Column: ‘Saying Hard Things’, Visual Artists Newsheet, May/June 2023

Visual Artists Newsheet
May/June issue

In my column, I discuss the role of vulnerability in my Art Practice. I talk about how working through grief became part of my art practice and, with it, saying hard, uncomfortable unpretty things. Saying Hard Things, page 13. Link to online edition.

Full text:

Saying Hard Things
“LIVING AS MATERIAL” just reading your article now, it’s beautiful. Would love to hear more of your thoughts on this, especially “living with transparent vulnerability”. Day Magee messages me on Instagram after the last issue of VAN comes out, having read my column, which ran next to theirs.
Living with transparent vulnerability, saying the hard, uncomfortable, and unpretty things… There is a short answer; how you live when you have nothing left to lose. When the worst has already happened, you arrive at a place where people’s opinions don’t matter anymore. Discomfort doesn’t register when crowded out by its louder siblings: grief, sorrow, and heartbreak.
Of course, that’s a somewhat glib response. There will be people in your life whom you care enough about to not want to hurt through your actions, and there is always something to lose, even if self-preservation is not high on your agenda anymore. What are those feelings that hold us back? Shame, embarrassment, fear of failure or being different, othered, beyond what is acceptable, and of making others uncomfortable. One of the motivations in making my work is the hope of creating a connection that negates these creeping feelings for someone else. If I can say the hard thing, you don’t have to say it, and you will know that you are not alone. For me, this artmaking has been a kind of “living as material”, where working through grief became working.
In the making, there is only yourself; it wasn’t until standing in the gallery before my recent solo exhibition opened that I realised other people would actually see the work, read the words I had written, and know. I had exposed myself. The predicament is wanting to reach even one person to whom this may matter, but in doing so, also reaching those I know personally. My realisation that they would see and read the work came with wanting to protect them from what was an unsanitised expression of my struggle with grief and my guilt of not doing widowhood ‘right’. From the exhibition, some works revealing this vulnerability are:
Letters from men who are not my husband (2017-2022)
I asked him to write me a letter, he said he would, but did not get to write it. After he died, whenever a man was interested in me romantically or sexually, I asked him to write me a letter. I stopped asking when I fell in love again.
I am discomforted, a bad widow for being romantically and sexually attractive and attracted to others. I am guilty of still being here, with a functioning body, without the mark of widowhood so visible as to repel others. In my life, I acknowledged the existence of these feelings, confronting them through the act of asking. The later
artwork gave this process presence and put it high on the wall, just out of reach.
On honeymoon with a man who is not my husband (2018-19)
We planned a honeymoon to Italy, which we did not get to take, as our wedding was brought forward on the advice of palliative care, and he died 19 days later. On our second wedding anniversary, I went to Italy with another man and took photographs with him there.
I see my face in selfie after selfie from a mini-break in Rome, my companion blackened out. I see my eyes tired and weary, pushing myself to be here and do this. The night I arrived I caught a fever; hot, sleepless crying that could be put down to germs picked up on a Ryanair flight but felt like bodily insurrection, saying to go through this was too much to ask.
The Boxer (2020)
I met a man who was a kickboxer. Looking to feel something other than my emotional pain, I wanted him to hit me. When he would not, I asked him to write down why.
For me, it was not an opportunity to make a piece but to have a real, momentary release from emotional pain. Taken alone, this could be called self-harm by proxy; being an artist, I examined my behaviour and turned it into art. Here is my depth of grief, my uncomfortable, unpretty feelings and actions made manifest.
Putting work like this into the world is not without difficulty. Making a new piece recently and writing the accompanying note, my boyfriend (yes, I have one, bad widow) said, “Do you want to say so much, baby?” Protective of me, he suggested some edits. I accepted them, for now, as I further interrogate myself about what I’m doing and why, considering how it affects me and those around me.
Am I trying to create the connections to have something positive come from a traumatic experience? Is it survivor’s altruism, being brave and saying hard things for those who cannot? Is this my fighting back so as not to drown, or have I nothing left to lose except my practice, and so everything goes into making? Apologies, TMI.

Neva Elliott is a contemporary artist based in Dublin. Her solo exhibition ‘How to create a fallstreak’, a body of work around grief and healing, ran at The Linenhall Arts Centre from 21 January to 4 March.