This will without a doubt be the hardest thing I’ve ever written, but I’m ready to share this work to some degree. A little while ago now I shared an article about my grandmother’s passing and how painting was my therapy during the month long period that I spent sitting in hospital rooms. It was one of the most challenging times of my life but from it I produced four paintings that, in my opinion, are some of the best I’ve ever made. They’re very raw, they’re driven very much by the process that made them, and while I think some of what inspired them comes through, I wanted to add some more context to them.
This whole venture started with a series of three and all three were inspired by a singular event. My grandmother was in the hospital for just under a month before she passed, two weeks at a hospital in Delaware and two weeks at a hospital in Philadelphia. It was a real roller coaster as she’d get better for a few days, get a whole lot worse a few days later, but then start to recover again. Hell, a week before she died they were training her on the breathing pump and oxygen tester she’d need to use consistently when she went home. The fact that she couldn’t retain oxygen was her big issue and it was the result of a series of different ailments. This would eventually lead to the event that inspired these paintings.
I think it was a Tuesday, the days had really begun to blend together at that point, and it was one of the longest days of ups and downs thus far. She’d been on a ventilator for a few days and that was doing a majority of the breathing for her. Her oxygen levels were low and doctors were trying to figure out the best cocktail of medications to keep her oxygen and blood pressure up while still fighting the other ailments. Things were still super unclear when I went in for my routine visit. Since so much was going on in her body there were multiple teams of doctors working on different things, so throughout the day I’d see anywhere from 2-10 doctors and they could all tell me different things. I’m by no means a doctor so things were getting confusing for sure, but everyone seemed to remain hopeful. I was there for a few hours before my Poppop got there and after he’d been there for a little while things started to go south. So, as a precaution, I began letting my family know that they may want to get here in case she doesn’t make it. It wasn’t for sure that she was going to pass but things didn’t look good. Her condition was so severe that we were only allowed in in groups of two and we had to wear gloves and gowns while we were in there. It was an all day event, I think I spent 10 hours in the hospital that day and at one point her oxygen really started to plummet. I remember talking to the nurse and she was the first to really tell me that it wasn’t a matter of if, it was a matter of when at that point. Once I heard that I sat down next to my grandmother in that brutal plastic chair that I’d spent 20+ hours in at that point and I watched her fade. She turned blue, and if you’re like me you’ve heard that people turn blue when they don’t get oxygen but you never imagine it to be like this. The color of her skin was haunting. I had to step back from holding her hand as the skin tone we’re used to just faded out of her right in front of my eyes. I was there for another few hours, my family filed in and out, most of them giving up on staying as it got late and they didn’t live close to the hospital like I did. Through all of it though she hung on and didn’t pass that night. I finally gave up and headed home, but sleep wasn’t really an option as I nervously awaited the call that she’d passed.
So, I started painting and it’s nothing new if you know my work that I like drawing/painting hands but that image of the color just leaving her hand was drilled into my mind. So I drew a loose sketch of a hand and just drenched the canvas in blue. I usually try to be somewhat clean when I spray paint but I just let it rip. The shade of blue that she turned shocked me and it was stuck in my mind, I didn’t think I’d ever replicate it so I just kept spraying. Once it dried, I had to lay in lines and this was tremendously therapeutic for me as I was able to just turn my mind off and lay in lines. I don’t think I’d really turned my mind off in a couple of days so it was nice to just relax and draw. That was one of the nicest things about this painting, and the two that would come, when I laid down the color I was able to be raw and emotional without boundaries and then when I went in with the lines I could relax and turn my brain off.
Shockingly, my grandmother held on through the night. I remember waking up to a call from my Poppop asking if she’d died. I had no idea, in fact I was expecting him to tell me that she’d died when I saw his call, so I rushed over there. To my total surprise, not only was she alive but she was awake. She’d gotten some color back, she was responding to my questions (with nods and squeezes, she couldn’t talk with the ventilator) and things seemed optimistic. The roller coaster would continue for the next few days but every night when I got home that image of her blue hands was just seared into my mind. It still is to some extent, but I think that if it weren’t for these paintings it would still really haunt me.
I’m already a night owl and with all that was going on it was just such a challenge for me to sleep so I just kept making these paintings. The first two are really straight forward as the hands I drew were just hanging hands, they didn’t have much to represent other than being hands. That blue was what I was after, but in the third one I had some time to think and the hand became a little bit more deliberate. The first two hands are just sort of hanging hands but in the third one I really wanted to represent the lifelessness I saw as I released my grasp of her hand. That’s why there’s more of an emphasis on the arm in this one and it goes a little bit wider. I don’t know, I’m not one to really sit back and analyze my paintings once they’re done and these weren’t really meant to be much more than therapy through all of this trauma. But every time I look back at these three, I notice all sorts of little developments that subtly happened as I made them.
