Three months after my husband Jason’s arrest and incarceration, my family doctor Sue came over for an old-fashioned home visit. She knows that there are times when patients are just not well enough to go out, and on that particular day, I was one of those patients. My confining symptoms were stress, fear and grief. When Sue arrived at my door, I invited her into the room at the back of the house which had been Jason’s art studio. Canvases, paints, inks and paper lay exactly as he had left them, save for any disturbance created by the police search following his arrest. As Sue took it all in, I stood next to her looking almost helplessly at the piles of supplies overwhelming the room. After a moment, she turned to me and said matter-of-factly,
“I think you should do something with all this stuff.”
I nodded in agreement and began mumbling some ideas I had about donating it to charity or a school. Sue interjected,
“No, I mean do something for yourself.”
“Oh.” I replied. For myself? What did she mean?
Sensing my confusion, Sue quickly jumped in with a suggestion:
“In two weeks, come to your next appointment with a piece of art you have created using these supplies; something which captures what you have been going through for the last three months since the crimes. Focus on your emotions: What has it all felt like?”
I nodded slowly in agreement, but I already felt overwhelmed. How could I ever capture the complexity of my emotions in a piece of art? I considered myself a craftsperson: creative, but not an artist. Sue seemed to sense my hesitance,
“You can do it, Shannon. It doesn’t have to be beautiful, it just has to be real. Don’t think too much, just get those feelings out. You’ll feel better.”
Two weeks later, I arrived at her office with a large masonite board I had spray-painted black and then covered with cut-out photos, scraps of fabric, fragments of poetry and song lyrics, dried leaves, and shards of glass. Collage seemed an appropriate choice of media to describe the brokenness I felt. In the middle of the board I had pasted a large half-moon piece of silver polymer wrap so that it looked like a silver bowl. Inside the bowl, I placed a photo from my wedding day: all the guests standing together under the autumn leaves, smiles beaming from their faces. I’m in the front row in my wedding dress and Jason is standing behind me with his hand on my shoulder, looking proud and happy. We are surrounded by our loved ones and on the brink of a new chapter of our life together. It was October eighth, 2005.
Exactly one month later, Jason's terrible crimes turned the silver bowl of my life into a colander, shaking madly as if in an earthquake. In the aftermath of his violence, I flailed around inside a new and terrifying reality, grasping to hold on to anything while I watched people, places, memories, hopes and dreams inexorably fall through the holes and over the sides. Eventually I fell out too, onto a broken and dangerous landscape. When the ground finally stopped shaking and the toll of destruction could be taken, the losses were numerous, far-reaching and heart-breaking.
I knew instantly that my journey to wholeness and safety was going to be long and hard, but I resolved to survive this experience, to search for meaning and peace, and to rebuild a life out of the rubble. I had always been a person with a fundamental love and appreciation for life and that did not change. I was fortunate to be surrounded by people with the strength and love to help me sustain my resolve. None of us knew exactly how something good could ever come out of something as senseless as this, but we all believed it was possible. Beautiful mosaics are created from a thousand broken pieces.
For me, learning to express myself through art proved to be an excellent way of releasing stress, coping with loss, and processing the complex and overwhelming emotions I experience—so many of which are new. I find it comforting to use symbols and imagery, particularly from nature, as metaphors for various aspects of my journey. It was never my intention to show my work to anyone else, but I have found that sharing it tells part of my story for which I do not have words and that is helpful. I also benefit from hearing how others respond to it: which piece moved them the most; why it has meaning for them; what they see that I do not. Sometimes people say that they are inspired to create art themselves and that feels wonderful! I say to them what my doctor said to me,
“It doesn’t have to be beautiful, it just has to be real. Don’t think, just feel.”
Like a salmon swimming a thousand kilometers upstream to lay eggs for new life, or like tulips that push their way up from ground frozen for months, evidence of miracles and transformation are everywhere.