‘All Sorts of Sorrows’: Processing Pandemic Loss in the (Virtual) Gallery
by Esmé Hogeveen
Back in early December 2021, I remember speaking to a friend—outside and at a distance—about the upcoming year. Exhausted by personal and familial health issues and impatient for change, I expressed a desire for “2023 to just start already.” “You mean 2022, right?” my friend asked. We laughed. I had meant to say 2022, but given the devastating news parade of 2021, a year that was arguably overburdened with naive hopefulness, the prospective distinctions between ’22 and ’23 seemed moot. The meaning of the future, while always technically un- fixed, seemed to have shifted during the pandemic. Once a horizon for optimistic projections, lately, at least for many, the future has come to represent challenge and increased risk of loss.
In certain contexts, loss manifests as more literal or acute, such as the death of a loved one or the sudden impossibility of pre-pandemic plans. Other absences feel more amorphous, such as the abrupt or gradual diminishment of pre-COVID habits, pleasures, or so-called freedoms. Despite best efforts to pause, notice, listen, or share, most people lack sufficient tools or distance to appreciate its full scope; the compounded volume of grief today is, if not historically unprecedented, perhaps unparalleled in terms of real-time visibility on a global scale. Cognizant of an abundance of heterogeneous forms of grieving and a paucity of spaces to collectively process and discuss their impact, artist and curator Regan Shrumm became interested in grief’s influence on contemporary art practice. In Summer 2020, as an assistant curator at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (AGGV), they worked with colleague Amy Smith, a community engagement coordinator at Legacy Art Galleries, to create Collective Grief, Collective Futures. Jointly supported by the AGGV and Legacy Art Galleries in association with the University of Victoria, the program took the form of three free Zoom workshops for emerging artists in late 2020, each led by a different artist mentor.
In winter 2022, I spoke over Zoom with Shrumm and Estraven Lupino-Smith—a multimedia artist, political ecology researcher, and one of the Collective Grief, Collective Futures mentors—about the program. “Even long before COVID,” Shrumm told me, they had been “eager to talk about mental health in the context of the art world.” Observing various colleagues minimize the pandemic and some of the inequities it exposed motivated Shrumm to develop programming that addressed the intense grief they suspected others were also feeling. Given Lupino-Smith’s attention to grief in their art and academic practices, including recent research into basket weaving as a therapy for WWII soldiers’ PTSD, Shrumm immediately thought of them as an ideal potential workshop mentor.
The three workshops were intended to be self-contained and thematically discrete, though the organizers were pleased that a relatively consistent cohort attended—the majority “students in their early twenties.” In addition to Lupino-Smith, Ghinwa Yassine and Kemi Craig also led sessions; each shared a short presentation about the role of grief in their work and then invited participants to discuss the pandemic’s impact upon their own practices. Lupino-Smith’s session was titled “Grieving Losses” and focused on grief in connection to oppressive structures, while Yassine’s workshop, “Imaging New Ways of Work- ing,” considered “curiosity and fearlessness as important factors in moving past trauma and grief and towards the lifelong journey of healing,” according to a write-up in the AGGV’s magazine.1 Reflecting the reality that pandemic-era grieving has not only centred COVID, but also responded to the BLM protests and surrounding events of 2020, Craig’s presentation, “Looking Towards the Future,” addressed African diasporic grief in connection to certain roots of Afrofuturism. The discussion portion of Craig’s workshop also explored broader visions of collective grieving and futurism. Mindful of the weight of grief upon mentors and attendees, Shrumm and Smith anticipated how the workshops might flow better if facilitated by a third party. The AGGV hired K.P Dennis, a Sierra-Leonean, Afro-Caribbean activist and former Youth Poet Laureate of Victoria who works across theatre, language arts, and film, and has had extensive experience facilitating within arts and organizing settings.
As someone who didn’t attend, these vast thematic scopes and wide-ranging potential for participant engagement struck me. I was curious—did Shrumm, Smith, Lupino-Smith, and the other mentors start out with a single, shared definition of grief? And does community arts work require a hyper-specific focus, definition, or framework to be “success- ful”? “I don’t think we ever formally discussed or tried to come up with a single definition of ‘grief,’” Lupino-Smith replied. “Same with ‘healing,’ too,” added Shrumm, continuing: “I think we were in agreement about the wide range of grief that it felt important to think through. From death or death in terms of queer experience and feeling unconnected to your family to smaller things like the end of an acquaintanceship, we realized grief was an expansive and surprisingly present feeling.” Lupino-Smith and Shrumm are both ardent readers of Rebellious Mourning: The Collective Work of Grief (2017), a collection of grief essays edited by anarchist activist Cindy Milstein. It begins with a quote that Shrumm and Lupino-Smith found resonant: “We are, at present, swimming in a sea of grief. That sea includes death, but it is also so much larger, encircling all sorts of sorrows.”2 The notion of grief and grieving having fundamentally unfixed identities felt potent and informed the program’s active engagement with a wide range of loss. Shrumm and Lupino-Smith attest that group discussions allowed participants to consider distinct experiences of grief and mourning without collapsing or conflating wider contextual factors. In part, they credit Dennis for grounding each workshop by sharing a set of community guidelines, frameworks that helped support intention and sensitivity to nuance during the conversations.
