Editor’s note: The below blog post is written by artist Emily McIlroy. It is about how her journey of grief took her on an artistic journey in which she created the series The Lilies How They Grow. This series will be on view at First Hawaiian Center from Feb. 14-June 14.
A month after my twin brother died, I dreamt I was walking along the edge of a precipitous cliff at night. Fog and mist concealed the landscape. Two half moons illuminated the sky. I slipped and began plunging through abysmal blackness. Looking around for something to take hold of, I saw two tiny yellow daylilies appear. I seized their soft petals between my fingers and pulled myself back up into the dream. A pale, smiling character was waiting for me at the top. “Who are you?” I asked. He laughed, “I don’t know who I am. Who are you?”
When I awoke and asked myself the stranger’s question, “Who am I?” I entered a wilderness. I began a spiritual voyage through a territory of unimaginable extremes—a landscape of both deep darkness and refulgent light, of mortal menaces and extraordinary marvels. I had no idea who I was without my twin, or who I had really been before I lost him.
In the years that followed I looked everywhere for answers. I looked to psychology and to neuroscience. I looked to experts on twins and on religion and on death. I looked to art, and I looked to the natural world around me. I observed how the currents and pulses of the ocean emulated the patterns of grief, how the glares and shadows of day and night reflected the new configurations of my mind, and how creatures like birds and jellyfish could, like human beings, be filled with both grace and ruthlessness at the same time. I found comfort in the way that Earth’s wilderness mirrored my own. But I still didn’t have peaceable answers.
In the winter of 2015, my mother died unexpectedly. As we buried her body in the dark earth that had been opened beside the grave of my brother, I was consumed by a sense of helplessness. Once again, I was powerless against the suffering of those I loved. I was powerless against their deaths. My desire to make sense of these losses took on an increased sense of gravity, a revived urgency. Who are we? Who was my brother? Who was my mother? Who—in the very pith of the life I’m living—am I?
Author Caroline Myss says that questions such as "Who am I?" or "What is my purpose?" are not really questions, but in fact spiritual invocations, prayers that are answered through experience rather than words. I decided I would begin painting prayers—painting in prayer. I would make prayers so immense in scope and scale that a resolution was impossible to imagine. Perhaps through devotion to a project that was too tremendous to envision, answers would appear.
I prepared 12 sheets of 7’ x 5’ paper, and began my undertaking. Turning to the teeming wilderness of thoughts and emotions inside of me, I recorded the features and forces that I encountered there. I painted things I recognized and things I didn’t. I painted things I could explain and things I couldn’t. Areas of mud and sea and sky became populated by abstracted clusters of organic matter: teeth, fossils, bones, petals, polyps, branches, roots, buds, ash, blood. To these dense aggregations of form I added the soft flesh of fetuses and sea creatures. I carved glacial pools and crevasses out of rock and ice, and constellated translucent meadows of atmosphere with winged beasts and celestial bodies. I obliterated old subjects and rendered layer upon layer of new ones. I painted and prayed and painted and prayed, until the surfaces of the pieces became the strata of my petition for safe passage. Moving between representation and abstraction, opacity and transparency, detail and gesture, the prayer paintings became the link between where I was and where I needed to go. They became my lifelines. They became the Lilies.
One afternoon, after a year of painting and praying, I was lying underneath the banyan tree outside my studio. I was listening to the sound of wind and shifting sunlight when I heard a whisper that I couldn’t quite make out.
What was that? What did you say?
We said we miss you.
We—the sun, the sky, the trees, the dirt, the grass.
Oh, yes. You. I miss You, too. Terribly.
Come back to us. We miss you as a little girl. We miss when you used to soak us in freely, breathe us in freely, climb up our branches freely, roll around in us freely. We love you. We’ve always loved you. Come back to us.
I’ve always loved You, too. So very much.
Then come back to us. We want your spirit closer.
How? How do I get back to You? My spirit has gotten so lost, gone so far away.
Look inside, and take out the knives. Take out the knives and you’ll unfold right into us, unfold into our arms. We the Earth will hold you. We are sorry that you have been grieving for so long. You don’t need to hurt any longer. We’ve been waiting to receive you. You’ve always had us. Come back, child. Come back and create for us.
Earth’s wilderness was telling me something that deep down in my own thickets I must have already known: long, broad blades of sadness had sliced into the spaces where my spirit used to live. Anger, guilt, and fear were crowding out vital dens of love and joy. The balance of forces that maintain harmony in nature, and in ourselves, had become nearly extinguished in my heart. I needed to make space within all of the congestion. I needed to clear a passageway through the grief. What, besides the paintings, could be my lilies? Where were the handholds in the dark?
Over the next two and a half years, I continued to work on the prayer paintings, and to slowly pull out the knives. I learned to be softer and gentler with my spirit. I learned to not judge myself so harshly, or to blame myself for things that were out of my control. I learned that there are certain outcomes that cannot be willed into or out of existence, and that I cannot—for all my efforts—answer questions with my mind that can only be answered with the heart.
As I painted and prayed and painted and prayed, little blooms of brightness cropped up in my purview. Gratitude, wonder, curiosity, humor, self-forgiveness, acceptance, presence, and patience began to take root in my wilderness. I started to see that who I am is more than the sum of my experiences. I am, in fact, an amalgam of everything I choose to align with. I am not static. I am not singular. If I choose love, then I am love. If I choose light, then I am light. If I choose Lilies in times of darkness, then they will blossom between my fingers—they will be the unfolding that delivers my spirit back to a peaceful home.