When I took painting classes in school, I was always drawn to portraits. I was in awe of Bob Ross’ ability to create a landscape out of thin air on PBS. I felt that portraits have soul. I guess you could say that before the camera, that was what people had to depend on to capture the likeness of someone they loved. It is almost eerie how sometimes it seems the person is looking back at you. One look at the Flemish Masters can confirm that Rembrandt is a genius.
I started with mostly self-portraits as a type of therapy, much like Frida Kahlo. Sometimes I would look at a blank canvas and see someone peeking out at me and off I would go all night, trying to capture what I saw. Art has been quite therapeutic for me, and now especially for my clients.
In 2001, my best friend, Heather Dawn Oswald, was killed in a car accident at just 24. I couldn’t shake that I had a strong premonition about it two weeks before.
At the funeral viewing, Heather’s sister was totally upset and angry. The makeup artist had worked from her senior portrait, and though it was wonderful work, it didn’t capture Heather’s trademark elaborate swirls of eyeliner and carefully painted lips.
Hoping to diffuse the upset feelings of the family, I offered my makeup kit with her shade of lipstick and liquid eyeliner. The young makeup artist looked at me and confessed, “I can’t do it.” I started to explain how when she asked, “Could you? I mean, would you?”
I took a deep breath as fear rose in me. I looked at Heather’s sister and then at Heather and I knew that, as in life, I would do anything for her happiness.
As soon as I touched her, a calm came over me. How could I fear my friend? This was the temple of her soul. As I relaxed I started to talk, telling her how they did a great job, that her Mum had picked out a dress I knew was a favorite, and that I was honored to make her up for what would be the last time we would see her. She truly looked like she was resting, and I was able to calm some folks who were lost in their grief. The effect was not lost on the mortuary company: They offered me a job.
As I contemplated a change in careers, I collected antique makeup and read all I could about the death industry. I then decided that I was a bit too immersed, and I might forget that I still had a life to live. I wanted to help others with grief, but maybe there was another way.
A few years later I was offered a position at a local tattoo shop and a chance to study under the staff artist Smitty at Precision Body Piercing and Tattoo. My uncle’s 80th birthday party was coming up, and I wanted to give him a really special gift. I took the invite which had a picture of him in his youth, smiling proud in his Navy Uniform. For four feverish hours I translated the photo to canvas. Portrait art is not easy, and is highly regarded in the tattoo community. My fiance and I took the portrait to his surprise party.
A few months later, my strong and fierce uncle passed away. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had created his memorial portrait and that I was actually lucky he got to see it. I had been planning a series of iconic-style portraits of people looking like modern-day saints. They would be people I knew who really touched and helped others. I wanted people to look at these portraits and gather comfort.
Over a decade I lost roommates and family, as did my co-workers and people close to me. Working from a photo, I would paint them with golden halos and often present them to their loved ones. I also did sketching and many memorial tattoos, but in my paintings I was able to incorporate bits of things that belonged to the person, including poetry, jewelry — and in some cases, their cremated ashes.
When our pets died, my family kept their cremains at home, as well as those of my beloved auntie. Sometimes they were waiting to visit a special place they had gone with their dogs or, in the case of my aunt, to secure a spot next to their final resting place. My aunt inspired me to do the first portrait; I have carried her around for over a decade, researching for just the right photo inspiration.
I wanted to add something unique to my art, using what I had left of people who were important to me — and often with all my pets it was their cremains. I had thought to use bones after the fact but the bits can fall off, so I stick with mostly the smaller remains. I’ve never met another artist who does this, although I have heard of a woman who does more abstract portraits with ashes.
The paintings are usually 16 by 20 inches. They can take a day or a couple of weeks to complete if I have all the materials with me. Since I have a baby now, I do them bit by bit when she is sleeping.
I understand that my work isn’t for everyone, but I would say that I have always provided some sort of comfort for those going through the grief process and honoring that. Many folks are not so comfortable with death, but because I have worked around it so much — especially through the intimate process of memorial tattooing — I have learned to be sensitive to their boundaries. I don’t always bring up what I do. Even some of my friends are squeamish around me — after all, I have more deceased friends then alive ones, so I can’t them people for being afraid to be my friend!
Pets have always been a big part of my family life. In fact, growing up I considered my parents’ menagerie of dogs my siblings. When Little Bear, the patriarch of the dog clan, fell ill, I started to worry. He had been my sweet 16 birthday gift. He was now nearing 20 and had gone blind and deaf, so my parents realized he needed to be put down.
After Little Bear was cremated, I scooped his ashes and bits of bone into a pill container and taped the lid so I wouldn’t lose any bit of our faithful family member. My mother gave me a copy of her favorite picture of him, resting proudly on the back of the couch as if he were a king looking over his domain. I pictured him on a plateau in Southwestern colors.
Back at home, I went to work, mixing Little Bear’s ashes into the paint and applying it to the canvas. It gives something of a 3-D effect, and it was if I could feel the spirit of our loved one and his strength and stubbornness.
Before I gave the painting to my mother, it was included in a Mexican Day of the Dead celebration showing in a Berkeley cafe. Little Bear was flanked by Heather; my former roommate, Sunny Perkins, as her burlesque persona Mia More; and my brother-in-law, Marine Eric W. Field.
People commission me to paint pet portraits. I speak or write to them to get an idea of their taste so that it will fit with their decor. Often the colors and look pop into my head first, and then what they tell me confirms it. I guess I am reading the client. I realized that with the most recent commission from a school chum of mine I hadn’t seen in decades. She told me she wanted a portrait of her cat and I immediately got the colors purple and burgundy — I felt perhaps she was a witchy cat. Then the woman mentioned including a cauldron and I knew I was tapping in. I do that consistently with tattoos when doing custom tattoo work as well. So often I hear clients say, “That’s exactly what I wanted!”
I am now working on a portrait of two fascinating Shih-tzus, brothers a litter apart who lived long happy lives with their human family and will continue to do so in spirit from their place of honor on the wall. I feel very special to be a part of helping others through their grieving process, in a way that helped me through mine.
Angelique X Stacy is a Memento Mori Portrait Artist. She lives with her beer brewer husband David, daughter Calliope, and Pomeranian Noemi Victoria on the third floor of a haunted Victorian Mansion in Old Louisville, Kentucky, where she is training to be a tour guide on Lantern Ghost Walks of her ‘hood. Keep up on her paranormal adventures both past and present at her blog, Inside Voice, and Psychic Emergency, a psychic help page she co-administrates on Facebook.
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