Two hundred and fifty nine

Ars Moriendi; The Art of Dying

2011 by Joanna Walsh
Wellcome Collection

Considering Joanna Walsh is an illustrator it is no wonder that she chooses to illustrate reality — not drawing life, but articulating it in a way that seeks to tell its story. Ars Moriendi is a drawing Walsh created for the Wellcome Collection based on her work with patients at Sobell House Hospice. Staying in a room next door to a woman who was dying, Walsh visualises the life she overheard through the wall — “sometimes she watches TV, sometimes she talks to herself, sometimes she is in pain. Her dying presence has necessarily become part of my life”. Walsh’s work is not critical, nor is it overtly tragic or lamenting; it is quietly observational and reflective — reflective of life overheard and imagined, as the images of imagination became part of her own. Drawing white on black gives the work an imaginative, fluid nature, as if the components of next door have crept into the darkness of a thoughtful mind — the objects and actions of the drawing fuelled by what is overheard; how often have any of us pictured what is happening next door, illustrating the picture in our own minds. Walsh visualises this more affecting and difficult overheard life with the uncertainty that any of us feel towards realised death, groping for pictures that have the clarity of a white line but are still little understood in the dark. Her drawing is beautifully clear, each line engrained in black, sounding out the images of a life that changes very little. Yet her drawing is far from stationary, the lines are fluid with life themselves — stretching to form leaves reaching towards the sun, whirling in the pattern of the woodgrain and looping to form the tube of the drip that rests on the arm of the patient Walsh identifies with. In drawing so inquisitively Walsh confronts an image many of us try to forget, accompanied by the familiar feeling of wanting to understand and empathise with an experience unknown.

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