I would also sew doll clothing, build dollhouse furniture, and make odd miniature dioramas. For me the playful making of weird things never stopped but I didn’t really think about these objects as artworks.
In 2012 while I was preparing for a solo exhibition of paintings, I received a rare studio visit from a Parisienne artist, Anne Ferrer, who noticed the three dimensional objects around my space. With her petite frame and playful French accent, Anne excitedly moved through my studio picking things up and declaring “This is a piece, this is a piece!” She affirmed for me that the object making I had been engaging in was valid and it had potential to develop into a rich and complex body of work than could complement my paintings. Her encouraging words made me realize that in my desire to build a cohesive body of work, I had put myself in a box labeled “painter” and had become too specific in my focus not allowing myself to fully reach my potential. Because of her encouragement I began making sculptural work and creating installation projects using crafting techniques such as sewing and embroidery. As in my paintings, women’s bodies, references to the body, and our connection to nature are prominent themes. This sculptural work feeds my painting practice in positive and unexpected ways and I have been able to exhibit this work alongside my paintings. I now consider myself to be a multidisciplinary artist, with my feminine iconography spanning work in painting, drawing, textile based sculpture, and installation, all steeped in ritualistic and mythological associations.
I have a couple paintings to finish but after that, I am going to get back to a sculptural project that I’ve been working on titled “The Mother.” There are some images of her in progress on my Instagram. She is a life scale figure made of wool felt. Her belly is hollow and lined in red velvet. There will be cords coming out of the opening with various plants and animals attached. This project strongly weaves the thematic threads of my two and three-dimensional work together. She is a Mother Earth figure birthing all kinds of life. I’m hoping “The Mother” will be finished in early 2021. I kind of need her here. Although I’m more known for my paintings, if you ask my true heart, it is called to make whatever my visions present, however I am able. I hope these things I make form connections between us and move us to love and connect with our Mother Earth.
Hello friends! It is my little book goblin’s birthday! The Art of the Occult is officially summoned into our realm today, October 13th, 2020, published by Quarto Knows. I never dreamed I’d see a stack of my own books on my own sofa, so I thought I’d commemorate the occasion with a capture of it cozied up next to some of my favorite gremlins and gargoyles.
Speaking of wee goblins and gremlins: Megan Rosenbloom was sharing with us last night that her toddler is obsessed with flipping through the pages of The Art of the Occult, marveling at all the pretty pictures “in a grown-up book.” This gave my heart such a rare and beautiful thrill. Do you remember how old you were when you first became aware of magic and beauty? I reckon it was very young. You may have seen something so thrillingly gorgeous that it haunted your dreams and has guided every twist and turn in your life’s path ever since. I hope The Art of the Occult can serve as that initial portal, that gateway to mystery and inspiration and a lifelong curiosity, never quenched.
Many of you are awaiting copies and I truly hope you like it! Please tag me in your photos and reviews, and speaking of reviews, It would be great if you could leave a few words about the book on Amazon or Goodreads or both!
If you would like a signed copy of The Art of the Occult, please message me, and I’d be happy to work that out with you. Please keep in mind, though, I ship things out once a week, so you might have to wait a little bit longer for your copy then you would if you had ordered it through a major bookseller. Just an FYI!
I currently have a giveaway for a signed copy of The Art of the Occult, and today is the last day to enter! Check out the Haute Macabre blog for details.
In super-extra-exciting news, the beloved aroma artists at Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab have created a series of scents celebrating and inspired by some of the esoteric works in The Art of the Occult, and you can learn more here!
Lastly, thank you for reading my writing here, my blog, where ever else you might have found me. Thank you for your support and encouragement over the years. And thank you for purchasing a copy of my little book of magic and art and wonder. It’s HERE!
The above photo? That is concrete evidence that even if it takes you forever, you may eventually become better at something. I’ve been attempting to bake bread for decades and this is the year that I finally got it, if not “right”, well, it’s definitely not wrong, either. Don’t ever give up on your dreams! Especially if they involve pillowy loaves of delicious sandwich bread.
