I am the son of a funeral director and the grandson of a funeral director. I have always felt a special connection to the essence of death. I have also always wanted to be a writer and an artist. It took me many years, however, to find a way to expand my creativity beyond writing.
I grew up in a funeral home with cemeteries close by. We lived on a farm in a small town in the country across the street from a large old cemetery. There were also two more large cemeteries adjacent to the farm. When I was only five, before I started school, my father took me down to our funeral home, where he had a dead corpse on the embalming table. He said, “If you are going to be a funeral director one day you have to get used to death. The best way is to touch a dead body.” I began crying and saying, “No, I do not want to.” My father had been an officer in the army, he had fought in North Africa in World War II and received two purple hearts. He was a harsh man and expected to be obeyed. Even at five I knew better than to resist him for long. I braced myself, slowly went forward and hesitantly raised my hand and touched the dead body.
Until this day I wonder if what I felt really happened, or if it was just my imagination playing tricks on me. But I did indeed feel a strong electric shock go from my fingers up my arm, all the way to my heart. That experience changed me and my relationship to death. I always feel that Death floats over my left shoulder in the form of a female entity. When I am unsure of whether to take an action or not, I always ask Death. She usually says, “I could claim you any minute. Act now, so you have no regrets the day I do.”
I spent much of my youth helping my father pick up dead bodies and embalming them. I always loved to rove in cemeteries late at night. When you live that closely to death it would only be logical that you would see ghosts. I believe there is a spirit in each of us that lives eternally and lingers around the body for days after the body dies. I also believe that some ghosts linger on Earth for a long time. I believe I have seen and even talked to many ghosts in my life.
I have been a writer for many years. Yet I always kept exploring how I might express my creativity in other ways. I tried painting with water colors and with oils. I tried throwing pottery. I tried sculpturing with clay and with stone. I tried dance, singing and even musical instruments. By the time I moved to Virginia I had resigned myself to the fact I was a good writer, and just plain terrible at all other art forms.
Soon after moving to Virginia, I found a falling down cabin, not too far from the house where I lived with my wife Sofia. After visiting it I began seeing a ghost in the house where I live. He told me that his name was George and I had woken him up. He told me many details of his life story. I told him I thought he was a figment of my imagination. He said: “You have been wanting some special items for your new home’s altar. Follow me and you will find them.” I walked behind George’s ghost, into the woods where he directed me to dig in a pile of branches where I found a large conch shell buried. How it got there still mystifies me. Then he led me with specific directions to find a deer skull sitting by itself at the base of a pine tree.
After that I believed fully that George was real. I believe that the deer skull was a way shower given to me by George. It put me on the path of what would turn out to be a very curious way of finding my very own artistic expression.
A short while later I wandered in the forest around our house and found a boar skull and some deer skulls. I brought them home, and as any good husband would do, gave them to my wife as presents. Sofia, being who she is, almost immediately started painting them. I was hypnotized.
I knew of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings. I had seen cattle skulls covered in jade or topaz. But to just paint on a dead boar or deer skull was beyond intriguing to me. That night I dreamed of the ghosts of dead deer and boar. They told me in the dream that they were wandering lost in the forest around our house. They said their skulls were just lying about unattended. They asked me to paint their skulls and give them a second life. I woke after that dream on a Saturday morning. As soon as I had breakfast, I went searching for more skulls and found a fair number. I brought them back, borrowed Sofia’s paints, and began trying my hand. As strange as this all sounds, I felt I had found a new artistic way. A way that I could artistically express myself.
Over the three plus years we have lived in Virginia I have painted and crafted almost fifty skulls. Some of them have become very elaborate. Sometimes, while I am painting, or gluing things on them, I feel their ghosts are informing me how to apply the paint. I often take certain colors of paint out, and have ideas how I will paint or decorate a skull, but then I hear a voice or feel guidance. I end up painting with different colors than I had first chosen, or decorating in very different ways then I had planned. It feels to me that the ghost of the skulls tells me what they want the result to be. It is such a new and unique set of feelings I experience while I am working on a skull. With my writing, I often wonder how it will affect the readers. With my skulls, I paint only to paint. I paint for the ghosts of the skulls and for myself. It is the closest to a purely creative, detached state I have ever been in. What a gift these animal ghosts have given me.
I have always wanted to have an artistic expression beyond writing. I always felt a special connection with the essence of death but it took the special magic of Virginia to allow me to bring these two things together in a weird, wonderful and fulfilling way.