Next week, Joanna Walsh’s Ars Moriendi opens at Wellcome Collection. A large-scale drawing in the Collection lobby, it will deal with the process of dying in a medicalised culture, and what our hopes for a ‘good death’ are. Here, Joanna explains how she came to deal with the subject of death and discusses the Sobell Hospice, a place where residents are allowed to create an art of their own dying.
It started when the woman living next door to me, who is in her 90s, became bedridden. She is cared for at home by her widowed son. Her bedroom shares a wall with mine and I can hear her: sometimes she watches the telly, sometimes she talks to herself, sometimes she is in pain.
She is having what most people consider to be a ‘good’ death: in her own home surrounded by her family, something many people are not lucky enough to experience. Her dying presence has necessarily become part of my life.
I began to wonder about how we expect to die in our highly medicalised culture where our choices may be constrained by hospital treatments, and whether this ties up with what we would hope for. In a culture where death is taboo and art about dying is scarce or considered morbid, there are few continuing visual traditions surrounding ‘a good death’. I investigated art from the past in the Wellcome Collection’s library and was impressed with the delicacy and beauty of the object created in response to such a dark and difficult subject.
Sobell House Hospice and its patients kindly allowed me to draw them during January and February 2011. Although it cares for patients who need more medical attention than would be possible in their own homes, Sobell allows patients, their families and friends to create their own environments, altering them as much or as little as they desire and circumstances allow. It also encourages facing dying through creativity in the form of music, art or religious contemplation. At Sobell, patients are allowed to create their own Ars Moriendi – their personal art of dying.
Never having been in one before, I felt pretty nervous the first time I visited the hospice and I had two meetings with staff and managers before I started to draw.
One of them told me, “You’ll get a lot of different reactions. Some of the patients will ask you why you’re here, whether a relative of yours has died, whether your parents are both still alive. Some of them will ask you whether you believe in God. Some of them will tell you to fuck off.”
I said that I really couldn’t blame them.
I started drawing in the day room – a gentle introduction to the hospice – where in-patients mix with day patients, talking, drinking tea and working on projects with an art therapist. It’s pretty free and easy. One regular was served an 11am pint of bitter and another brought his dog. After a while I noticed there was something about the banter between patients that was almost flirtatious, a little afterwards realising that this could be because so many of the older patients were probably, and sadly, recently single.
I spent one of my mornings in the dayroom watching a cookery class. It’s so much like any other cookery club you’d hardly credit the hospice setting until patients start comparing their experience of chemotherapy between deciding whether the icing should be chocolate or vanilla.
This easy conversation, mixing hospital stories with recipes, dogcare advice and remeniscences, is one of the great things about Sobell. The patients know that everyone is in a similar boat and no topics are off-limits.
The hospice building is circular, built around a courtyard and surrounded by a paved and planted city garden. Both the public and patients’ areas are designed to maximize light and each resident’s ground-floor room has access to the outdoors. Furniture is natural wood or nature-identical laminate. Pale floral patterns dominate the curtains and cushions. Outside it’s January but inside the thermostat is set to constant Spring.
You can follow Joanna’s work on her blog, Badaude.