DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Art and Loss

Written by: on September 5, 2014

My mother died this week. It happened suddenly and peacefully. Her cancer, which had spread from the lungs to the bones to the spine, finally won the battle. The passing was a difficult time for my father. He was mom’s caretaker for the past ten years as she had succumbed to alcohol-induced dementia a decade before. The passing was numbing for me. One day early this week, I sat in a restaurant for three hours numb and in what I would describe as a “state of non-emotion.” The same death, but different interpretations of that death. Mom is gone – but her memory remains. But the memories are different for my father and me, and they are different for my two older sisters. The paintings in our minds are each unique; even the colors are not the same. So, what does my picture look like?

I have never been an art fan. I do not love museums or art exhibits. Perhaps the main reason for this is that I am not a visual artist. I have never had a natural proclivity toward drawing or painting, unless it was “paint by numbers.” I cannot draw to save my life. Even as a college teacher I am afraid to illustrate something on the board for fear of being laughed at. When I do draw on the board, the students often have no idea what I just drew. No wonder I am not an art fan. But is it that I am fated to be a lousy artist or is there still hope for a 58-year-old professor? Is art something one can learn to do, or is it a gift that one is born with? Could I paint a decent piece of art if I had to?

In this week’s text, William Dyrness says of art, “Art, then is that human activity that goes beyond the useful to embody in allusive color, shape, or sound the joy or pain of being human. [Italics mine]”[1] There is more to art than meets the eye – or the ear. This might be common knowledge for some, but it was a revelation for me. The question is not, “What does art look like or sound like?” The better question is, “What does the art mean?”

I teach cultural studies, writing, and religion classes. And as I was reading our text for the week, I was reminded of how art, according to the definition above, is connected to these three disciplines. In Western culture, art is generally found in museums, places that the masses come to observe art that has made the grade. Many kinds of art decorate the walls and floors of these institutions. And each piece cries out the same question, “What is my meaning?” Some of us can interpret the work; some of us walk away dazzled, but puzzled. I fit better with the latter group. In many other cultures, however, art has a more functional purpose. Art forms are used in everyday life both for daily tasks and for religious purposes. Religion and life are unashamedly intermingled. Art, then, touches the human condition all the time, not just on the occasional journey to the art museum. Art has a place in all of life.

In his important book On Writing Well, William Zinsser says that good writing consists of four elements: Clarity, Brevity, Simplicity, and Humanity.[2] Good writing, like good art, speaks to the deeper human condition. Good writing, even prose, is to connect clearly with the human heart, not just to the human intellect. I teach this early on in my classes. I wish every writer knew this truth, especially the authors of textbooks. The writing would then be, at the very least, more readable.

Last night while on the phone with my sister, the one planning the memorial service, I was tasked with writing a blurb on my mother’s life. As the youngest child and only son in the family, I am not so sure I was the best choice. You see, I do not have good memories of Mom. In fact, I don’t have many memories at all, particularly of my early childhood. I was raised more by my best friend’s Mexican family and by my grandparents than by my mom. Mom was not present. She spent a lot of time alone in her room. She was not nurturing. She was sad. She was drunk. But none of us knew it; it was her secret – for decades. Even as I am writing though, I am experiencing compassion. Everybody hurts once in a while. But some hurt and suffer more than others. Some cope in healthy ways; others don’t cope at all. But these folks have reasons for their pain. Pain does not come to us without a cause. Perhaps my mother had a hard past or a chemical imbalance – or both. There were reasons for her pain and for her chosen coping strategies. Perhaps a better response by me is to try to understand Mom’s human condition. I know this is better than bitterness and blame. Those are not healthy responses. So what will I write? And if I were a painter, what would I put on my canvas?

First of all, I will not write all the truth. I will write what is appropriate for the occasion. I am confident that I will do a good job with this. But it will take days to write. And my writing will be clear, concise, simple, and will speak to the grieving humans who are present. And the painting? It would have to have a dark background, very dark. But it would also have smiling middle-school children (mom worked there). It would also have books (she worked in a library – and now that I think about it – I remember that she took us kids to the library. These were good memories). There would also be a cross in the painting, a large one. The cross would not only symbolize her pain, but it would also show that she had at one time committed her life to Jesus – and He turns no one away. I am not sure what else my art would have in it. Perhaps I will paint a little more each year. And perhaps, eventually, I would paint myself there. After all, this is a piece of my story as well.

