Grave Subjects: Emily Storvold on Art, Death, and the Afterlife

Fun shapes, bold colours–certainly terms that describe the visual creations of Emily Storvold.

Still, anyone close to her knows that under her more playful layer is a head brimming with philosophical rumination, and more specifically, rumination as it relates to existence. That’s probably why she reacted so positively when I found myself asking:

“Hey, you want to talk about death?”

“Ouch!” says Emily, after I’ve blinded her with the light of my phone’s flashlight (light at the end of the tunnel foreshadow?). I turn it off, finding my chair in the near dark of our living room. A candle flickers between us, casting circles on the ceiling. Our eyes are a little heavy, the music is slow, and the air around is us hazy with the weight of newly bought incense.

“So, you want to talk about death?”

“It could be interesting.”

The lenses of her glasses flash, reflecting the light of the candle’s flame. Death isn’t a new subject on our Friday-night roster. Both of us have waded through one philosophical implication after the other, especially in consideration of Emily’s recent brush. Still, as always, she surprises me:

“Did you know that sculptures sometimes kill people?”

I laugh in disbelief as she tells me that, yes, sculptures have indeed caused people to die. I myself couldn’t imagine dying by art, but Emily has other thoughts:

“You know, being killed somehow by my art…that could be okay. I’ll just be sitting in my studio painting and the canvas will just fall…or it could be a sculpture.”

Gruesome? We don’t think so. After some more discussion on the logistics of death BY art (could canvas smother anyone? Would the fumes be the final culprit? And no, at this time Velvet Buzzsaw was not yet a thing), I can’t help but ask whether Emily has created any pieces that remind her of her own death. She laughs and points in the direction of our kitchen.

“Well…the Cemetery.”

The Cemetery by Emily Storvold

Looking closely, several graves lie peacefully across a green field, but only one is marked with a date. It’s been hanging in our apartment since move-in.

“2073. I’ll be 80 that year. The same age as Maude when she chose to die.”

We’ve talked about this piece before, about what will happen just moments after our respective deaths. I, myself, have always been nervous about those moments. What will I be thinking as I leave my body?

“I’m pretty sure you won’t be thinking anything” she says, matter-of-factly.

“Blackness?” I ask.

“Well, I think Death is the end of our consciousness. And even though someone might say that matter, or energy…that something has to happen to it, returned to the earth in some way…I have to question that. I think the closest thing to “living on” is living for a while after death in other people’s memories.”

“And immortality? Would you want to live forever?”

“I’m very torn…” she starts, “but I think it could be extremely isolating. And I once heard, or someone argued that there’s only so much you can do. That if you do everything, you will eventually run out of things to do.”

I’m left wondering whether there are any works of art that have helped Emily navigate the existential crises Death-talk can sometimes bring; yet another topic we have debated in length: on the one hand, the optimism of death bringing weightlessness. On the other, the necessary fears associated with losing a grasp on one’s selfhood and of being literally…nothing.

“In high school I was also interested in Death as it related to the Holocaust. I remember finding this piece–Käthe Kollwitz’s Woman with Dead Child. Stylistically, it’s slightly religious—also of interest to me in art—but it’s the way she’s cradling her son, as if she is being wiped away. You can feel her sorrow.”

Looking at that work later, I see what she means. It is a portrait that says, “Look at what death leaves behind. I will not let you forget it.”

“Look at what death leaves behind. I will not let you forget it.”

“Are there any other pieces of art that remind you of death?” I ask, curious.

Emily puts her hand to her chin and looks into the reflection of our living-room window, mentioning in time Chagall’s White Crucifixion, and  Banu Cennetoğlu’s list of refugee deaths. To her, these works have in common the feature of representing those innocent who have paid for war with their lives.

“Yeah, [Banu]’s work being destroyed adds something else to it, too. Like a violence of some kind.”

Death. Violence. Art. Afterlife. Having covered most of our familiar topics, I ask Emily whether she’s ever imagined the place she’ll be buried. While someone else might have shuddered at the question, she looks at me through the darkness and paints a happy portrait:

“I’ve always liked the idea of being buried at the top of a hill. Closer to the sky, I think. Kind of like in the painting.”

Let’s hope we all get some rest.

Want to see more work by Emily Storvold? Click here.

Header Image copyright Jessica Barratt


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