This loaf makes wonderful toast, and there’s no snack so enchanting as a thick-sliced, crunchy piece of homemade bread, toasted and slathered with butter. A drizzle of honey is nice too! Buttered toast calls to mind keeping warm and safe on blustery nights in cozy pajamas with milky tea and nursery rhymes and Mother Goose and it’s just…simple-gentle, magical nourishment for your inner child, as silly as that might sound.
When we were very young, our mother would prepare a supper of scrambled eggs and toast for my sisters and I when we were having a rotten day (or maybe she was having a bad day?) Even now, these many years later, the comforting fragrance of slightly carmelized and charred bread, the soothing hum of the heating filaments, and even the mechanical whir of the toaster gears springing up the now toasted bread is enough to lower my blood pressure and slow my breath when I’m feeling off-kilter and panicked. Buttered toast forever, please.
According to original poster, Maryna Moynihan, this classic 1901 text was beautifully illustrated by Ihor Vyshynski and published by children’s book publisher Veselka in 1993. Many thanks to Maryna for allowing me to repost these beautiful images here at Unquiet Things. If you’re interested in further details about the images, be sure to check out the original Facebook post, wherein Maryna provides some context and explanations.
*Shout out to Jennifer W.–not hateful 8th grade Jennifer W., but instead lovely Jennifer W. from the book of faces, and who I wish could go back in time and swap places with shitty-Jennifer, so that we could be friends!
Maryna also shared some imagery from The Flower Lady by Valeriy Shevchuk (1990) and illustrated by Olha Rubina. Of Shevchuk, she notes, “[this] writer is very unique – I’ve called him a magic realist, but actually there’s a wholly original genre called “Ukrainian chimerical literature”, and it’s probably closer to French/Belgian “fantastique. ” She observes that, “this book of fairytales is different: Shevchuk has written it with his little daughters’ help. It turned out surprisingly creepy, but it also became quite ubiquitous in the 90s. I had a copy, my school library had a bunch of them, and probably most of my friends did, too.”
I heartily wish I had these amazing books on my shelf when I was a little girl, that’s for sure!
At Haute Macabre this week, I share a few of my favorite pages from The Art of the Occult, as well as giveaway details for a signed copy of the book! A winner will be announced on the date of publication, October 13, 2020.
A gathering of death-related links that I have encountered in the past month or so. From heart-rending to gut-splitting (sometimes you gotta laugh, you know?) from informative to insightful to sometimes just downright weird and creepy, here’s a snippet of recent items that have been reported on or journaled about with regard to death, dying, and matters of mortality.
I received my author copy of The Art of The Occult this week, and I’m so excited that this beautiful book (can I call my own book beautiful? I think I can, because it *is* a thing of beauty) will be making its way to the rest of the world in mid-October.
I’m so excited, in fact, that I may puke! Is this normal? Maybe, right? It’s a big piece of my heart and maybe a little morsel of my soul as well, bound up in these pages, and I hope that my passion for magic and mystery and beauty comes through in the words I’ve written, at least a little.
I’ve dedicated this book to the seekers, the dreamers, and the magic-makers, and I hope you all find inspiration, delight, and a breathless rekindling of curiosity each and every time you flip through these pages.
If I could have told little Sarah that she would have a published book on the shelf one day, she would probably murmur a spacey “yeah, I know,” and then disappear into whatever daydream world she was lost in.
As a child, I wrote little books and magazine articles all the time. I recall one provocative headline I wrote about how the earrings that Tina Turner wore in Mad Max made her head fall off!
As an adult, I am never not writing. It’s not always smart or beautiful or meaningful stuff, but I can’t imagine not taking moments every day to sort out on the page the things whirling around in my head. Did adult me ever know this might lead to a book on a shelf? I’m not sure. So I’ve got to thank little Sarah, that dreamy scribbling weirdo, for believing in me.
The New Faces of Death was a series of interviews I originally wrote, beginning in 2015, and which were published elsewhere on the internet. That site has not been active for quite some time now, so the articles are now housed at Unquiet Things–I have been meaning to resurrect and continue the project for a few years now and I believe it is finally time! I think that ultimately I will be changing the name of the series. The New Faces Of Death worked at the time, for that particular venue, but I’m not really feeling it now, and it doesn’t seem quite appropriate, somehow.
