A Tribute After All / by Vanessa Longacre-Wilcox

Figure 1: Early stage of the painting. 

Figure 1: Early stage of the painting. 

I have been thinking about what it means to pay tribute as I have been working on my latest painting.  Last December, I wrote a tribute to Tony who died in 1997.  And in the fall, I had planned to create a painting to honor my mother but I stumbled over it.  I got pretty far along preparing for the project, had my supplies, stretched the canvas, and even borrowed a projector from a friend to use for transferring the image to the canvas.  But when I actually set out to paint, I couldn’t bring myself to do it and after months of inaction, I decided to move on.

Once I decided not to paint the painting for my mother I was left with a large empty canvas.  It was exciting.  I felt free and happy that I got to paint anything that I wanted.  It was early January and with the holidays behind us I began to organize myself and get ready. 

The day I started working on the painting was the day that David Bowie died.  It was devastating news. Like so many people out there have already expressed, David Bowie represented more than his music, he was a beckon of light, a role model to be true to yourself, even if others don’t understand you.  After hearing of his death, I started to listen to Bowie all day every day.  So the canvas I had created to honor my mother became the canvas I painted while honoring Bowie instead.

But here’s the thing, grief is sneaky, and soon enough, it all became interconnected.  As I was crying over Bowie, I cried over Freddie Mercury because of listening to Under Pressure.  Thinking of Freddie Mercury dying of AIDS led me back to Tony.  “Girl Loves Me” off of Blackstar became the anthem of my painting and the entire album seemed cloaked with references about Bowie’s last chapter which made me think about Iman and his kids.  And when I read about Iman’s Instagram posts I remembered the isolation that losing someone creates.  I thought of what it was like in those last months losing my mother and I cried for us all. My grief was blending together but I was fortunate to have a place to allow it to do so.  I felt a deep sense of sadness, but art, art seemed like the right thing to do.

Figure 2: Almost completed.  And a glimpse at my tiny art space.

Figure 2: Almost completed.  And a glimpse at my tiny art space.

The painting began to look other-worldly.  And there came a moment when I needed to figure out what to do next.  I sat back in a comfy chair with a cup of tea and stared at the work in progress.   It was stark…winter-like…which felt Bowie-like but I had intended to make it lush and vibrant which felt more me-like.  I pondered what to do.  Should I keep it stark because it felt like a tribute to Bowie?

Then my heart sank a little and I wondered what the point of painting anything was.  But I was listening to “Rebel Rebel” and I thought, “Where would we be if David Jones hadn’t had the courage to be David Bowie?”  And there was that beckon again.

It suddenly occurred to me that a tribute to David Bowie wouldn’t be about making something like him.  A tribute to him would be to live and create authentically as he did.  

And that reminded me of my brilliant yoga teacher Terilyn Wyre asking us one class after Bowie had died; how do we honor people who have passed? She played an all Bowie playlist that day and as we moved through poses, she asked us; how do we have the courage to stand in the truth of who we are no matter how strange or unusual that might be?   Standing in that truth, she had said, that’s the tribute.

I’m still finishing up this painting. It’s an oil…so…it could be awhile.  But my heart is less heavy.  I listened to a lot of really great music along the way and the painting allowed me to grieve.  In the end, this canvas is not a tribute to my mother or David Bowie.  It’s a tribute to grief.  A tribute to being alive and allowing yourself to experience it moment by moment, whatever may come up.  But most importantly, it’s a tribute to the transformational quality of art making.