Ways to Stay Connected After the Death of a Loved One

I am honored to have been featured on the blog of AFTR, a company that provides ways for the bereaved to virtually visit the gravesites of their dead loved ones. You can read their blog post featuring my story here.

I really appreciate what this company is doing, and I love the story of how it was created. 

It was started by two siblings who were grieving the loss of their father. In response to Beth’s wishes to be able to visit her father’s grave more easily, her brother Joe created the AFTR camera, which was installed in the cemetery where their father was buried. They then realized that other people could benefit from this technology, and decided to share it with the world. 

An example of an installed AFTR camera in an AFTR instagram post.

Connected to the internet and accessible through an app, AFTR offers a range of services to their users. They can virtually visit the gravesite, controlling the movement and angles of the camera. The app also connects to the cemetery directly, so users can request maintenance and cleaning services, or for fresh flowers to be laid at the site. They can write in the provided journal or talk to their loved one through the camera. They can listen to music while it simultaneously plays at the gravesite, as if they are listening to music together. 

I think this whole idea is just beautiful. When I connected with Beth on Zoom a few months ago, her story moved me deeply. Talking to her made me realize how much I wished that I had dedicated gravesites where I could visit and remember my mother and younger brother, Andrew. While I felt sad that I didn’t even have the option to use their services, learning about them helped me understand why I was making my sculptures. 

Hearing about Beth’s distress when she could not easily access her father’s grave while living in a different state, I recognized that I was equally distraught at not being able to access the de facto gravesite of my brother, where his ashes had been scattered in the front yard of our former home. I realized that my ‘Ghost Tike’ project was my own version of AFTR; it was my way of staying connected to my brother, by making an alternative gravesite for him. 

My mother’s urn, pictured with a finger puppet (meant to stop me from sucking my thumb) and a mini TV (for my dollhouse), both of which she made when I was a child.

It also helped me understand why I had been adamant about taking my mother’s ashes, putting them in a beautifully hand-carved wooden urn, and displaying them prominently in my home. I refused to scatter them because I needed her near me. I needed to be able to visit her and talk to her. I didn’t want to forget her or act like she never existed, the way it felt we had after Andrew died. I wanted her to still be a part of my life. 

Learning about AFTR and connecting with their founders has helped me realize just how important it is to me to still feel connected to my brother and mother.

If you would like to learn more about Beth and Joe’s story, or the services they provide, you can visit their website or check them out on Instagram (@aftr_live). 

To get 10% off an AFTR camera, you can use my coupon code caitostewart-10 or click here.

How to know if an AFTR camera is right for you, from an AFTR instagram post.

When ‘Ghost Tike’ Meets Real Life

In my workshop with Green-Wood Cemetery last Thursday, an incredible thing happened in the last part of the workshop, where I invited participants to share their leaves and tell us who they were remembering.

A person shared their leaf, and then told us they had made it for the person whose ghost bike I had talked about earlier in my presentation. Of course, when they signed up, they had no idea of the connection. 

During the presentation, I had shown a snapshot of that ghost bike, which I had taken on my phone one day. I passed that bike a million times when walking to my school’s campus. I had found it deeply moving, and it inspired me to take a used toddler car and paint it white, creating a DIY memorial for my little brother Andrew. This painted car became the visual anchor, and the inspiration for the name, of my project Ghost Tike

I then told them that this ghost bike had not only inspired my Ghost Tike project, but it had prompted me to research ghost bikes in general, leading me to the website ghostbikes.org. Side note for those who are curious: ghost bikes originated in St. Louis, Missouri in 2003, but the phenomenon has spread to countries all over the world. The website was created by the NYC Street Memorial Project as a way to honor cyclists who had lost their lives in car crashes, but also to create awareness around the issue of road safety for cyclists. They gathered information on many of the ghost bikes all over the world and created a page for each individual bike. 

Anyway, I mentioned that I had used the “ghost bike map” function to search for the bike I had photographed on my commute, and was able to learn that the ghost bike had been created in memory of a fellow artist. Reading further, I learned that she and I had other things in common, too. She was a scholar of vanitas paintings and memento mori (topics that very much interest me) and had given lectures on them through Morbid Anatomy (an organization I follow and greatly admire). When I clicked on the word “memento mori,” it linked to an article she had written for Gizmodo, titled “Why are we so fascinated by photographs of decaying buildings?”

