How does art help deal with loss: An artist’s perspective

By STUDY28|Violette Stepaniuk

The current Ebb and Flow exhibition at La Petite Mort Gallery in Ottawa, Ontario is artist Meaghan Haughian’s third exhibition in the last two years exploring themes of birth and death, joy and sorrow, growth and decay, loss, sadness and grief. Since personal loss has significantly influenced Haughian’s recent work, I asked her, “How does art help an artist deal with loss?”

Practice Saying Goodbye by Meaghan Haughian, 2012, Blink Gallery wall installation

All works by Meaghan Haughian, images courtesy of the artist

Practice Saying Goodbye | wall installation | 2012 | Blink Gallery

MH: This question “How to deal with loss?” applies to a lot of my work. An exhibit I had at Blink Gallery a few years ago was actually about my mom’s best friend (and the mother of two of my friends) who died of cancer.

I painted over photos of flowers that I took at Beechwood Cemetery, placed them in antique frames, and installed them in a large grouping like a garden, with dirt along the floor. That was the main piece in the show and I had a couple smaller groupings exploring the same concepts. Part of the larger installation piece is actually now part of the Beechwood Cemetery’s art collection. Quite an experience…It helped me realize the impact that my work can have on others as they deal with their own issues and made me feel a little less selfish about making art! Anyway, different series, but it totally relates and has influenced my current exhibit, Ebb and Flow.

Practice Saying Goodbye by Meaghan Haughian, 2012, Blink Gallery floor triptych

Practice Saying Goodbye | floor triptych | 2012 | Blink Gallery

Practice Saying Goodbye by Meaghan Haughian, 2012, Blink Gallery floor diptych

Practice Saying Goodbye | floor diptych | 2012 | Blink Gallery


Artist Meaghan Haughian, about her art

Ebb and Flow Exhibition

“How do you mourn a life that isn’t over?”

In her artist’s statement for Ebb and Flow, Haughian writes: “I didn’t set out to make this exhibition about my mom, but she kept emerging. Last year she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. After emptying her Toronto home of its contents, I was left with a pile of boxes that I still don’t know what to do with but can’t throw out. Hundreds of photos capture elements of my mom that I will never know…

“This recent body of work reflects upon the unfathomable: the tangible and ethereal; the past and future; the vastness of the sky and the minuteness of neurons. Contemplative and intimate, each piece captures a moment in time and a state of being.

“My mom is preserved in the early stages of her adult life while thoughts and emotions revolve and drip around her, attempting to connect. Like the images that are depicted – a wreath, a cloud, an ambiguous space – these artworks have no beginning or end. They are meditations on grief, understanding and acceptance. How do you mourn a life that isn’t over?”

Meaghan Haughian Day of birth 2014

Day of Birth | 2014 | mixed media and collage on photographs | 12” x 12” (30.5 cm x 30.5 cm)

VS: How does the process of creating or a particular artwork help?

MH: The four images (Day of Birth, Annual Firmament, Perennial, and Memorial) capture loss the most strongly for me. They’re also about rebirth and the cycle of life, so I don’t just consider them to be about loss but also about hope.

They are photos that I’ve taken at cemeteries in Paris and Florence; then I painted over them and collaged my mom on top (except in Annual Firmament, which is a type of flower, I’ve collaged my grandmother’s – my mom’s mom – head in the shape of a wreath).

There’s something special about making art because you can lose yourself in the process. When you’re dealing with something that is very difficult and emotional, getting lost every so often can help you to acknowledge, accept and work through it.

Creating an artwork takes many hours, therefore making work about difficult and personal subject matter lets me give it some of the time and space it requires. I work on many pieces at once, alternating between them. This process allows me to reflect upon and find connections between different ideas, emotions and artworks.

The process of creating also allows me to reflect upon something without having to devote all my energy to it. – I can paint or draw while listening to music and letting my mind wander. Emotions can be exhausting and when they’re too intense, it can help to deal with them in smaller doses. There are other ways to process pain, but I’ve learned that making art is an important outlet for me.

Meaghan Haughian Annual Firmament (Forget-me-not), 2014, mixed media on photographs

Annual Firmament (Forget-me-not) | 2014 | mixed media and collage on photographs | 21” x 12” (53.5 cm x 30.5 cm)

VS: Does art help you move through different stages of grief?

MH: Probably yes, but I’m not really sure what the different stages of grief are! Most important is acknowledging and coming to terms with your loss, and making art has certainly helped me with this.Not to say that it solves the issue or makes everything better, but it has helped me deal with loss in a healthy way.

Perennial by Meaghan Haughian, 2014, mixed media on photographs

Perennial | 2014 | mixed media and collage on photographs | 12” x 12” (30.5 cm x 30.5 cm)

VS: In your artist’s statement you say that the hundreds of photos you have of your mom capture elements of her that you will never know. Does your artwork help you get to know your mom? How?

MH: I think I’m more sympathetic to her and what she’s been through. Spending the past several months with photos of her in her twenties has reminded me of our similarities as women, which has helped me better relate to her. And I actually see physical resemblances between us that I never thought existed.

Memorial by Meaghan Haughian, 2014, mixed media on photographs

Memorial | 2014 | mixed media and collage on photographs | 12” x 12” (30.5 cm x 30.5 cm)

VS: By exhibiting your art, you are making your grief, your experience public. How does that help?

MH: It doesn’t always help, but there are definitely times when it does! Working as an artist is for the most part a solitary experience and exhibiting is a way of reaching out.Sharing my artwork with the public is scary and stressful, but it can also be affirming.

When you reveal something personal, you encourage others to do the same and this allows you to connect on a deeper level. It can be helpful when people tell me about their own experiences, but mostly I’m just grateful to know when my art has connected with another and has put them in touch with something important.

I make art because I have to, but learning that what I’ve created has impacted another person makes it much more meaningful and validating, and for a moment I don’t feel so selfish.

About the Artist

Meaghan Haughian lives and creates in Ottawa, Ontario. She works in mixed media drawings and photographic-based collages on paper. Haughian has exhibited throughout Canada and her work is included in private and public collections. She describes her art as an act of storytelling through which she seeks to capture the experiences and emotions that we share as human beings but often experience in isolation. Her small-scale artworks reflect tales of fiction based in experience, and merge personal history with collective human experience.

Learn more about Meaghan Haughian and see more examples of her work:

The Ebb and Flow Exhibition is on view until January 4, 2015 at the La Petite Mort Gallery, 306 Cumberland Street, Ottawa, Ontario.