Last of all, I have been asked to sing worship choruses at the memorial service. I do not like to sing in front of others, but I will do this for Dad. When mom was in her comatose last few hours, I played and sang to her and my dad. Dad cried the whole time. Mom just lay there, seemingly unaware. But I am told that people can hear while in a coma, so maybe she did. If so, worship and music would be among her last memories on earth. Maybe it was practice for the next life? It just dawned on me that music is also a type of art. Maybe I am an artist after all.


[1] William A. Dyrness, Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 99.

[2] William Zinsser, On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction (New York: Collins, 2006)

About the Author


Bill Dobrenen

I am a husband, father, and educator. I love my wife, my two amazing children, and my students. My dissertation research is on the importance of Traditional Native-American Tribal Leadership Practices. Being in the LGP program is a gift from God for me during this season of my life. I look forward to another great year with my LGP4 cohort.

18 responses to “Art and Loss”

  1. mm rhbaker275 says:

    I must say that you practice what your teach, connecting “clearly with the human heart, not just to the human intellect.” I always knew I enjoyed your writing – I guess I never made the connection with your teaching the subject. Actually, writing is a form of art – I note in my post that writing is an inscription of symbols; words, written and spoken, enable us to imagine (image) that to which we cannot point or see with our the senses of vision, hearing and touch. Of course, Eastern forms of writing are just that – pictures. Some of us do not do well at painting pictures with words – you are the exception.

    I share much of what you wrote. I, too, am not an artist in the drawing sense and seldom visit art exhibits. However, our reading this week and other reading I have undertaken, has caused me to reassess; I am deliberately trying to cultivate a better appreciation and a more acute awareness of artistic values. As you note, music as well as artistic drawing is an art form; similarly, scriptures teach us that music is a “joyful noise,” or something like that.

    Lastly, I want to comment on the passing of your mom and the beautiful picture you have painted. It is only as our true being comes in touch with reality, the real and the human, that we can paint a beautiful picture with words. Despite the suffering, the hurt and your difficult memories, I have a beautiful picture of your family, especially your mom and day and your own connection with the way things were. Your painting brought me back in touch with my mom’s passing ten years ago. Thanks, I share your reality with you. –Ron

    • Thanks for your kind and heartfelt comments, Ron. It has been quite a week. Death has a way of making us think on different planes — as does art. My goal for this week was to tie these two subjects together. I don’t know which is harder for me, art or death? Actually, death is much tougher. It is good to know that God is there, even in sorrow. Thanks for the reminders.

  2. mm Liz Linssen says:

    Dear Bill,
    A very moving piece. As you rightly infer, art, whether expressed through visual images, music, or writing, is not simply a matter of What does it mean? For the artist, it is an expression of what one is feeling. For the reader or viewer, a piece of art is an experienced to be felt. But for the artist, it is often a necessary avenue of expression, that if otherwise ignored, could lead to greater frustration or pain.
    We pray Bill that you will be strengthened and upheld by our faithful God. May He comfort you with His presence and hold you close at this time x

    • Liz, thanks for your comments. Art and I have not been close friends through the years. I was not exposed to art much as a child; my family did not value such things. So, generally, I am a novice at this sort of thing. Thus this week’s reading was helpful. I am gaining more of an appreciation for what art is all about. Thank you also for your kind comments regarding the passing of my mother. I have mixed feelings about being involved in the service, but hope that I could contribute is a small way to bring comfort, particularly to my father. I will let everyone know how it went when we are in Cape Town.

  3. mm Stefania Tarasut says:

    Bill, thank you for your thoughts! May God give you strength and peace as you prepare for the memorial service. May your words and song paint a clear and honest picture of who your mom was…. and may you have peace as you hold all your feelings in tension.

