Nancy Gershman, Prescriptive Artist
Chicago, Illinois, United States
Figure 1: Original photo of Craig
Sometimes the elephant in the room is a painful irony, like the story of Craig, a 25-year-old flying instructor who died in his aircraft. As parents we think, “Oh, if only we’d talked him out of flying lessons!” But as bereavement professionals, we see both sides: a young adult doing what he loved to the end and a father in enormous psychological pain, robbed of bragging rights, the possibility of little Craig-sters and most of all, his son’s loveable presence. And who wouldn’t love a guy who dug flip-flops made “outta indoor-outdoor carpet,” who flew his life to the tune of Ziggy Marley’s “Love is My Religion,” and who in Jamaican parlance, was “so upful, so gaan to bed bout people…?”
It was Craig’s aunt Denise who first found me on the internet, searching for a digital artist to “put some photos together” for her brother Dale. We were having our first session over the phone: the once-doting aunt from Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina and me, a prescriptive artist from Chicago who specializes in legacy portraiture. Denise was sharing what was happening to Dale whenever he invoked his son’s name and how it hurt her:
Dale was so distraught and lost. I asked him about anti-depressants but he said: “No, you have to go through the process. There is no skipping any part of it.” He believed you had to feel it all. But his biggest fear was that everyone was going to forget his son. Dale believed that you die three times: first when you stop breathing, then when you’re buried, and finally when your name is spoken for the last time on earth. It bothered him that people who knew and loved Craig stopped asking about Craig or mentioning his name.
Paradoxically, this moratorium on speaking about Craig was spurring Dale, always the proud parent, to bring up Craig’s accomplishments, but in the present tense. Denise was worried. The family’s first Christmas together since Craig’s passing was fast approaching. Would Dale’s raw emotions frighten everyone?
That’s when it came to her. Perhaps a meaning-making ritual was in order – a project that would focus Dale on creating something to give family and friends in memory of Craig. Out of our conversation grew Craig’s Healing Dreamscape.
What is a prescriptive artist?
When it comes to envisioning a hopeful future without their loved one, a griever can become stuck, viewing the future through a negative filter. Here is where the prescriptive artist comes into play. Because of our training as artists, curators and compassionate interviewers, we are able to tease out fragments of memories which have only a positive association for the griever. These elements are then re-assembled in a completely fresh way to kick-start the healing process. In my case, I am a digital artist, and the shake-up of reality is accomplished through the digital re-mastering of personal photographs into a fine art photomontage.
The outcome is a “healing dreamscape” – a positive visualization which can play an ongoing, constructive role in transitioning the griever into a more hope-filled future. Craig’s dreamscape was intended to motivate his father, cousin and countless friends to pursue goals and dreams closely aligned with Craig’s own values. It would be an active way for everyone to leave a mark – Craig’s mark – on this world.
Picturing the departed
Figure 2: Healing Dreamscape of Craig
No medium could be better suited for prescriptive legacy work than digital photomontage. There is the magical quality of being able to insert disparate photographic elements, seamlessly, into a two-dimensional object, creating a portal into another world. More importantly, the documentary feel of digital photomontage allows the viewer to truly suspend their disbelief…and enter.
From the list of “Stuff He Loved,” I began to search for and assemble the photographs which contained particular people, objects and landscapes that would resonate. If no photos existed for a crucial memory, I fabricated them from my own image library and the works of other photographers. Augmenting the photomontage with meaningful objects, imaginary characters, and new landscapes is a key aspect of dreamscapes, grounding and illustrating where the departed is now in both fact and lore.
My idea of “a final resting place” has little to do with cemeteries and funerary urns. Inside a dreamscape, the departed hardly rests at all. The loved one stars in an epic story or heroic quest that keeps with their character. It continues the story where everything left off: that is, when they died. So immersed in a custom-built environment curated especially for them by the prescriptive artist, the healing dreamscape is jumping with things to do and see.
As in a Freudian dream sequence, objects in the photomontage are placed there because they hold meaning. By repurposing familiar imagery and anecdotes into a strange new narrative, dreamscapes invite the griever to view emotionally-wrought photos and memories as symbols, metaphors and patterns, or from a purely artistic plane as players, props and plots. Humor and irony are there as well; the idea is to view an unfair event symbolically and at a philosophical distance.
Seeking the iconic photo
Handling original photos soon after a death can be upsetting, but Craig’s family was extraordinarily ahead of the curve. Dale understood that I needed a pivotal photograph of Craig to anchor the dreamscape. He’d often voice to me:
Photos are extremely important in the grieving process. It’s what you’re left with. You cherish all the photos you have.
After putting out a call for photos, the response was generous. Photogenic and an obvious favorite of the family, Craig hams it up for the camera. In many of these, his smiles are wide and warm. Yet I found myself moving towards a different kind of photo, one where Craig seems to answer the question on everyone’s lips: Are you ok up there?
I ended up choosing a photo of Craig sitting fully clothed in a luxury bathtub, opening his arms in a magnanimous gesture (Fig. 1). Quintessential Craig: welcoming the viewer into his world.
