Illustration in the Time of Grief

by Associate Professor of Fine Arts and Art History Jessica Boehman

Art, in the way I use it, is a way of generating order. Though the process is chaotic, and the mediums are messy, and it though it can cause tremendous anguish in the act of its making, it can be a primal act of ordering the chaotic elements of the world, those things that we don’t understand, or can’t process. It can serve as an act of reconciliation, a laying to rest, or an exorcism. It’s a small but necessary act in pursuit of survival.

In my art classes, Illustration and Graphic Narrative, we focus on art as a vehicle for story. More often than not, an illustration begins or works in tandem with the written word: a passage from a book, a poem, a song, or a script. In some cases, the illustrator is also the author: this is often the case in my classes, where I train students to do both to prepare them for the professional world. Illustration is a robust form of communication, arming the artist with both the nuanced specificity of words and the evocative subtlety of images that show, rather than tell.

I’ve found that illustration has helped me to navigate the hardest of my personal challenges: comics, illustrated shorts, and single drawings have helped me through the hardest blows I’ve been dealt. This piece, “A Goodbye of Sorts,” was based on a dream I had in the weeks following the unexpected death of my best friend in July 2020.

The act of writing and drawing the piece provided a sense of closure and a chance to say goodbye, something that had been stolen from me in real life due to the strict hospital visitation rules precipitated by the pandemic. It took me five months before I was ready to craft the script, and though the concreteness of the words felt unbearable-there was also the hoped-for release that came with the act of drawing. There was something in the ordering of panels that provided the precision of memory that I felt necessary for such an undertaking. I am a firm believer in the power of art to heal. But without that outlet, I’m not sure how I could have processed my grief. It turns a negative act, a sort of taking-away, into a generative act, where something new is made to fill the absence. It’s the gift of the creative soul.

Recently, I’d been wondering if my former students had experienced something similar this past year, during a time of extraordinary loss and grief, and so I reached out to four of them to see how art and illustration had helped them to resolve the emotions that accompanied the shelter-in-place and the pandemic as a whole. I’d like to share with you some of their pieces and their thoughts in their own words.

Anthony Andujar was my student in 2015-16; his work, “Overthinking, A Dangerous Thing” was made as a reaction to digital overstimulation, insomnia, joblessness, and depression.

He said, “I was just burnt out by all the stuff that had snowballed between January and July, in the midst of a semester. I didn’t sleep well at all. My body was just tense thinking about the vast amount of information” that inundates social media, “and I was dealing with straight-up depression.” Though Anthony typically makes comics of the superhero variety, he’s also a musician, and here, he channeled Tool’s “No Quarter” (a Led Zeppelin cover), which conveyed the exact feel and tone of what he was feeling, as well as A Perfect Circle’s “Brena.” He continues: “The character is internally breaking apart...despite his push to survive the waves of doubt, fear, and dread of various events.” Though the image is seemingly self-destructive, Anthony hoped that the work would “provide the viewer with the ability to be a telepath who’s been given consent to peek inside the mind of another to see what’s really going on beyond their words.” The mix of drawing and music helped Anthony to cope and to push himself “to be more vulnerable in areas of wanting to do better, regardless of the current state of events.”

Emmanuel Santos, now graduated, was my student in 2018. This year, Emmanuel has updated a comic he began in my Graphic Narrative class, all while working at a local museum. “I Want to Punch God in the Face” began as a way to think about his reaction to the death of his uncle in 2001 and his frustration over the phrase “God has a plan.”

Emmanuel sees his comic as “a mix of different elements: an escape from the everyday issues that stress me out, an outlet for my pent-up rage, and a reflection on how I dealt with loss in the past.” He told me that working on the comic felt like “a practice in writing a cathartic story to express my anger to the powers that be. Kind of like shouting at the sky.” And he saw an upside to quarantine, though he’s no longer a student: Emmanuel found that the forced solitude allowed him to develop a better art-making routine. And he kept the output of that effort from becoming too dark by “choosing to ‘draw what’s more fun’” (Emmanuel ascribes that quote to me...and it sounds about right--I am always pushing my students to let their imaginations run rampant). Emmanuel offered a note of advice to other artists: “Comic / illustration / art-making is only as daunting of a task as I make it seem. Breaking it down, bit by bit, helps to make it easier to tackle.” (Sidenote from the professor: that’s the secret to achieving just about anything. Seriously.)