These conversations on death (ah, there’s the new name!) were a series of profiles and interviews in which I chatted with a handful of remarkable individuals passionately involved in the Death Awareness/Acceptance movement– funeral industry professionals, academics, historians, artists, writers, designers, and more. Pioneering mortals who seek, in different ways, to educate our repressed society regarding the various facets of death and how to cultivate a relationship with death that is liberating, humanizing – and ultimately – life-enhancing. From mourning and memory to pathology and the intricacies of the human body, from the meaning of a “good death”; I invite you to read further, learn much, and expand your own conversations on death in the process.
I am thrilled to kick off our return to this column in the form of a Q&A with writer and photographer Claudia Crobatia from A Course In Dying. I’ve followed Claudia’s blog for several years now but it’s only been recently (generally speaking, I guess, because we’ve all lost track of time in 2020) that I’ve worked up the courage to begin tweeting/messaging etc., with her!
Claudia’s writings on her blog, A Course In Dying, are intended to help communicate and disseminate death awareness through exploring the theme of mortality–these offerings include unique interviews with wonderfully unexpected individuals, to personal essays brimming with insight, to hauntingly gorgeous explorations of exquisite cemetery spaces.
Unquiet Things:How did you become interested in death as a way of life (so to speak) and how did that lead to the writing and the work that you do for A Course In Dying? What drew you to explore death & dying & matters of mortality?
Claudia Crobatia: “Death as a way of life” – I like that! And it connects to one of my core beliefs: that death is a part of life and should be treated as such, instead of being ignored or tabooed.
To answer your question more comprehensively, I have been intrigued by death from a very young age on. My father was quite old, at fifty-eight when I was born, and growing up I was confronted with his various health issues. Most of them were heart related and he eventually lived to be eighty-three, but one example that stands out for me was witnessing him having a cardiac arrest when I was ten years old. These experiences definitely confronted me with mortality and made me think about the impact of death. Not only in practical reality-based terms, but they also triggered my interest in the big unknown in a more metaphysical and spiritual sense, and wanting to figure out what death could potentially mean.
What do you want people to take away from the work that you do?
My aim with A Course in Dying is to break the taboo around the subject of death. When I created the platform back in 2016 it started out as a place to share my research. I wanted to know how aware we currently are of our mortality and how death influences us nowadays. Through the interviews I’ve done I discovered that our modern-day society in general does lack a personal connection to death and everything that surrounds the dying and grieving process.
The platform has now evolved into more of a death awareness resource where I encourage people to contemplate death. I am currently working on my first online video course on how to cope with mortality – this way, the name A Course in Dying can finally be taken literal! The course will guide you into exploring your own relationship with mortality and help you integrate death awareness into your life, and thereby possibly even reducing your fear of death.
What are some of the most common misconceptions you’ve run into about your work, your blog and to a larger extent, death and death awareness in general… and what do you do to disabuse people of those notions – or not?
The most typical type of misconceptions I get are comments on my work that dismiss it as being too gothic, morbid or just straight up dark. I do try to break this cliché with the general look and feel of my work, for example by shooting all of my cemetery footage in bright colors, but for some people an interest in the subject of death automatically equals a morbid obsession.
Now, the thing is that I don’t necessarily mind these stereotypes being projected onto the work I do. I love everything dark and macabre myself, so yay! But what does worry me about it is that labeling anything death related as morbid and scary will stop people from interacting with it on a personal level, and acknowledging it as an absolutely normal, natural part of life. I suppose this is where ouroboros gets to bite its own tail and the endless cycle of my death awareness journey continues, with the aim of letting people know it is okay to think and talk about death.
Many people find working with the dead or talking about death creepy, or macabre or morbid – how do you enroll those people into the conversation? Conversely, if you have a particularly creepy incident in your experiences, I would love to hear about it!
I think I answered the first part of this in my previous question! As for creepy incidents, here is one that immediately comes to mind:
I visited an old Jewish cemetery in Amsterdam, where I live, during semi-lockdown recently. We never went into full lockdown here in the Netherlands but social life was heavily restricted. Luckily I was still able to go for walks and visit nearby cemeteries. I had wanted to visit this one old cemetery for a while now and thought this was a great opportunity.
