Barbara Bickel

Helen's Trees

Muted Colours of Grief

video by Barbara Bickel
soundtrack created by Richard Bickel

Film Screening & Discussion
April 12 2023 at 4pm PST
Hosted by Apocatastasis Institute

View the screening and discussion
View the video at LAIR Galleries

Helen’s Trees

von der Bickelheim Artist Residency Installation
Barbara Bickel with Helen Bickel
February 5, 2023
Victoria, BC, Canada

One great aspect of being an artist is to create anything you desire. I needed space to integrate the intense experiences of caring for my mom, Helen, during her last year of life. I embarked on an artist residency in her home for a month and transformed her bedroom into art studio. I named the residency the von der Bickelheim Artist Residency as my mom, brother Richard and I had already named our singing family the von der Bickelheim’s—playing off the famous von Trap family.

I love artist residencies as they offer focused time and space to just be with what wants to emerge. I had no plans for what I would do creatively beyond transforming my mom’s bedroom, going through her art supplies, artworks and house stuff. The result is a curated salon-style installation of 65 of Helen’s tree infused artworks, art altars and books created by me. Helen painted a lot and sold a lot of her art. This is about 1/3 of the art still in her collection. These paintings show what she loved and her growth as an artist—from her early years of oil painting to her years as a watercolourist. Each wall loosely holds a theme based on the content of her paintings. These are: winter, paths, rural buildings, character trees, water, leaves and birds. A few of her knitted artworks appear in the altars, 2 dolls and a knitted newborn sweater, hat and booties.

The first art I created is in her front yard. A Floral Spiral Labyrinth made from Helen’s large collection of artificial flowers. I have a long-time practice of making and walking labyrinths. Making and walking labyrinths is grounding and centering. I walked this path each day of the residency and invite others to walk it as well. The path begins with yellow roses emerging from an above ground root in the front yard tree. This tree’s roots caused a sewage backup where Helen was the first responder. I created this labyrinth as a way for us to make peace with the tree that had marked the beginning of my mom’s second heart valve failure. Unknowingly I made it on January 10, 2022, the one year anniversary date of the disaster.

I thought I would work with my mom’s art supplies during this residency. I did not manage to do this but I did paint one small watercolour based on the tree view outside her bedroom window. Much of my art emerged from art already begun in the years prior. For e.g., a canvas book that I brought with me to work on while I was with my mom, but did not have time to work on while she was alive. Early in the residency I embarked on a labour intensive journey of embroidering the story of my mom’s descent into the underworld into the pages of this book. The story, based on Helen’s words, will reveal the passing through of 7 gates based on the descent myth of the Sumerian Queen (goddess) of Heaven and Earth, Inanna, and her maid servant, Ninshubur. In this book’s story, Helen is the queen and I am the maid servant-scribe. The words I am embroidering are poetically arranged quotes from Helen. Her spoken words, I and my siblings wrote down in a book during her dying process. This cloth book will assist me to continue integrating and making as I transition back into my own life.

While taking care of my mom I completed knitting 2 maternal ancestral shawls created for a collaborative ancestral project I have been working on for over 3 years with healing artist Tanis Hugill. Helen helped me finish these shawls. I blanketed her with one shawl when she was in her death throes and covered her with it as she lay in her bed for 2 days of visitation. These shawls have become significant healing artworkings for me to process her death, inquire with and learn more about our shared ancestry. The shawls called me to do a performative ritual journey a few weeks into the residency. I wore one shawl and carried the other to a very long fallen tree in a forest near my home in Nanaimo. A tree I have come to know as Helen’s tree, a nursing log with her roots exposed, whose composting is regenerating the forest. I created a photo book titled Placental AfterDeath ReWombed that tells the story of the forest journey with the shawls. The forest journey was integrated into a poetic art video—which travels through time, knitting together ancestral memory, trauma, grief, regeneration, strength and love. The video Muted Colours of Grief is a collaborative piece with Helen—honouring our maternal ancestral lineage and my lived experience of Helen’s dying and death experience. The music that weaves through the video was created by her son Richard and her granddaughter Amy. The art-care journey is aided by Nature and arational processes of inquiry, such as dreaming and intuition.

Ancestral altars are created from different elements of the residency journey with Helen. Helen’s chair is draped in the placental afterdeath shawl, a uterus printed on cloth rests on the headrest. This chair is left empty for Helen to join the art open house taking place on the second month anniversary of her death. The central ancestral family altar includes Helen’s daughter, Janice, and her husband, Herman with lanterns to light the way for them to join us. It holds Helen’s ashes draped in an ancestral shawl and her grandmother Katherine (Leib) Walters white crocheted table cloth. The brass bell Helen rang from her bed, her glasses, knitted dolls and baby garments, and a syringe filled with liquid Haloperidol, a drug that worked to keep Helen comfortable in her dying process are nestled in the shawl. Helen was an artist who loved her home. Honouring her life as a creator of art and beauty is the prayer offered to her and her tree children through this art installation. As we remember her—she lives.