Though I taught her sister, Ivana, in person about five years ago, I’ve only met Tamara Dimov, a current Fine Arts major, virtually. Even so, I feel I know her well. Tamara worked through a series of hardships and losses this past year, and even still, I was so proud that art gave her the chance to grieve. She said, in 2020, “my sister was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, my uncle was murdered, my mother was diagnosed with two brain aneurysms and later suffered a stroke following her first surgery. Members of my family in Macedonia tested positive for COVID-19, which led to the passing of my grandfather. It felt as if I didn’t have a chance to catch my breath throughout the Fall semester, so when my professor had given the suggestion to dedicate this piece to him…I did just that. This piece, “On the MTA to Macedonia” was not only for my grandfather, but the perfect outlet for all my other stressors.

While doing this piece for class, I came to the realization that my grandfather had never seen any of my current art pieces, so dedicating this to him meant more to me than the grade I received for it. Just being able to pour my soul into it released this pressure in my chest that I didn’t know I was carrying.” You might notice that the view out of the window isn’t New York, but her home in Macedonia, where her grandfather passed away. “The view I decided to draw is Saint John at Kaneo Church in Ohrid, one of the most beautiful views in Macedonia. I wanted the male figure to envision being there rather than being stuck in New York City because of the pandemic. Overall, I wanted to portray how I felt through this image, because instead of being back home in Macedonia with my family, I am stuck here with no way to get to them, and all I have is my imagination. [In the past semester], my relationship with my art blossomed, and I no longer hate the pieces that I make. Drawing has the same effect on me now that exercising does: it releases this mental tension that I never realized I was carrying.”

Jessica Toomey, a Fall 2020 graduate, made a self portrait for Prof. Joan Harmon in Intermediate Drawing that she saw as an outlet for a number of stressors from the past year. Jessica fused inspiration from illustration and art history to create a spin on a Renaissance icon of the Roman plague saint, St. Sebastian, an appropriate choice for life in a pandemic, in her drawing, “Self Portrait as St. Sebastian.” She explains, “My last semester at LaGuardia has been the most challenging of my academic career.

As a student with a learning disability (ADHD), I thrive in structured environments, and have a difficult time with time management. Adapting to remote learning last semester was a huge adjustment. Where I was previously a straight-A student, I found myself falling behind.” The loss of a stable living situation, aggravated by COVID-19 affecting her and also spreading through the members of her household, compounded these difficulties. “Luckily, we all pulled through, but it was a huge setback.” These things combined to push Jessica to consider dropping out, just weeks before graduation. “During this time, it was my studio art classes that really became my saving grace. Completely falling in love with illustration, widening my practice to storytelling, and developing my personal artistic brand has brought me enough joy to stay dedicated.”

I think many students will see themselves in Jessica’s self portrait. She explains that “sometimes, succeeding as a student means giving your all, even when you feel like you’ve been shot through with invisible arrows. I’ve been amazed at the resilience of my fellow students, who probably deal with similar strife yet manage to bring incredible work to the table.” For those who don’t know, St. Sebastian was cured of his arrow wounds. She continues: “I find the final product to be a reflection of how I feel upon graduating: triumphant and liberated. I feel more prepared than ever to transfer and enter a new program, and have gained a newfound confidence in my ability to overcome adversity.”

Want to follow us on Instagram? Dr. Jessica Boehman @jessicaboehman, Anthony Andujar @antdujar94comics, Emmanuel Santos @lastminuteartist, Tamara Dimov @tamaradimovart, and Jessica Toomey @newtorder.