Death Dialogues: Artist Lee John Phillips
Death Dialogues features interviews with professionals who deal with death, dying, and grieving in their work. From creatives to funeral directors to taxidermists—we talk about why and how they chose to spend their working life examining the afterlife.
When someone dies, the tiniest thing can gain immense importance overnight. When you remove a person from their normal seat on the couch or place at the table, that absence illuminates objects that only they touched. Without my mom’s hands writing in her notebook, it was left to me to leaf through it. The jewelry she’ll never wear again suddenly became something I had to sort, hoard, and wear every day.
In October 2016, I worked with artist Lee John Phillips to create a poster inspired by his project, The Shed. The Shed is an illustrated documentation of thousands of items from his late grandfather’s tool shed. Lee and I address the act of sorting through objects left behind and what to do with them moving forward.
“I genuinely see this as a very intimate portrait of my grandfather, Handel,” said Lee. “I often struggle with how he'd react to his lifetime of collecting and hoarding being made so public.”
As a storyteller, I see the importance of memories—they’re what I get to talk about with people who never had the pleasure of spending an entire afternoon listening to my mom talk about birds. But, I also see great significance in holding onto the tangible. When I was exhausted from grieving on other people’s terms, I would retreat to smell bottles of my mom’s perfume and grieve without having to say anything at all.
“For 20 years, the shed has been relatively untouched,” explained Lee. “The space hasn't necessarily been forgotten, but it's as if the volume had been somehow turned down as busy life continued. Diving back into that space in such a thorough manner has brought so many memories flooding back for all of us. My dad recognises most objects, how they were used or what they were fabricated for. My mum saw the remains of a doll house my grandfather made her and it stopped her in her tracks.”
Alica Forneret: My mother passed away a few weeks ago and while I was home I spent a lot of time going through her jewelry cabinets. Having boundaries removed was bizarre and made me think a lot about digging through her jewelry as a kid or sneaking into her closet when I wanted to borrow something in high school.
What would have been different about your project had you completed it while your grandfather was alive?
Lee John Phillips: I may not have attempted it if he was still with us, but if I did, I would have had lots of direction with how to approach and tackle the enormity of the task. He was organised and methodical. He would have suggested techniques to structure the practical aspects and perhaps divide the task into chapters based on tool type or usage.
He was very instrumental in my creative development in my early teens when it was clear that I would follow a creative path. He was very keen to give me constructive feedback on drawings I would feel proud of. Regularly, this ended up with me feeling frustrated and angry with him. I now realise what he was doing. I feel I may have been too young and strong-minded to fully benefit from his experience and tuition.
AF: Similar to your grandfather’s habit of keeping broken items, my mother stashed a lot of solo earrings, broken necklaces. I’ve noticed my own similar habit and see that similarity between me and my mother (maybe it’s hoarding, maybe it’s nostalgia, who knows).
What, if anything, have your grandfather’s possessions taught you about him?
LJP: I had an awareness of his methods of collation and organisation before his death. My father has a similar approach. For me, it's a very positive trait of masculinity. Being independent, self-reliant, and productive are traits that I hold dear. I obviously knew that he was a very practical and competent man, but I feel I may have underestimated his abilities as some tools are extremely specific to jobs I had never associated with him.
AF: What was it like to eventually remove the self-imposed time frame of completing the project in a few years? Did it shift how you thought about the purpose of the project before and after you saw an end date?
LJP: In November last year (2015), I moved the entire contents of the shed to a scale model installation at a heritage centre based on the pit-head where he first worked. This was an incredibly emotional experience for the family, but truly exposed me to the volume of items the space contained. The time frame was being extended as I got deeper into the project, but this mass exodus of items really exposed the enormity of the task. Removing the time frame did relax me incredibly. It changed my mindset. I was in it for the long haul.
AF: How has your cataloguing, drawing, and overall process changed from when you started your first journal in 2014? I know that you left your full-time job, but what else has changed about how you’re moving through the shed to accomplish this task?
LJP: At first, I didn't intend to draw “everything” or even catalogue and number stuff. It was going to be a project purely based on hand tools. I never considered the jam jars, biscuit and tobacco tins. Once I had made the decision to use the space as a resource, things did change dramatically over the space of around three months.