Assembling Craig’s dreamscape, I knew I had to not only capture his Rastafarian love vibe but, more intimately, his entire belief system. Working in my medium, I began to digitally collage together a facsimile of Craig with a strong taste of Jamaica: carefree and sensuous, with the flip-flops, of course; and also the pleasure Craig took in that cottony expanse called the sky. The dreamscape’s narrative, filled with vibrancy and the joy of flying, would become a portal to Craig’s very core.
In the final piece, we see a Craig not so much remembered as mythologized. He’s sitting in a paradise-in-motion (Fig. 2). On his right reads the sign, “Cold Feet, No Problem.” On his left, a young woman in a Bob Marley skirt swishes her way down the beach, balancing an impossibly large basket of delicacies on her head, in the shape of Jamaica. Overhead, Craig’s favorite flip flops are jettisoning towards clouds that resemble interlocking wedding rings, sprung from a palm tree bent like a bow. The symbolism is meant to convey that when life cycle events like marriage are obliterated by a death, they can always be reframed. So in this piece of wishful reality, I’ve made Craig’s bride the sky.
How Craig’s dreamscape launched a campaign
When someone young and seemingly immortal dies, death is hard to swallow, especially for the younger generation. According to Denise, the younger nephews and nieces were having a tough time with Craig’s death and wanted to talk about him, whereas the older generation was terrified of setting Dale’s pinwheel of grief in motion again.
Figure 3: Craig legacy t-shirt
In other words, from profound loss came this pent up need to express one’s feelings. But only when Dale threw himself into Craig’s “campaign,” if you will, was this outlet of expression found. First, came the framed dreamscapes. Dale had three giant ones made for himself, Denise and Craig’s sister, all approximately 27” X 36.” Next, came the dreamscape T-shirts– all fifty of them (Fig. 3). By Christmas everyone in the family would have a T-shirt, and all the aunts and uncles would receive smaller framed dreamscapes.
Still, Dale was not done. More than half of the T-shirts went straight into the trunk of his car. An idea struck Dale that if he were to bump into someone who knew his son, he would offer them a T-shirt. Today, handing them out and seeing them worn has become nothing less than cathartic for Dale:
I’ll have some extra T-shirts in my trunk and say to one of Craig’s old friends, ‘I’ve got something for you,’ and they’ll say, ‘Wow. That’s Craig!’ or ‘Yeah, I saw one on John the other day.’
In this novel way, Dale continues to feel a strong sense of connection to his son through others who loved him too. He absorbs the palpable joy of people seeing Craig remembered the way Craig would have liked to be remembered. T-shirt by T-shirt, Dale is healing because he knows Craig still has a following. The farther Craig’s T-shirts travel down the campaign trail, the more Dale appreciates his son’s reach and potential to inspire.
Craig’s go-with-the-flow personality surfaced one May afternoon, three years ago, when a cousin closest in age to Craig surprised everyone at his college graduation. According to Denise:
Josh had his cap and gown on and when he got outside he started unbuttoning his shirt. He was wearing the dreamscape T-shirt! He wanted Craig there with him, at his graduation. He doesn’t really say a lot, so it was really touching to see him wearing the shirt. Denise notices something else as well. These days, the dreamscape T-shirts seem to be worn for more than just “a sense of unity or out of respect for Dale.” Denise sees people wearing them as a way to identify with the Craig way of life:
It’s not like everybody says ‘I’m going to wear it today.’ It’s really whenever they want to have some kind of closeness with Craig, some connection to what he was.
As for the giant framed dreamscapes, their physical location offers insight into the degree of healing taking place within the inner circle. Dale, who Denise reports “is healing very well and is amazingly strong,” notes that the portrait hangs in exactly the same spot in the beach house where it was from day one. Craig’s sister Lisa keeps her dreamscape in the office with other family photos where “she sees it every day.” Denise herself has moved Craig’s dreamscape three times in the past four years:
It’s in a more intimate place where me and the kids have full view of it. It used to be downstairs, but it’s more of a private thing now, upstairs, but still in plain view.
When we champion someone so indelibly unique, we are adding, in the words of the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, “forever to the sum of reality.” By wearing Craig, well-wishers are voting for Craig’s way of life (with an emphasis on “life”). Instead of dissipating their energy on the shattering of potential, friends and family are energized by the essence of Craig’s legacy.
As far as the T-shirt giveaways, Dale says he “still enjoys giving this gift, in this way.” To those lucky enough to have known Dale’s son, this gesture is appropriate and life-changing. Shared with others, Craig’s dreamscapes are launching a second round of healing for Dale, and even a third as I replay his and Denise’s own words back to them from this article. For those who don’t believe in the hereafter, Craig will be here for them in his dreamscape, keeping the House of Craig in high spirits. For those who believe one day they’ll be reunited with Craig, I can only say:
Did you know More time is the Jamaican way of saying See you again?
NANCY GERSHMAN is a prescriptive artist who partners with the mental health community to create prescriptive fine art photomontages for individuals or families struggling with loss and regrets. The mission of her Chicago-based studio, Art For Your Sake (www.artforyoursake.com/healing) is to work narratively with her clients, repurposing their memories and photographs to heal broken hearts, open dialogue and mend relationships.