My dear friend Ron passed away in early May of this year. He had a form of cancer. We had been walking weekly, getting coffee, and when I moved, talking every few weeks. He read a poem at my wedding. He came to my art events. He taught me how to ground myself in my legs, to listen with my whole body, and to lower my expectations about human marriages, how they roll and how they feel, especially the first few years. In other words Ron was a good friend.
When he died, I realized I only had his cell phone number, and it took a bit to get his wife Patty's contact information. I called her to check in, see how she was. I know Patty less, but have spent a number of new year's days at their house, and she too, drove three hours to be at my wedding in 2017. I care about Patty. She was doing OK. I asked her about Ron's papers. She was happy to part with some of them, because she was in a cleaning and clearing mode. She sent me a box which I opened two days ago, with a few books and some of Ron's papers, so that I could make a book with them, one of the series I've made starting 20 years ago with my earliest handmade books. In this series 'Death Books,' someone's papers, after they die, get folded every which way and bound, so that you can see their thinking, their marking and their reading and writing, but it's now sideways, folded, upside down, only partly legible. It is a relic of a life that is now over. It is the data and the trace of the life of that singular mind.
Opening that box was something. Tender. An honor. First there was a little fat, laughing buddha on top of all the bubble wrap. Then Ron's inflatable zafu, meditation pillow, on which he did many a three month and one month retreat. Inside were his many notes, and his paper's from the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. His letters of recommendation to join the retreat and have interviews with Joshu Suzuki Roshi, the stories about which I have heard many times. It's Ron in papers.
These books and the death of people, animals, chapters of life, or relationship, remind me that this art practice is just for fun, whether or not anybody else care's about it. It's just for a while. It's for while I'm breathing, inclined, and able to engage it. Doing something is more important, I feel, than doing it right, or looking good, or towing a line. I can turn a studio practice into those things for sure and I have, but engaging an art practice and making art, to me, is more important than most 'normal activities' in the following way.
Everything, every object in your world is a kind of icon. It's for doing something with. It prompts a certain kind of engagement. Like a file folder on your computer desktop is an icon. A bowl is to eat soup from. A file folder is to open to see files. A chair is to sit on. A book is to read. A dog is to pet. Icons.
An artwork is to...well what is it there for? What is it for? This line of reasoning kind of halts the automatic engagement, if one is really looking, and can loosen the automatic pilot of doing, responding, engaging. In fact anything. a chair, a book, or a dog, can similarly open things up, if one is really there with it. If one forgets it's name, or what it is associated with, or what you think about it. Somehow art is such a personal rendering with no obvious point, that it can be at times more ambiguous, and open things up. Other times, it's another symbol: of status, of fashion, of historic importance, or the kind I don't like. Art is to look at. Art is to buy. Art is to make. But as Anne Truitt said earlier:
...this process is mysterious. It's like not knowing where you're going but knowing how to get there. The fifteen years that David Smith thought it took to become an artist are spent partly in learning how to move ahead sure-footedly as if you did actually know where you are going. -Anne Truitt
Death Books is now also a service, which is described more fully on my art website: hannahburr.com/deathbooks. I will make one for you, from the papers of your beloved departed, if you like.
Hannah Burr is a contemporary artist and author. Originally from Boston, she lives in Ann Arbor MI.