The next few days were full of so many ups and downs that we really couldn’t make a guess about what was going to happen. Every doctor told me different things, they’d either tell me things were looking better but still bad or just try to phrase, “she’s going to die,” in the nicest way possible. Which I understand you want to remain optimistic, but I was just so tired of hearing the runaround. Finally, on a Saturday I stopped by with my girlfriend and things seemed really good. She was awake, the most awake I’d seen her in probably a week, she was responding (still no talking), and it really seemed like something to be excited about. But when I did my usual check in with the nurse as I left she told me that the ventilator was cranked, doing almost all of her breathing and while she was conscious all of her levels were dangerously low. I was understandably confused, but things just looked so good compared to what I’d seen in the days prior that I couldn’t help but to be optimistic. I went to bed feeling pretty good that night, something that hadn't happened in a good two weeks. But the next morning I woke up to a voicemail from my Poppop saying things really didn’t look good. I was exhausted from being in and out of the hospital and I kind of just wanted to lay in bed for a while before I went over there. Things looked so good last night so how much worse could it have gotten? But my girlfriend said I should really get up and as I did I saw that I had a missed Facebook call from my second cousin who’d also been at the hospital with me pretty frequently. I have no idea how Facebook calls work so I messaged him my number and he called me immediately basically saying, “get over here.” So I rushed over, fortunately it was only about 10 minutes, and I entered the room to the doctor pretty much telling us that this was the end. I remember walking up to the bed, squeezing her hand for a moment, and then a loud beep rang out from the machine behind me and my Poppop who was across the bed from me said, “I think she died.”
It’s a brutal scene to see someone die but when the person is hooked up to a ventilator, the machine just keeps going. So even though she’d died, the machine just kept breathing for her for what felt like ages. Finally, the dust settled a bit and they asked us all to leave as they took out all of the equipment. It was then that I had to pull myself together and let my family members who weren’t there know that she was gone. My poor dad was just a few minutes away when she went, my uncle was about half way there from his house, they’d missed it and that was it. Just a few minutes later they let us back in the room to be with her now that she was unhooked and it was an image that I’ll never forget. She just looked so tired, the physical toll that everything had put on her body was immense and it just felt apparent that she couldn’t take it anymore. Her skin was a pale shade of yellow, something I’d never really seen or heard of before, and it was littered with bruises. She had up to 20 IV’s in her at certain points and it just looked like the end of a battle, an absolute battle. She’d fought as hard as she could, and she put up a damn good fight, but she just couldn’t do it anymore.
After the .OXYGEN. paintings the way that her hands looked was just so fresh in my mind and it really struck me how different she looked when they told me she was near death the first time compared to when she actually died. That’s what inspired this painting, .DEATH. . I was just so frustrated, and sad, and I was experiencing so many feelings and struggles that I’d never felt before so I really just started hurling paint at the canvas. Again, just a loose sketch of a hanging hand and I laid in that sad, pale yellow as I was freshly processing the events of her passing. I let single splashes of purple and red illustrate her battered skin. I remember being shocked and oddly proud of myself as I watched the first layer of paint dry because I felt I really represented what I was feeling and how it looked accurately. In all of these paintings that was the peak of my emotions, when I’d aggressively laid in that paint and stepped back to see what I’d done, how I’d represented what I was feeling. That was an emotional peak I’d never felt before and honestly hope I don’t have to experience again for a while. Once again it was time to shut down and do those lines. However, this one was a little different because of the purple. In most of my paintings I try to let the pours be light or thin enough that the lines can really pop and exist on their own, but this purple came out darker than usual and it created a really interesting interaction with the lines. Because the purple is so dark, it’s loose curvy flows really dance between the lines they intersect, I think it’s really beautiful.
Hands were the best way that I felt that I could represent what I was feeling and seeing. Hands are an underrated storytelling element. We all have them and they’re all unique in a way that’s different from any other body part. Something like a face can be easily distinguished from one to another, but hands exist so similarly that you really have to dig deep to see what makes them unique. Our hands tell a story and that story is always growing and developing. When my grandmother was unconscious or awake and unable to show emotion because of all that she was hooked up to, I really looked to her hands to tell me how she was doing. Whether it was using squeezes as a response or judging the swelling and color to see where she was at, her hands told me the story when she was no longer able to. So to illustrate that and to pay respect to her, I used hands to tell the story as well.
Thank you so much for looking at these paintings and reading this rather long essay. This is really the proudest I’ve been of paintings in a long time, they mean so much to me. I’d trade them in an instant to have my grandmother back but I find solace in the fact that at least something positive came out of the events. I’m glad that I was able to find therapy in art and process my feelings in a way that I never had before. It’s been a really hard couple of months but I know that she’s with me in some way. I love and miss you so much, Memom. These are for you.
I'll be sharing more of these paintings, with detail shots, on my instagram throughout the day if you'd like to check them out more and follow me. @forresthinesart