That very same week, I had been researching cultural attitudes towards ruins and abandoned buildings because I, too, was fascinated by them and trying to understand why. During my nearly ten years living in Tokyo, I took many trips to ghost towns where I explored and photographed abandoned houses, schools, apartment buildings, and hotels. There was a poetic beauty to their decay, the way that nature slowly took over and had its way with the possessions that former inhabitants had once left behind. Once I got to grad school, much of my artwork was directly inspired by these photographs because I felt they were visually rich with symbols of death, loss, and nostalgic longing for the past. 

When I came across her article, I was finishing up my last semester in the MFA program at Pratt, and neck-deep in researching and writing my thesis paper. She quoted a scholar named Tim Edensor from his book Industrial Ruins: Space, Aesthetics and Materiality. Within a week, I had ordered that book online, devoured it, and quoted it multiple times in my thesis. I was deeply grateful to this woman who I could never meet, but who had inspired me both in life and in death. If she had not died before I returned to New York from Tokyo, she and I could have potentially moved in the same circles, and even become colleagues or friends. In that moment when I learned about her, I was the same age that she had been when she died, thirty-four. It was yet another reminder to live my best life now, not later, because no one knew how much time we had left on this earth. 

I am still reeling from the shock of this occurrence. One of the other participants in the event said to us, “I believe this was not a coincidence.” I honestly don’t know what I think at this moment. I used to believe that things happened for a reason, that everything would work themselves out eventually, that there was something out there connecting all of us and everything. But now I am in the process of recovering from an essentially cultic religious childhood upbringing, and am wary of most things that even slightly hint at the spiritual. At the moment, I trust science, and things I can see with my eyes. So my first thought was, “Well, I guess Brooklyn is not that large, and neither is the NYC art scene nor the grief community. So realistically, the chances were fairly high that something like this would happen.”

However, I admit that the entire experience of developing the Ghost Tike project has given me a lot to consider on this topic. At the moment, I’m willing to use the word synchronicity to describe the things that have occurred since I embarked on this project back in the fall of 2019. The first of these events being when I started dreaming about finding a used Little Tikes Cozy Coupe, to represent the toddler car my brothers and I had played with as children. I had been searching for a few weeks on Craig’s List and Ebay for one of these cars without luck, when I was walking to the bus stop to head home after a late night at the studio. Suddenly, I passed by a Little Tikes Cozy Coupe sitting in a trash heap on the side of the road. Since I was less than a block from my studio, I immediately pulled it out and wheeled it down the sidewalk back to my studio. I missed my bus and ended up going to bed much later than planned, but it was so very worth it. Finding this car was just the first of the many synchronistic events that led to my launching the Ghost Tike project. 

I am amazed at the way things have truly come full circle since I started this project. The ghost bike they made to honor this woman in her death inspired me to create a memorial to my brother, which evolved into me holding workshops as a way to comfort and connect with fellow grievers, and then this person somehow ended up at one of these workshops. I am in awe, and still trying to figure out what to make of this.

Reflections on the Leaf Crafting Workshops

In my most recent Leaf Crafting Workshop, I tried something new. When it was time to make leaves together, I decided to play some music so that everyone felt comfortable muting themselves and focusing on what they were making. I also thought this would allow them more mental space for reflection and meditation on the meaning behind what they were making. In the process, I also learned that I really enjoyed curating a playlist for the event and sharing it with others. I loved playing a bit of ambient post rock like Explosions in the Sky and Helios, as well as folk and indie rock like Boygenius, and country like Sara Watkins. I felt like a DJ, playing tunes that I hoped would heal and comfort others the way they had done for me so many times. The moment when people wrote in the chat that they loved the music, or when multiple people wrote that the same song was one of their favorites, it reminded me how much music can connect people. As we worked on making our leaves, participants introduced themselves and shared about their loved ones they were there to remember. One participant then expressed that she was feeling insecure about her lack of artistic skill. I stressed that artistic skill was unnecessary here, that the point was the experience of making the leaves, and the intention or meaning behind it. 

