My subject matter deals with death – it’s an unavoidable aspect of the work. This may appear effortless at times, but it is a struggle for me to confront such matters on a daily basis. I try to reconcile this aspect by greeting my subjects with compassion and understanding.
When dealing with foliage like seeds, leaves, flowers, etc., it’s easy to separate myself – it’s almost not a consideration that these forms are “dead” because they do not hold the same kind of life that animals do. Insects and birds are more difficult. The animation of life in such creatures feels incredible silent when stilled by death.
One of the cats I’ve been taking care of for a friend over the holiday passed last night. It’s been expected for some time. His decline was rapid but gentle. Dear sweet Werther began having problems getting out of bed to eat and drink on Saturday but would eat when food was brought to him, he was too tired to eat all day yesterday. His housemates refused to eat as well – they circled around him as though holding a vigil. I knew he would be gone before I could return in the morning so I spent extra time giving him attention before leaving for the night. Werther, despite his exhaustion, pressed his cheek into my fingers as I caressed his skeletal face, taking comfort in companionship and touch. When I arrived in the morning I found him curled up quietly – his soul gone. He was 21 years old – a great achievement for a cat.
I only deal with living things after death – I get to know them through death and can only imagine what life held for them. Knowing Werther in life makes his death harder to embrace – there is nothing left of him in the form that remains behind.
My connection with my subjects is superficial at best, a delusion; it is only real because I perceive it to be real. Having wrapped Werther lovingly in a towel, crying while holding him in my arms as I stroked a cheek that no longer leaned into the affection – it’s hard to feel like perception is enough.
The understanding I have of the birds I interact with and the butterflies I paint is not diminished by this knowledge or this doubt – it is simply changed. The exploration continues to be a search for connection but the estimation of the result is less firm in my mind.
“Old Man” Werther, dear sweet tabby, may you find as much peace in death as you found comfort and companionship in life.
Selections from The Eighth Elegy – Rainer Maria Rilke
With their whole gaze
animals behold the Open.
Only our eyes
are as though reversed
and set like traps around us,
keeping us inside.
That there is something out there
we know only from the creatures’ countenance.
We turn even the young child around,
making her look backward
at the forms we create,
not outward into the Open,
which is reflected
in the animals’ eyes.
Free from death.
We alone see that.
For the animals
their death is, as it were, completed.
Sometimes a child looses himself in the stillness
and gets shaken out of it. Or a person dies
and becomes it. For when death draws near,
we see death no more. We stare beyond it
with an animal’s wide gaze.
Ever turned toward what we create, we see in it
only reflections of the Open, darkened by us.
Except when an animal silently looks us through and through.
This is our fate: to stand
in our own way. Forever
in the way.
If the confident animal coming toward us
had a mind like ours,
the change in him would startle us.
But to him his own being is endless,
undefined, and without regard
for his condition: clear,
like his eyes. Where we see the future,
he sees all, and himself
in all, made whole for always.
And yet in the warm, watchful animal
there is the weight of a great sadness.
For what at times assaults us
clings to him as well: the sense
that what we yearn for
was once closer and more real
and infinitely tender.
Here all is distance –
there it was breath.
After that first home
the second feels altered and beset by wind….
And we: always and everywhere spectators,
turned not toward the Open
but to the stuff of our lives,
It drowns us. We set it in order.
It falls apart. We order it again
and fall apart ourselves.
Who has turned us around like this?
Whatever we do, we are in the posture
of one who is about to depart.
Like a person lingering
for a moment on the last hill
where he can see his whole valley _
that is how we live, forever
taking our leave.