Friday, January 4, 2019

The Prairie Paintings (dedicated to my mother)

This November my mother, who has suffered from increasing dementia for the past several years, was hospitalized with aspiration pneumonia. Apparently this is a fairly common path in any degenerative disease and with this inability to swallow the downward spiral begins. 

Under Western Skies / 20" x 20"

Far away from Saskatoon, I worked in my Montreal studio painting the landscape of my childhood, my mother's home, my grandmother's home, my great-grandmother's home. Tears flowed as I realized she was returning to this landscape.

Four generations - My mom, grandma, great grandma and me

Beckoning Landscape / 48" x 48"

My brother called and said it was time to come to Saskatoon. To sit by your mother's side and watch her die is a humbling experience indeed. My mother is my source and sustenance. I have never known life on this planet without her. It was a slow and often agonizing process which allowed for great spans of time to slip by unnoticed. Our whole family fell into the simple rhythms of night turning to day and back to night again. The moon waxed outside her hospital window and I knew that she would not be alive by the next full moon. There she was now, alive and breathing and holding my hand but she was slipping away into the next realm, perhaps with one foot already there. It felt like a privilege to escort her to this threshold as she had once ushered me across the threshold into life. There is a poetic and spiritual completion to this birth and death cycle between a mother and daughter.

Mom and me in the Saskatchewan bush
I would spend hours drawing her hands and her face as this felt like a way to stay connected to her. Those hands that had lovingly cared for us. I knew her hands well; their touch, her embrace. I couldn't imagine life without that. Most of what we pass on to our children is felt rather than spoken. I felt supported and loved unconditionally by my mother. Her calm, gentle nature and her absolute reverence for the beauty of Life, family and Love was passed on to me through her hands and heart.

She was often conscious but unable to speak. We could look into her eyes and talk to her and occasionally she would respond. Sometimes a woman with a guitar would come by and sing songs to her. It was a beautiful space for her to die in. A huge window that let in the natural light which she loved so much, there were no screens or TVs, no florescent lights, lots of chairs for visitors and family. There was quiet and calm, it was peaceful. We often played music for her. The nurses on duty were the angels that nurses usually are and provided the best possible comfort for my mother's dying body. Her minister came and prayed with us around her providing the best possible comfort for her departing soul. He too, was kind and gentle. In spite of her dementia you could feel her soul was still in the room with us but reaching for a place that only the dying can know.

Amy Louise Friesen 1931 - 2018
I had to leave her before she died which was very hard to do. She died the next evening with my dad and sister by her side. My father lost his partner of 63 years. I can't even begin to imagine what this must feel like for him.

This was the first painting that emerged after her passing. It was a celebration of her life as well as her death. She was a huge fan of my painting and I am not sure if she ever understood how great an influence she was to my work and life.

All Things Must Pass / 40" x 30"
Her memorial service was December 1st in Saskatoon and attended by many lifelong friends and family, some of whom I had never even met before. Many gave testament to what a beacon of love this beautiful, strong woman of unshakeable faith was. She would have loved that all her family was all gathered together under one roof. I was reminded of the importance of family and roots. Though we live far apart geographically we are still connected by those roots and we are there for each other through thick and thin. I discovered once again how much I love my family. I became aware of the legacy of one's children and how the next generation carries on into the future. I feel as though I have a responsibility to carry forward my mother's spirit and love as best I can.

When I returned to the studio I painted with my mom in my heart and though I had meant to paint a portrait of her I ended up painting the vast and open prairie from which she came. She loved that big blue prairie sky. My brother Sean wrote about her returning home to that blue sky.

The Thrum of Prairie Grass / 48" x 36"
While visiting the prairies more often than ever before in the last few years, the landscape tugs at me. It beckons me into its expansive openness where one's soul is free to fly. That Sky! All that blue! You can feel yourself soar up just by looking into it. That is the same sky my mother's soul was released into and I will always feel her presence there. 

Prairie Blue / 30" x 60"

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