After the leaf making portion was over, I turned off the music, we turned on our mics again and people shared their leaves, their loved one’s names, and how the experience of making their leaves felt. At the end, that same woman who had expressed such insecurity about her artistic skill shared that our simple conversation in the chat had allowed her to open up creatively, try again, and make a beautiful tribute to her loved one. One woman expressed that it was meaningful to be able to do this activity while holding her daughter in her arms. Yet another said she had not realized she needed to do something like making leaves for her loved one, but that doing so had felt really good and had been very helpful. Another shared the process of being able to let go of feelings of guilt while making her leaves. 

I knew I wanted to help people, and I suspected that inviting people to collaborate with me and holding these workshops could do that, but the results far surpassed my expectations. I am supremely grateful that I stumbled upon this project idea, which has allowed me to reach out, connect with others, and help people in a meaningful way through my art practice. I knew art had always been healing for me, and I knew that it could be healing for others too. But it’s not only about the making, also equally important for healing are reflection, processing, sharing, connecting, and telling our stories.

Blog Post featured on Grief Dialogues Website!

I am honored to now have a blog post, written by yours truly, featured on the Grief Dialogues website. The post is a short essay describing how my mother helped me–even in death–to claim and grow into my identity as an artist.

Grief Dialogues was founded by Elizabeth Coplan, “an award-winning writer dedicated to bringing death and grief out in the open.” A woman whose values are very much aligned with my own!

I found the Grief Dialogues website a few months ago when I was searching for ways to connect with others interested in the intersection of art and grief. When I saw that their motto was “Out of grief comes art,” I knew I had to connect with them!

Soon I was invited to write a blog post for the site, and attending Elizabeth’s event, Grief Dialogues: Live Performance through Reimagine*.

I was amazed by the live performance event, where two short plays about grief and death were performed live via Zoom, one of which was written by Coplan herself. The stories were thought-provoking and relatable and I was amazed by the performers’ ability to deliver moving performances, even when they weren’t in the same physical space as their co-stars! After the performances finished, the audience was invited to share comments and questions in discussion with the event hosts, performers, and a certified Grief counselor. That’s right. We, the audience members, were allowed to linger and share any thoughts or feelings that had been evoked while we were witnessing the performances. I found this new way of holding a performance to be incredibly refreshing!

*For those unaware, Reimagine is a non-profit organization devoted to “sparking community-driven festivals and conversations that explore death and celebrate life.” I have attended numerous events through Reimagine’s online festivals during the pandemic, and am honored to be included in their current festival Creating Space, through which I am offering my Leaf Crafting Workshops for the Ghost Tike Memorial Project.

Leaf Crafting Workshops for Ghost Tike: A Collective Memorial Project

So excited to be holding my first Leaf Crafting Workshops this October:

Tuesday, October 20th: A private online event for members of NYC Motherless Daughters. Any motherless daughters wanting to attend can do so by first joining the Facebook group here.

Thursday, October 29th: A FREE and public online event in partnership with Covid Grief Network and Reimagine. To attend, register here.

“Inheritance” at Super Dutchess Gallery

I recently participated in the first part of the three-part show Inheritance at Super Dutchess Gallery, where my sculpture Specter of a Key was displayed this August. The receptions were well-attended, socially distanced, and I really enjoyed getting to see some of my former classmates. I haven’t seen any of them in person since Pratt went online around the week of March 17th. 

Here are some photos of the outdoor reception events:

At the reception for Part I.
Left to right: Talia Tamar, Yaw Owusu, Jennifer Chia-ling Ho, Cassie Reeder, Angelica Yudasto, Caito Stewart, Chao Wang, Na’ye Perez, Allie Stabile, Rob Scheirer.
Front: Momo the shibainu and Josh Meillier.
Super Dutches Gallery co-owner and founder Andrew Woolbright is on the far right. Thank you to him for organizing and curating this show for us Pratt grads!
At the reception for part III: Caito Stewart, Duff Norris, Na’ye Perez, and Dewy.

Placing the Displaced (An Exhibition Review)

A projection work by Shimon Attie, from his Writing on the Wall project in Berlin, Germany from 1991-2.

One positive about this pandemic situation is how easy it is to see far-away exhibitions that I would never have been able to see during normal, pre-pandemic times. A great example is Dis/placements: Revisitations of Home, presented by The Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston School of the Arts in Charleston, South Carolina.

The online exhibition highlights works from a variety of projects throughout the careers of ten different artists. Accompanying essays draw incisive connections between the personal history of each artist and the stories featured in their work.

