Leaning on her grief Artist mourned dead husband by finding art amid all the symbols of sadness

Susan P. Gibson has taken more than 3,500 photographs of decaying food and wilting flowers in the past eight years.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/09/2019 (1050 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Susan P. Gibson has taken more than 3,500 photographs of decaying food and wilting flowers in the past eight years.

The practice started as a survival mechanism after her husband Randy died suddenly in 2011 and it has been an important part of her journey through the grieving process.

“I couldn’t function, I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t be,” Gibson says. “I relied on art to keep me alive.”

Artist Susan P. Gibson’s first solo show, Grief Work, includes photos she took to process the unexpected death of her husband in 2011. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

The couple met in high school and were married for 37 years. Randy was her best friend, artistic collaborator and business partner and his death changed everything in Gibson’s life.

After his funeral and in the midst dealing with the reality of losing her livelihood and the house they owned, Gibson was overwhelmed by the glut of flower arrangements and homemade food from loved ones.

The gifts went to rot and, despite being in the depths of depression, Gibson managed to see something beautiful in the mould spores that were growing on the untouched casseroles, fruit and pastries that filled her kitchen.

Surfacing, Space and Sky (Susan P Gibson photo)

A homemade jar of beet borscht left on her doorstep by a friend is what kick-started her ongoing art project.

“I had no idea whether it had been there for 15 minutes or four days, so I couldn’t possibly have eaten it, so I thought, ‘What can I do? There’s all this energy that went into making this,’” she says. “So I decided I would photograph it.”

Twenty-two pieces from Gibson’s large collection will be on display at the Adelaide McDermot Gallery, 318 McDermot Ave., during Culture Days from Friday, Sept. 27, to Sunday, Sept. 29. The exhibit, titled Grief Work, is her inaugural photography show.

Transparent Life (Susan P Gibson photo)

Gibson went to art school in Alberta and has worked in drawing, painting and clay for most of her career; she made the switch to photography to adapt to the physical disabilities she lives with. While photography has allowed her to continue creating art, it has come with its own set of challenges.

“I’m not that thrilled with the technical part of it,” she says.

Randy was a photographer by trade and a founding member of Winnipeg’s Floating Gallery. The couple had a darkroom in their basement and while Gibson knew how to snap a picture and process film, Randy was the one with the eye for light and composition.

Suspended on the Edge (Susan P Gibson photo)

“He was my photo technician… now, I’ve had to find replacements for all those supports I used in the past.”

She found comfort in the learning process and joy in turning bits of mould and bacteria into colourful and complex still-life photographs. Since she works with a growing and changing subject matter, Gibson has turned over much control over the end product — and she’s OK with that.

“I think that was part of me recognizing that there’s nothing now that I can predict, everything that I felt to be true and real isn’t that anymore,” she says.

The images included in Grief Work, which is curated by Gibson’s longtime friend and mentor Diana Thorneycroft, are tightly cropped and taken with a macro lens, offering an ant’s-eye view of the world that is both abstract and familiar.

The show resonates because it deals with two universal human experiences: food and grief. Gibson’s goal was to deal with the latter head-on.

“In our culture, we’re so afraid of death and we don’t use the word death, we talk about someone passing or losing someone. I didn’t lose (Randy), he was right there on the kitchen floor,” she says.

“Just being in it and not denying the grief or running away from it, being immersed in it… doing that, it was blissful.”

This year is the 10th anniversary of Culture Days and Gibson’s show fits, unintentionally, with the festival’s 2019 theme of creativity, the arts and well-being.

“Art isn’t just for artists or those who are involved in high art, it’s really beneficial for everybody,” Culture Days Manitoba co-chairman David Pensato says of this year’s theme. “There are really strong connections to mental health and well-being.”

Gibson has an intimate understanding of the therapeutic benefits of art and she has made it her mission to share that with others. She is the founder of Arts AccessAbility Network Manitoba, which aims to make the arts accessible and inclusive for artists and audiences with disabilities — something Gibson has struggled with in mounting Grief Work.

The show opens on Friday, Sept. 27, with a reception from 7 to 10 p.m. The gallery will be open during Nuit Blanche from 6 p.m. to midnight and on Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.


Twitter: @evawasney



Eva Wasney

Eva Wasney
Arts Reporter

Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.

Exhibit Preview

Grief Work
● By Susan P. Gibson
● Adelaide McDermot Gallery, 318 McDermot Ave.
● Friday, Sept. 27 to Sunday, Sept. 29

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