Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Memento Mori

Dead Like You
memento mori (Latin 'remember that you will die') is an artistic or symbolic reminder of the inevitability of death.

Tragedy befalls us all at one time or another. In early 2004 a man I was seeing came off some medication too quickly and subsequently took his life. He was another causality of Prozac where a doctor failed to carefully monitor the shift in personality that happens all too often when someone quits taking this type of drug rapidly. Regardless of the reason, I lost a lover and friend and fell into a state of darkness in an otherwise happy time in my life. I was in grad school working on research and preparations for my thesis exhibition, (and paper) that would take place the following year, and was in a band that was enjoying some moderate success locally. I should have been sailing through life, but this tragic event made everything come to a screeching halt.

The 17-year cicada were back and making their mating calls throughout the day and night, only to die en masse at the end of the whole cycle. I would go and cry in the pool where I swam laps, and sleep on friends sofas, because I couldn't stand the constant reminder of death and being alone with my thoughts. There was more darkness to come.

For whatever reason there would be more suicides that year. People I knew were experiencing loss at an alarming rate. It was as if somewhere in our group of friends a time bomb of instability went off. People fell like dominoes.The fallout rained down on the dumbstruck living for weeks. I think there were at least five suicides total when all was said and done. 

During that time of mourning I developed a very serious case of some kind of gut sickness - I'm sure partially from stress. The illness made it so I could barely hold down anything other than the tiniest amount of bland food and small amounts water. I would have spasms and lay in the bathtub watching my lower abdomen literally pulsate in pain. This went on for a few weeks. It was unbearable. I knew I couldn't handle much more physical and mental anguish, so on some rickety precarious thread I started pulling myself back to the world of the living. Art was a big part of that.

Its weird when you start coming out of something that intense, sort of like waking from a strange and all-encompassing dream. The world seemed way too vibrant and somehow unreal.  I walked thorough days of exhaustingly bright colors and watched clouds shift from billowy ether to starlit dream skies, all the while pinching myself back into reality. I drank a lot and listened to music punctuated with minor chords, which was comforting in an odd way. In this I was able to channel my sadness into something tangible, something less abstract as mind-numbing sorrow.
Devil in Me

My work has always had an element of darkness, but here I wanted to express more vividly the chaos and turmoil I felt. I turned to my inks and started painting over some of my photographic images that resonated with me at that time. I had a feeling of having thousands of bees buzzing just under my skin and in my skull. The loose brushwork and invigorating movement helped to make my body and mind less jumbled. I made a lot of pictures like this. Some were terrible, some ok, but I slowly began to enjoy the process of creation again. This practice, which was so very different from my usual style and process, helped me to exercise the demons that were haunting me and come back to center.

At some point we resign ourselves to loss, and are able to return to some sense of normality. I eventually started seeing friends again. Our conversations were no longer on the dead, but rather what we were planning for our futures. I was able to move past my grief, and once again focus on my thesis research and playing music.

I was never a good musician, but the act of connecting with a group of people to make something expressive and energetic was a very good mental exercise. It further helped me to move past the tragedies that punctuated the early part of that year. I went to parties and had fun again. I healed from my sickness, and was back at the gym for regular workouts that didn't involve crying jags. I experienced the kind of release that happens when you have processed something big and all-consuming. I was able to see the world as real again.
Dreadful Resignation

It's hard to believe its been 10 years, but through these experiences I have become a stronger person. I miss my friend sometimes, and am still so terribly sad that he went to such a dark place that he wasn't able to get out of. I keep a copy he gave me of his favorite book, Dante's Inferno. I still haven't been able to read it, but I keep it and his final note to me as a remembrance of this time. A memento mori of sorts.  Sometimes when I feel low I take it out and remind myself just how bad it can get, and remember that things can easily transform to a brighter space if you can learn to transmute the poison. I also remember that we are all so very fragile, and that life can turn on a dime, so embrace the ups and downs as part of the human experience. That is richer and far more precious.

So that was a downer...
Here's some happy little painted butterflies from that time to bring the mood back up. Cycle of life, man. 

Tuesday, January 7, 2014


Sky Goddess
Copyright 2013 Mary Yates
In recent years I have disconnected with my sense of the mystical and have been wondering why I allowed myself to be distanced from the things that nurture my soul. In combing through some recent illustrations however I saw that my spiritual side was indeed still very present in my work and now I am contemplating these images as a sort of meditation. I know I tend to lean toward some of the darker aspects of of my interests in my work, but truly the idea of cosmic harmony and a connection to spirit is something that is never very far from my thoughts. I could go into process here, which is my tendency but instead I want to talk about some of what moves me and makes me create the work I do, both dark and light.

I've always felt that there was magic in the world. The breathtaking beauty of the seasons and shifting changes in nature are where I think whatever you want to call god exists. The harmony that is present in the movement of the tides and the shifting, undulating cycle of life plays a tune that invites us to dance with a greater mystery. If you pay attention you will find this presence in the forest, the ocean, at a mountain top, or in the works of art and music that move you to an emotional response. With the idea of this movement of life we must understand that just as the blossoms in spiring inspire us so to does the passing of a life. The decay allows for the eventual rebirth of what is the essence of spirt and embodies how we are all a part of a larger and more complex living thing. We should come to trust this and to find comfort in the vast array of experiences the universe has to offer. This is without conclusion because all of these things will continue to grow and change and nothing will ever be quite the same again so we should embrace the experience of the moment at hand.

This post is dedicated to the memory of a friend. Trust the Unknown.