Still, I was interested in whether the discussions resembled DIY group therapy or had ever become challengingly digressive or awkward, as conversations with groups of arty strangers sometimes do. “That didn’t really happen,” Lupino-Smith said. “We managed to avoid a grief dump.” Shrumm clarified: “We wanted to give everyone a chance to focus on their own work and think through the theme of the session. So, after the mentor artist spoke, [the emerging artists] could give a short presentation of their work or they could just debrief the things going on for them, such as ‘I’m staying at my parents’ house though I never thought I would move back. I have no art supplies. I have no room. I don’t feel like doing anything. I’m in a limbo state.’” I inquired about the value or purpose of having non-professionals guide conversations about participants’ real-life emotions and mental health. “I think the real benefit was accessibility,” Shrumm replied, citing “the fact that the Canadian government hasn’t made it a free part of our health care.” Shrumm also noted stigmas associated with therapy, and counselling psychology’s colonial dimensions and its intersections with abuse faced by queer, disabled, and other historically under-represented communities. Shrumm and Lupino-Smith clarified that neither is necessarily opposed to quote-unquote professional healing, grieving, or mental- health supports, but simply that the AGGV project operated differently. “Before there was counselling, what was there?” mused Shrumm semi-rhetorically, then continued: “There was community and creating things together, be it cooking, weaving, or quilting, and having these conversations while doing those activities, which were often really a way to debrief.”
I wondered what was achieved by circumventing more conventional supports. In the context of Collective Grief, Collective Futures, the answer seems connected to the fact that mentors and attendees alike used their art practices as quasi-bounded frameworks for analyzing grief’s impact. Talking about loss and mourning via reflecting upon artworks and art-making helped create a non-hierarchical space for sharing. Shrumm likens the energy of the sessions to a quilting bee, wherein the purportedly primary activity of sewing and “keeping your hands busy” allows participants to divulge personal narratives and partake in mutual vulnerability more comfort- ably than if under a direct spotlight. To this end, though the sessions emphasized better understanding one’s own and peers’ art practices—ostensibly a skills-development opportunity—the bigger-picture aims remained intentionally loose in order to respond to the expressed needs and interests of the participants and to factor in evolving global and personal contexts.
Of the attendees’ motivations, Lupino-Smith remarked: “People were there to wrangle vast and hard-to-wrangle ideas of grief, let alone [analyze] the feeling or the process of grieving, and to just connect with other people. I think being able to connect with art as the centre- piece helped the conversations flow.” We discuss how an art practice framing may have helped certain participants feel less self-conscious about participating or less avoidant toward potentially intense emotional content. “I think if people had seen Collective Grief, Collective Mourning as a peer-to-peer group, even if you didn’t call it therapy, for discussing grief during the pandemic, I’m not sure the same folks would have joined or shared,” Lupino-Smith commented. “In some ways, I think it mimicked what group therapy is supposed to, which is put a bunch of people together and let their nervous systems coregulate, but instead we got to talk about our practices, which ideally for most of us is also a place to digest and work through things.” Here, Shrumm added that “the commonality that was shared” in people’s personal experiences and the artwork they were “working on, or had worked on in the past, became a special way of making connections. Victoria is known for being a weird, isolated arts place, and it can be hard to meet people and create intimacy around art projects, especially online.” Learning that a few of the participants continued to meet informally and continue the conversations after the sessions concluded excited the organizers.
Over the course of our conversation, I came to understand that Shrumm and Lupino-Smith’s shared idea, for now at least, of a “future beyond trauma and tragedy”—a quote from the Collective Grief, Collective Futures description—remains intentionally unformed. At first, I’d been skeptical about whether the project’s immense purview, including pandemic-induced and pre-existing personal grief and cultural and historical traumas, could avoid subsuming important detail and nuance. However, I grew to appreciate Shrumm and Lupino- Smith’s assertion that the workshops’ eschewing of firm definitions or taxonomies of grief—and of “the future”—was key to their rich potential, and maybe even ultimately beside the point. A word that didn’t come up during our conversation was “comfort,” but it seems that a strong impetus for this programming was to provide comfort and witnessing to individuals during a time of great isolation. This kind of work could, Shrumm concedes, occur outside of an explicitly arts-focused space; however, they had ties to the AGGV and Shrumm is, they acknowledge, an advocate “for using what spaces and resources you have access to.”
Over the course of the pandemic, artist participation in community work and mutual-aid projects has been on the rise. In the current cultural moment, questions about defining social praxis versus activist work can sometimes feel pedantic, yet there’s something fascinating and arguably quite urgent underlying questions about the boundaries of art, social work, activism, and associated professional and anti-hierarchical delineations. The answers to some of these queries may impact the development of more sustainable or anti-oppressive forms of grief work or even have practical implications for future funding and resourcing strategies. For Shrumm and Lupino-Smith, Collective Grief, Collective Futures represented one means of beginning to, as Shrumm put it, “find a little bit more commonality between the many forms of grief that are happening.” As the pandemic wears on and grief inevitably proliferates, one hopes dialogue about grief programming will serve to enhance tools, formats, and capacities to support loss under the aegis, at least when effective, of art.