“I was giving my mother a bath in her final moments of life. After her last breath, I noticed that her body still emitted energy as it dealt with the chaos of death. It was a comforting and revealing moment. It solidified my belief that our loved ones live on in different forms.
It also highlighted the importance of rituals surrounding death. A dead body still bears traces of the person whose matter, from this time forth, indiscernibly becomes entangled with universal molecules and atoms, working at becoming, networking on a different level.
Nothing is lost. We just need to be attentive.”
“In thinking about pain, death, and transformation, I wanted to capture the many changes I’ve experienced in the last few years. Through psychoanalysis, I’ve learned to speak my truth and not keep things on the inside. The moths literally push out from within me … clearing out the old, the past, as almost a housekeeping exercise.”
“I placed infrared photographs of myself into bubbles floating on a lake that’s been flooded. As an adopted child, I always felt a bit alien and otherworldly. So being inside a bubble evokes this sense of isolation for me and is a way to keep myself safe in the world.
The ancient Egyptians, Romans, and many others would say that you’re not really dead until everyone who knew you forgets you. The afterlife is the life you had in the memory of the people who knew you, who remember you.
When you die, there’s an intense emotional shattering of the people closest to you. Then it fades. And they remember you as you were in life, little memories, like that time you went to the park. Over time, the number of people who remember you get smaller and smaller. And then, at some point, you’re gone. Truly gone.
I’m involved in improv theater, where we are trained to be present. In this age of endless distractions, I focus on living life in the now.”
“I was interested in capturing a spectrum of spirituality … from atheism to meditation to clairvoyance to shamanism. I’ve had plausible, and less convincing, experiences in all of these areas. My afterlife mythology is based on how our lives are shaped by our own perceptions. Perhaps death is no different.
My understanding is that the brain can remain active even after the death of the body. I’m interested in how the corporeal body may be anchored by time in a way the mind is not. I’ve had dreams where I experienced a lifetime within the mere minutes between hitting the snooze button on my alarm clock.
Just because the physical space of our bodies is gone doesn’t mean that our consciousness has likewise disappeared. Perhaps our minds are simply free of time.”
“Falling through time, the brain and body aim to float and master their freefall. The afterlife is a new era, a mystical land of darkness and light.
Pain, physical and emotional, is a piercing unblinking eye. We are naked and vulnerable. Breathing, sighing, and gasping for air, the red blood cells travel everywhere.
Meat, bone, and soul, life and death is a slow liberation of limitations and borders. Breath is a pathway through pain. Our inner world vastly exceeds our physical limitations.”
“The knowledge that everyone I know and love will eventually die has caused me anxiety since childhood. The aging process provides a visual timeline for the start and end of a life cycle. But, as I have learned, death can happen at any time, and old age is not always everyone’s end game.
Death itself is not as painful as what often precedes it. It is the deterioration of body and mind that I fear most – the inability to connect one’s thoughts with actions, the inability to care for one’s self. Aging also reminds me of opportunities past. What used to be ‘someday I will…’ morphs into ‘will I, in the time I have left?’
Biological deficiencies and birth irregularities have required me to undergo many medical procedures and prescriptions my entire life. Finding what works for me requires a long and arduous process of trial and error. A pure vision of self and identity becomes difficult to see behind the heavy mask of pharmaceuticals. Only in recent years have I been able to strip away most of the synthetic fixes and reveal a clearer vision of who I am.”
“This is my inner self, a battered angel. I’m planning to place it inside a larger shell, like a Darth Vader or Boba Fett helmet, so I can hide its imperfections and vulnerabilities inside.
The concept comes from when I was in a writer’s room many years ago. Someone said that all writers have a single phrase that informs all of their work – the essence of everything they do, regardless of subject or genre. Everyone scoffed at first, but then we all identified our key phrase. Mine was ‘the masks we wear.’
When I look back at all I’ve written, masks are not necessarily the central core element, but it’s always there as one character or a minor thematic element. Masks have been part of my creative life for a long time, separating who I am inside from what I’m presenting to the world.”
Sarah B. Nelson
“When I was working on this image, I was trying to capture the sensation I experience as a surfer, one of the things I cherish most in life. If there is a higher power, then I feel it most in the ocean.
People focus on riding the waves, but what I love is falling. It’s an out-of-body feeling of powerlessness against an insurmountable force. You don’t know which end is up, and if you panic, you can run out of breath.
So, you have to relax into the wave, allow yourself to be pulled through the water, and let it do what it must. I imagine death and the afterlife as a similar release into nature.”
“I was diagnosed with early-onset arthritis and have been dealing with it for a while now. This avatar shows my progression in how I am managing this disease.
First, I was a warrior going against it, resisting it, negating it, fighting it, and trying to find ways to not lose my agency during moments of terrible pain.
Now, I’m more contemplative, more resilient, and I’m gradually accepting the transformation. I see how I can use my body differently, and I try to move in a way that is more about flourishing and feeling good. I still don’t accept the diagnosis completely, but I’m getting there.
I didn’t find a face that felt representative, so I took it away. Instead, I left a dark hole because I’m still searching for this new identity that corresponds with my current physical state. What’s happening in my head is still dissonant with what’s happening in my body.
I put a helmet on that represents my brain fog from medications, these generative aspects of my transformation, and ways I can reach out to feel better in moments of intense pain. The red dots and lines describe how, when I’m in sharp pain, all my environment is triggering. Even a light breeze can be painful.
I’m confronting a skeleton on the right here, but I’m also looking, accepting, and distancing myself from it. It’s a weird paradox. I’m embracing it but also distancing myself from it.
The chicken foot shows how I feel when I have pain in my ankles. It’s funny. I feel like I end up walking like a chicken.”
“It takes extraordinary strength to be sick. While fighting COVID, I took over forty pictures of myself and processed them through Procreate, combining images of my face and my heart.
I don’t actually look like this. The colors of my skin are washed out when you see me on Zoom. But something about this image makes me feel alive, fierce, and powerful like a warrior, which I really like.
This portrait embodies the quality of strength I want to possess at the moment I face my death.”
Interested in creating your own transformative portrait?
Virgil’s live, online course for Morbid Anatomy includes 4 sessions to support artists in creating transformative portraits, digital avatars, and personal death mythologies.