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Facing Death

When those we love pass on, artist Kath McGaughey urges us to open up
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I’m sitting on a ferry seat in the middle of Kath McGaughey’s Bachelor of Fine Arts show, 'Of Absence,' at Sierra Nevada College. I’m not sure where I’m going but I’m certainly sad being surrounded by all these crows. As such images always do, they remind me of my friend Raven who died four years ago. It’s a subject I brought up with the artist at our first meeting. And she welcomed my thoughts.

'The show is essentially about inviting the viewer back in to talk about death,' she told me. McGaughey’s BFA show came on the heels of her father’s unexpected death 14 months ago. When she learned of his illness, she began to notice crows gathering around the wires and rooftop of her Truckee home. After he died, the image of the birds stuck with her, and she began a study that resulted in 'Of Absence.'

'I wanted to address this feeling of isolation for the lack of recognition for grief and mourning,' McGaughey, 42, said on the opening night of her show in December. 'We are good at acknowledging immediate grief, but not long-term mourning.'

'Of Absence,' which was on display at Sierra Nevada College’s Tahoe Gallery from Dec. 5 to Jan. 2, consists of various mixed media works, at the center of which are two benches McGaughey designed and built to resemble ferry seating. Not only a space for audience reflection and participation, the seats are a nod to both the transition of death and McGaughey’s transit during a difficult time in her life: traveling back to her family home in New South Wales, Australia, and commuting while briefly living in New York City afterward.

'When you’re on a train or ferry, even though you’re surrounded by people, you turn inward,' McGaughey said. 'You’re surrounded but disconnected.' McGaughey really wanted her audience to connect, to be unapologetic about mourning and emotions surrounding death. Her ferry seats face death directly as they plant the viewer’s gaze on two photo triptychs: one showing her father’s resting body right after he died, the other showing mutton bird remains on an Australian beach near her parents’ home.

On the far gallery wall, crows sketched with charcoal, India ink, and graphite pencil stretch 19 lines up two four-foot rough paper panels. Like rosary or Buddhist prayer beads, they represent a type of meditation — a very tactile and gestural form, said McGaughey, who noted she was careful to 'not be precious about' creating it. 'There are drips, drabs; I patched it. I wanted it to be raw, to speak to emotion. It’s like talking about death: be physical with it, walk on it, stomp on it.'

Another large hanging is even more rough: a quilt-like mashup of stitched together paper, from tracing to photo-quality, with McGaughey’s crow drawings and sketches from the past four months cut up and pieced back together — stitched threads left unfinished, dangling.

A collection of images on the opposite wall reveals tiny snapshots of memory: photos of McGaughey’s mother and grandmother’s art and her father’s woodworks; of places like the New York City ferry; and of the artist’s sketches.

Despite its very personal elements, the show feels far from invasive. It’s welcoming, in fact. 'The thing that’s really exciting is that viewers aren’t saying ‘Oh, you did a really great show,’ but ‘Here’s my story,’' McGaughey said. 'We need this dialogue. Death is the one universal experience. I want this slightly in your face.'

For me — though I was initially drawn to McGaughey’s art by the crows — it all comes back to the seats. There is so much to them, despite the obvious reflection they ask of us. McGaughey states on her blog that the benches reference the Greek mythology story of Charon, the ferryman of the dead who carried the souls of the deceased over the river Styx and required a coin for passage. What toll does McGaughey require of her passengers? 'Participation and recognition of the grieving process,' she said.

It’s a fitting topic this month, with beloved Moonshine columnist Flip Speckleman succumbing to cancer (see article). Hopefully McGaughey’s thoughts will provide solace to his family and fans. I’ve certainly been revisiting my memories of Raven in a more positive light, and reached out to a friend struggling with grief. Mourning can be a lonely, sad, and long process, but we shouldn’t be afraid to confront it. 'I don’t think grieving is linear,' McGaughey said. 'It’s like a spiral. You learn to live with it. You learn how to weather winter.'

While McGaughey’s BFA show has now left the gallery, look for updates on her blog,, about where it will be next and to see more photos. Potential sites include Riverside Studios in Truckee and a regional hospital or hospice care center.

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Reader comments so far...

Lis (not verified)
I saw this Huffington Post article and thought it fitting to share with McGaughey's art: A Book About Death is an exhibit created from invited artists who contributed 500 copies of a work on the subject of death, in the form of postcards. Each postcard then became a single page of an unbound book about death in which the contributing artists approached the subject in many different ways.

Lis (not verified)
"Kath McGaughey is showing her work at Riverside Studios in downtown Truckee in April so you can see many Of Absence pieces there. The opening reception is this First Friday April 6, 4-8 p.m. and will include music and beverages."

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July 12, 2018