    • Stefania, thanks for your comments. As I just told Liz, I have mixed feelings about being involved in this service. But I pray that it will be a time that brings comfort to those who are grieving over the loss of my mom. Take care. See you in a couple of weeks!

  4. Michael Badriaki says:

    Dear Bill, thank you so much for such a touching post. Please receive mine and my family’s condolences to you and yours on the tragic loss of your mother. Indeed you have succeeded in ‘good writing’ because your writing, gave me the opportunity to envisage the invitation to enter into this time of mourning and prayer for comfort with you and your family. It is certainly a visible picture of what Dyrness writes, as you quoted, “color, shape, or sound the joy or pain of being human.”

    The other refreshing part of your post spoke to my experience with this week’s reading. As I read Dyrness this week, there is a lot in the book that makes sense about visual arts from a western perspective, perhaps that was his primary target audience. I was eager to know how the book might take some liberty to reach out to a non-western reality of visual arts, but I was left hanging. This is when you artistry picked me up and I was deeply moved. As you put it, ” … in many other cultures, however, art has a more functional purpose. Art forms are used in everyday life both for daily tasks and for religious purposes. Religion and life are unashamedly intermingled. Art, then, touches the human condition all the time, not just on the occasional journey to the art museum. Art has a place in all of life.” Fantastic Bill!!! Visual arts exist in every culture, but Christendom and religion’s historical and continual attempt to break and dismantle people’ culture has produced grave results. When Dyrness, calls for a restoration of Christian art tradition, I wonder how far back of christian tradition he wants, since the spread of Christian tradition including the “Christian arts” involved oppression, and cultural violence from colonial Christians.

    Your way of art Bill is indeed cathartic. Thanks my friend!

    • Michael, you are most kind, my friend. Thanks for your comments on my post. I felt a strange sense of healing as I wrote the post this week, something I did not expect.

      Why is it that most of our readings have been from a narrow, Western perspective? I am glad that you agree with the fact that we need to look at art from a more global perspective. It never fails to amaze me how Americans, American Christians in particular, tend to compartmentalize everything. We have made art to be something that only the rich can see since everything seems to be in upper-class museums. It is also frustrating that these same people even segregate death from life. Americans are afraid of death and of the things that relate to death. But in reality, death is just a part of life. Yes, we should grieve. Yes, we should remember. Yes, we should even cry. But we should also realize that death is not something to fear and reject; it is to be embraced. But we want to deny it, so we bury people with tractors these days instead of throwing in the dirt ourselves and finishing the job. Certainly nobody enjoys death, but I think we can do better in how we understand it. And, we need to remember that we as Christians have hope that is real. I pray that I would live in this truth.

  5. mm Julie Dodge says:

    You are indeed an artist, Bill. In music. With words. And in your heart. And as you so eloquently wrote, we all take something different away, not only from our encounters with art, but with life. We remember what strikes our hearts and minds. For the heart resting in our Lord, that doesn’t mean we will always see beauty, because life is not always pretty. But we can find peace and hope in this canvas we call life.

    • Julie, thank you, dear friend. Perhaps we are all artists in some way.

      Yes, life is not always pretty. In fact, for some it is not pretty at all, ever. I think of those in Syria, Gaza, and Iraq (not to mention countless other places). How is life pretty for them? And they, unlike most of us, face death daily. We have so much that we take for granted. I think about this often, and I don’t know what to do about it. And what is the death of an eighty year old compared to that of a child or young adult? I know that any death is difficult for the loved ones of the deceased, but those who die through acts of violence are on a different level than those who die in their 80s who have lived rich lives. God help us to remember all those who need our prayers and love.

  6. Ashley says:

    Bill, if only I were with you, I would give you the biggest hug I could muster, and together we’d raise a glass and toast your mom. Writing is therapeutic, and I could feel this post dripping with emotion as you processed through your feelings, your memories, and your learning. You are indeed an artist with the words you intertwine. As you heal, may God take away your pain and sadness and fill it with peace and joy.