The tool focus broadened to include the containers of items, however, I still did not intend to number everything or remove items to illustrate individually. Very quickly, I realised that I had to empty packets or containers as they were hiding a vast array of interesting and miscellaneous objects. I began to draw these but numbered the containers and not contents. Very shortly after, I realised that all items needed to have equal importance. All would be illustrated, numbered, and catalogued.
I wrote myself some rules. These rules didn't take much deliberation and have not been amended at all since they were first written.
1. If the item can be picked up and doesn’t crumble if rubbed - draw it.
2. If the packet/container is/has been opened, empty it, draw items, replace them, and draw container full.
3. If the packet/container has not been opened, it will not be, and drawn as found.
4. If there are multiples of the same items - draw them all.
AF: Like the poster we did with you, I’d like to pursue a project that focuses on illustrating and annotating the vessels associated with death. Over the last few weeks, I’ve reflected on the things that actually hold her belongings. I’ve gone through her jewelry boxes, collected her urn from the crematory, been gifted her wedding ring in the plastic bag from the hospital...
LJP: On a side note, the image of the wedding ring in a plastic bag really struck a chord with me. Everything a wedding ring symbolises, all it stands for—the time, the love—almost dismantled by the act of placing it in that bag… Sorry, but that image was very saddening. I see that as a very large photograph or painting.
AF: So for you, as an artist as well as a close relative of the owner of these items in the shed, what does it mean to get your creative inspiration and purpose from the passing of a loved one?
LJP: On a few blogs, when the project first gained momentum, a number of people reacted negatively towards it. They stated that I had bereavement issues and this was somehow an unnecessary way for me to deal with my loss. This wasn't the case. I loved my grandfather dearly and it was a very difficult time for us all. However, even though we all still think of him regularly, I feel that 20 years is a sufficient period to learn to live with the grief. This is a celebration of a good man with good values. It is also a lesson in self-discipline for me. Some people decide to participate in 10 marathons in 10 days. This is my marathon.
AF: As you've had to deal with criticism from people who think that you had bereavement issues (it blows my mind that anyone would say this, although I've heard my fair share of wacky grieving-related shit over the last few weeks), what would you suggest to someone using creative outlets for their own grieving? With the exception of our dedication to my mother in the broadsheet, on some days I want to commemorate her on every page. Others, I want to leave her out completely for fear of people thinking I'm grieving in an unhealthy way...
LJP: This is a difficult question for me as a result of the time between my grandfather's death and starting the project. If I began something similar much closer to the time, I believe it would look very different. I feel the gap in time has allowed me to detach myself for periods of time and let the mechanical aspects of my approach take over. I feel I wouldn't have had this amount of control and organisation. I am quite certain that if the emotions were still raw, I'd probably paint and not draw. The work would be bigger, more expressive and angrier.
As far as advice, I'm genuinely unsure. This level of immersion during a period of mourning may be unhealthy. However, a different, more relaxed process may be of huge benefit. This is the toughest question I've been asked so far. If I was to lose someone close to me now, I don't feel I could do anything similar. My project has been made possible by the time I've had to grieve and process.
AF: If you had to guess, what do you think your grandfather would have thought about the project?
LJP: I get asked this a lot and I genuinely am unsure. As I mentioned earlier, he was a very private man. I don't know how he'd appreciate, what I sometimes consider, this violation of his personal space.
On the other hand, he was very supportive of my abilities. I'm sure he would appreciate my dedication and tenacity of the task I've set myself. I also know that he would be very critical when looking at my compositions and the interpretation of his tools. It makes me smile to think of him looking at them and subtly drawing my attention to things that could possibly be improved!
AF: And what does your grandmother think about you pursuing this?
LJP: This is, and has been, a tricky part of the project. My grandmother is struggling with her short term memory and is understandably protective of the space. She is becoming more comfortable with the attention surrounding the shed and is now at ease (or appears to be) when photographers come to visit. Although, this time last year, she did hide the keys from us!
This project was never meant to be for public consumption. It was simply going to be another sketchbook of drawings that would end up on the shelf in my studio with all the others. I think the organic nature of its fruition has been a surprise to myself and my family and I truly hope I'm doing something that honours my grandparents and the hard work of a generation in a small Welsh coal-mining village.