Shimon Attie’s public works are exceptionally poignant, featuring a range of experiences of displaced persons, from Holocaust victims to immigrants and refugees in New York City. In his project The Writing on the Wall from 1991-92, he projects old photographs of everyday Jewish people onto building exteriors. He carefully frames them within doorways and windows as if they were still there, reminding us of a more peaceful time before their communities were violently obliterated. This creates a ghostly effect, reminding us of their absence while also honoring their lives.

Shimon Attie, Shimon Attie, Untitled Memory (projection of Armand V.), 1998, Ektacolor photograph.

Also included are works from Attie’s more personal project, Untitled Memory from 1998. One particularly compelling image is Untitled Memory (projection of Armand V.), an image of a man projected over his former kitchen nook, perfectly arranged so it looks as if he is really sitting there, leaning against the wall with his foot up on the bench and his elbow on the table. When captured in a snapshot, the photo-realistic projection of the man’s casual, natural posture re-creates an vivid, intimate memory. The colorlessness of his form grimly reminds us of his absence.

Another highlight is the work of Hung Liu, who was born in China in 1948, one year before the People’s Republic of China was established. The essay reveals that Liu was born a refugee, “displaced since birth.” She takes vintage photos of women in China and gives them a contemporary update with printmaking techniques and expressive, drippy strokes of paint, revealing differences in the lifestyles of women before, during, and after the Cultural Revolution. She also explores her own displacement and loss of identity as a Chinese-born person in the U.S.

One issue I have with the online format of the exhibition is the lack of information (title, date, medium, size) of each work, which makes it difficult to reference or search for more information about the artists’ individual works. However, the quality of the work and the essays more than make up for this oversight.

A work by Hung Liu.

A particularly potent but nameless work by Liu depicts a small child crouched on the ground, crying and holding an empty white bowl. Laying in the grass next to her is a woman, presumably her mother, possibly dead. Chaotic drips and hazy gray washes of paint encroach, covering the mother’s body possibly in reference to her imminent return to the earth. Overlaying everything are decoratively-painted images of birds and fish. The overall effect is one of overwhelm and despair, which certainly tugs at my empathy receptors.

Relevant especially to American current events are the sculptures of Renée Stout, which explore the history of her African heritage and the pain of the African diaspora through her use of found objects and other materials. Also notable are the works of Tanja Softić, who uses art to sort through her experience living through the violent break up of the former country of Yugoslavia. She juxtaposes photographic images of current-day Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina with images of mushrooms and fungi, a pioneer species symbolizing rebirth and growth.

Tanja Softić, Night Blooms: Kindergarten, 2019. Photogravure, aquatint, chine-collé, digital print, 12 x 24 inches.  

Showing a range of perspectives from across the European, Asian, African, and American continents, the exhibition does a good job of highlighting the similar stories of physical plight and psychological damage that all displaced people seem to suffer, regardless of where they come from or where they end up.

You can see more of the exhibition at http://displacements.org/.

Shows in September 2020!

I am pleased to announce my participation in the following exhibitions:

  1. The Feminine Agenda
Photo of my sculpture Hearth Failure right after installation at Womenswork.Art.

Womenswork.Art gallery has partnered with WE RISE: POUGHKEEPSIE and other arts organizations to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment. The exhibition was juried by Artist/Educator Ana Maria Farina.

This group exhibition will be available on-site and online for sale.

Exhibition Dates: September 4-27, 2020

Opening Reception: Friday, September 4, 6-9pm (Space is Limited– please contact the gallery to make an appointment)

Virtual Artists’ Talks: September 12, September 19 3-5pm

Regular Gallery Hours: Fridays/Saturdays 2-6pm, and by Appointment during the week (Closed on September 5th for an off-site event)

2. LOSS, a virtual exhibition

My sculpture I Hoard Mementos, and You Hoard Bananas in LOSS, a virtual exhibition.

This online exhibition by Woman Made Gallery in Chicago was juried by artist and curator Felicia Grant Preston. The show includes works by 120 female-identified and non-binary artists from the US, Austria, Canada, Great Britain, Greece, Italy, Nigeria, and Turkey, all exploring loss, a topic very close to my heart. 

See the show here

Exhibition Dates: September 4th – 27th.