    • Ashley, you are very kind. Thank you for your comments. Yes, this was a personal essay; there were a lot of emotions and even some healing. Frankly, I did not expect to feel compassion — that is a long story that we can talk about in SA — but I did feel that for my mother, and that was a gift to my soul. It is funny how we can know something in our heads but not know it in our souls — until something happens. And while writing my blog, something happened. Amazing indeed!

  7. mm Clint Baldwin says:

    As with others who have already responded, Bill, I too see you as an artist.
    You have painted a canvas with your words that moves my soul. Your canvas is covered with all of the conflicting somber-toned and vibrant colors that mix together during loss. It is a very difficult piece to view, but it is not without muted moments of goodness.
    In my post I noted how Dyrness differentiated between the verbal and the visual. Alternatively, rather than differentiating like Dyrness, you bring them closer together.
    I prefer your way.
    Overall, the canvas always remains.
    I grieve your loss and am praying for you.

    • Clint,

      Thanks for your kind comments. This has been quite a week, an important one.

      Yes, my canvas is full of dark colors and I decided that that was what was appropriate for the situation. So often we, especially as Christians, try to paint a rosy picture about life. But the reality is that sometimes life is dark and messy. And I don’t think Jesus has a problem with that. I thought that my post would not be appropriate at first, but as I wrote, there was a healing and insights opened up to me. We are ALL messed up, but just in different ways. My mom was messed up because generations before her were messed up. But there is hope in this cycle if we are willing to pay the price for truth. Frankly, I have been in counseling for 30 years to discover truth about myself, about my background, about my dysfunctions. And, by God’s grace, some of the tools have worked as I have been unlocked from a lot of my crap. I now have a healthy family, but this is all about being willing to grow and change, no matter how painful the process can be. For my mom, that process is finished — unless of course, purgatory exists. 🙂

  8. mm John Woodward says:

    Bill, I am so glad you made your mother a central focus of your post. It gives all of us an opportunity to send our love and condolences. We grieve your loss. There is a weird sensation to say “goodbye” to your mother, no matter what the reality of the relation was, the permanence of the parting is terrible. So, my heart goes out to you and your definitely in my thoughts and prayers. As you reflect on writing about your mother, I think you captured the essence of what all art does – we choose, we create, we decided what to include and exclude. As I am reading the next text for our class, I am struck by the concept that there is no neutral art – be it writing, music or visual art. We all decide what to include or exclude. With God’s grace, I believe He gives us reasons to exclude some of the ugly and hurt, allowing us to painting a more graceful and beautiful existence, because we have a hope that with God it could reality. Isn’t that what redemption is all about – He will make all things new? I think it is good, at times of loss, to indeed find the good and beautiful, to make that the focus, because God can take brokenness and hurt and even evil, and turn it to good. Hope God will allow you can find solace and comfort, and bring to mind those memories of good things of your mother, that you can mourn her well and give comfort to your father.
    You are in my prayers!

  9. Telile Fikru Badecha says:

    Bill, thank you for your thoughtful blog. You and your family are in my prayers as you prepare for the memorial service.
    Yes, you are an artist. Your writing is always precise and to the point. Growing up, I didn’t have exposure to art the ways you and for that reason, I have a limited knowledge about art. Dyrness work has been helpful to understand the values of visual arts in our worship and our spiritual lives. Thank you for your remarks that art is not what we see occasional only in the art museum, but art it is intermingled in our everyday life. This reminds me what Dyrness said, “…being a good artist is nothing special, for God holds everyone responsible for certain things: being stewards of the earth, loving our neighbor, and praising God” (P.97).

  10. Richard Volzke says:

    Bill, Thank you for sharing your story. You and your family are in my prayers. Your description of the painting that would best portray your mother’s life is very beautiful, and I appreciate your honest account. You have demonstrated the true power that art has to portray human thoughts and emotions.

  11. Miriam Mendez says:

    Bill, You have shared part of your heart in this post. Thank you for letting us begin to see the canvas you are painting as you share your journey with us. And yes, music is art as well! May God continue to put a song of hope and peace on your lips and in your heart. Peace my friend.

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