However, once I stepped in through the cemetery gates, a very eerie feeling soon came over me. In hindsight I believe it must have been a combination of the surreal semi-lockdown situation I was in, where for a couple weeks on end I hardly interacted with any living being, and the unkept state of decay the cemetery itself was in. It is situated on the edge of a residential area and very small in size, but it was hard to spot any gravestones at all. Most of the area was overgrown with tall grass and shrubs, and the headstones that were visible were in very bad shape. Regardless of it’s tiny size and lack of visible graves, the cemetery holds 100.000 interred bodies! I felt sad for the souls who were laid to rest here, for the state this place was in and for the state the world in general was in. Walking around exploring the graves I felt my heart almost started to race and a voice inside of me was screaming “get out of here please”. I think this was my saddest cemetery visit ever.
I love your cemetery reviews! Where is your love of cemeteries rooted and how did it flourish over the years to lead to writing up reviews of your experiences in them?
Thank you! I honestly love everything about cemeteries – the variety of tombstone sculptures and typography, the way a grave can reflect a persons life and interests, the element of nature that can take over or complement a grave, and of course the immense historical value.
I believe cemeteries can teach us a lot about the world we find ourselves in today. Visiting a cemetery of a specific place tells you about the people who were there before you, who helped build and shape this place into what it is now. I often look up names of specific graves I find that catch my eye and write about the interesting historic facts I stumble upon during my research. I hope my cemetery reviews will inspire people to visit these places more often.
You recently started up a YouTube channel to, I assume, supplement the writing you do for your blog, and reach/connect with your audience in a different kind of way. Can you share a little bit about what your viewers might expect to see over there?
Yes definitely, I think video is a great way to connect with a bigger audience! In fact I plan to do most of my cemetery reviews only in video in the very near future (editing one as we speak). Fun fact: I actually used to be a video director and have my own production company. I did mostly music videos and some artsy short films. My last project was for a Dutch musician and as the song was about death I made a video about a young woman preparing herself for her impending death. This project was actually a big turning point for me, where after completing the video I decided I wanted to fully focus on my own work. It was then when I founded A Course in Dying.
So now, after four years, getting back to working with video feels quite special. Although the way I do it now is very different – not only am I the one working behind the scenes, I am also on camera myself, preaching death awareness and hoping to speak coherent English! It has been a nerve-wrecking ride getting to this point, but I do feel like video is a great medium for connecting with people.
I have a lot of video ideas in store for the coming months. Viewers can expect a couple very epic cemetery reviews, tips on how to deal with grief, and *cue spooky music* a video in which I share my paranormal experiences!
What can we do to open up the conversation on death? To not just increase awareness of it, but to make more sense of death & dying, to allay our death anxiety?
One thing I think is crucial in normalizing death and reducing death anxiety is acknowledging death. Acknowledging death as it announces itself, as it unfolds, and as it happens. Either for ourselves in our own process of dying when our times comes, or with someone in our environment who faces death or loss. Being present and open to whatever arises can be a catalyst for death to be transformed from something we fear into something that connects us.
Also, I happen to know a certain someone who is releasing a course on how to cope with mortality soon…
How have your views on the afterlife affected your work in promoting Death Awareness, or vice versa?
My views on the afterlife only affect my work in that it endlessly fascinates and inspires me.
I do not see death as an ending, but rather as a transition into any kind of scenario that one can imagine. I believe death is as personal and individual as each person’s life is.
…with a guest appearance by our neighbor’s trailer. We don’t know any of our neighbors very well, but this man has a kind smile and always says hello and asks about our garden, and last week he gave us a whole wheelbarrow full of very nice soil and compost. Things like this make me feel hopeful. I know a gift of dirt doesn’t immediately make for a better tomorrow but I believe the hope that it brings my heart is a good place to start. That’s what I’m thinking about on this sad, rainy afternoon in a world that has one less vital light in it. No matter what, I won’t lose hope.
The title of this post is inspired by a friend’s thoughts over on Facebook, accompanied by the following quote:
“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.
What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.
And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”