Four years ago my brother-in-law suddenly, and to us unexpectedly, committed suicide. It was a violent and selfish act, devastating in a far-reaching way. He hurt those who loved him, and in unforeseeable ways he hurt even those who did not know him. My children had loved him and were stunned. Their classmates in 6th grade, 3rd grade and kindergarten who did not know him, learned the story from our kids. Imagine! The children in my son’s kindergarten had to learn about suicide far too soon; it was impossible to keep the story silent in our relatively small community. And yet, would silence have been desirable? I think not.
To help my children grieve and to have a designated time to remember his life we have begun a tradition. Each year our local chapter of The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) holds a sunflower art contest. The contest is held during the same week he died. We talk about ideas for our entries for weeks then, come together and work, creating individual and group entries. Our neighbors have even joined in. It gives us a set time to personally or collectively, openly or silently think about him.
This year after painting some fabulous flowers, our neighbor Delaney felt stumped. The contest entry asked for a name. What a challenge! Delaney agonized. I suggested that leaving it untitled was acceptable and tried to explain that many of the best artists do just this. But untitled felt, I am guessing, unfinished.
Shortly after I had the good fortune to be walking through a fabulous museum soaking up the art there. The titles kept jumping out at me. Certainly many artists do leave their work untitled but, often an artist is asking us to focus our attention in a direction of their choosing. Richard Wentworth’s room filled with books floating suspended above our heads is named “False Ceiling”. Perhaps a gesture pointing us towards the falseness of the notion that books contain all knowledge in unbiased, unlimited form? At first Tony Cragg‘s sculpture in the Istanbul Modern Museum looks like a study in sinuous, sensuous form. But after reading the title, “Ugly Faces” that is all one can see. Gone is the sexy sculpture, leaving behind just faces in profile. Ugly ones.
Which brings this rubber band story back to my brother-in-law’s death, those kindergarteners, and the efforts of NAMI. By naming the thing in front of us we make it hard to ignore like those “Ugly Faces”. “False Ceiling” became a statement that was hard to stop thinking about. By being comfortable with naming depression we cannot ignore it, we make treatment attainable. NAMI strives to help us put a name to what is all too often right in front of us. To name it allows us to help those who suffer. To leave it untitled allows us to make our own personal and perhaps incorrect interpretations. Wentworth said:
I think I shouldn’t give things titles. I sometimes cringe at it. But it’s like naming the cat. There is something about the act of nomination — sometimes I really love it, like launching a ship.
Sometimes we cringe from naming the suffering in front of us. However, doing so might launch a ship or two…ships of hope.
Delaney’s painting? It was enthusiastically named “Bust a Bloom” .
A gallery of some of our sunflowers: