By Dr Naomi Richards and Dr Marian Krawczyk
In November 2018 we exhibited a series of drawings by a renowned Scottish artist showing powerful glimpses of death and dying. The exhibition was shown at the Yellow Door Gallery in Dumfries as part of the UK wide Being Human festival of the Arts & Humanities, and we were responding to the 2018 theme ‘Origins and Endings’.
This very special collection of 15 drawings are by the 92 year old artist Norman Gilbert depicting the final week of his wife Pat’s life. Norman kept vigil at Pat’s bedside in the hospital after she was admitted following a stroke, and instinctively started to draw her as he had done all his life. Pat Gilbert, a retired art teacher, died in 2016 having lived with Alzheimer’s for a number of years.
Dr Mark Gilbert, Norman and Pat’s son, based at Dalhousie University in Canada, contacted us early in 2018 about the possibility of exhibiting his dad’s drawings. When Mark brought the sketches to show us we were immediately moved by how visceral and unflinchingly honest they were about the very end stage of life, of which there are so few contemporary artistic depictions. We anticipated that the images would be challenging to people coming to see the exhibition. However, we felt it was important to enable visitors to witness Pat’s dying and to reflect on their own experiences of giving care to dying loved ones. Norman had been a carer for Pat for many years prior to her death, and as their son Mark so eloquently put it when he spoke at the exhibition preview:
“The drawings are not just pictures of Pat, they are a record of a relationship, a husband and wife, an artist and sitter and also of a patient and caregiver. As such the drawings are a testament to the fluid roles that we are all asked to play at some point in our lives when we care for those we love and fall ill ourselves.”
We also put out a call for local artists to respond to the theme of ‘Origins and Endings’ and create new or submit existing work to the exhibition. We had a wonderful response and are truly grateful to all those artists.
Exhibition visitors were invited to record their reflections in a guestbook and we will analyse and publish these comments over the coming months.
We want to thank all those locally who came to see the exhibition and by doing so signalled that they too want more honest and open reflections on the issue of death and bereavement. #letstalkaboutdeath
Robbins, R., & Gilbert, M. (2018). An Art-based Case Study: Reflections on End of Life from a Husband, Artist and Caregiver. The Journal of Medical Humanities, 1-12.