Studio.Public: A Conversation with Angela Craven
Angela Craven, a Denver-based abstract artist, operates as a “conduit for strength and healing” through her work, using art as a means to reach a larger community and help others work through the grief process like she herself did years ago.
At the heart of her work is the function of art as a way to process loss and change, which stems from her experience with infertility. While trying to begin a family with her husband Matt, Craven learned that she was infertile, meaning that as hard as they might try, a family from biological birth was not in their cards as a couple. Speaking and getting to know Angela more, I have seen how this loss has sat with her, but by working through her own grief process, she has created both an emotional bridge of growth, as well as a career in helping others come to terms with their own forms of loss.
We spoke about the ancient Japanese practice of kintsugi, a process through which broken pottery is repaired with lacquer that is mixed or dusted with precious metals, creating stunning veins of gold, silver, or platinum throughout the broken work. Operating in the same way, she strives to create work that captures both the ugly, dark parts of loss, as well as the strength that can come from understanding it. “That’s the part that I want to communicate. That the processing of things is ugly and beautiful at the same time.” Rather than trying piece together something in the way that it originally was after a breakage, this means of repair honors the cracks, faults, and moments of breakage, showing the beauty of what is holding the pieces back together.
“For me, it’s more about living with it and honoring it more than anything else.”
One of the ways in which Craven uses her power to reach a broader audience is through her current project that was inspired by artist Elle Luna. Elle Luna created a 100 Day project that started on the same day around the globe via her Instagram following, and though Craven started her project with the group, her personal stance on what it means to process loss has allowed the project to slowly grow and develop along the way.
After posting on Instagram asking for personal stories, using guided questions such as “What has grief been like for you?” and “What is one word or story that described your experience with grief or loss” she began “100 Days of Loss and Remembrance.” Stories began flowing in, and as each story was poured over, a new mark got added to a collective painting.
“Over time, over the 100 days, I would have this huge community painting that I could then cut into 100 pieces, and send a piece of the painting to everyone that contributed, and it may not be their literally section of the painting but, they’re part of a bigger community because there is grief in infertility and infant loss and miscarriage.
All that stuff has so much taboo around it that people isolate themselves and they suffer much longer than they need to because they’re not connected to the idea that ‘You’re not alone’. That is just such a powerful idea on so many levels in so many different subjects. So that was my goal with it: to make people with those types of loss [come together], and not just women, though it has become all women, but I’m trying to get more men to contribute to it too, because it’s a human issue, it’s not just a women’s issue.”
Growing proactive with the project she also sought out stories herself, turning to blogs, articles, and first-person accounts of grief, loss, and infertility, anything that would provide a human story. This seeking out of stories has brought her to think about loss in a broad way as well, looking into the personal struggles with infertility in lesbian relationships, as well as what it means when a surrogate for gay men losses a child.
“These things that we suffer alone, we don’t need to be suffering alone.”
The first half of the project was consistent, adding a mark each day based on a personal story, but Craven said, “it just felt wrong to do it in 100 consecutive days because the stories are so much more. They are so much more than what I’m hearing and what they’re contributing to this project …to do that right in a row felt like I wasn’t honoring the space around everything I don’t know and everything that they’ve experienced, so I started to spread them out a little bit.”
In addition to providing space for the community contributing, she found a need to create space for herself as well as the person taking in all these stories of loss. Much like what a therapist goes through when listening to their clients, Craven began to experience secondary trauma associated with this project, which was a warning sign for her that she needed more personal space throughout this project. Self-care is a large part of helping others heal, and without that personal care, there is no way a sustained practice can be created. Space is needed for the individual so that they can remain present and create space for others.
“It also feels like a big responsibility too. I want to capture their words in the right way and I don’t want to re-traumatize people, but I also feel strongly that you have to feel things to get through them and heal from them, so I have to separate myself from that idea of helping to fix or heal anyone and just make the space.”
Now slowing down the process, Craven is able to read, reflect, and paint with intention around the stories, and has began to feel herself grow from the process, along with her collaborators.
“That’s when you know that you are working on something that you should be working on, when everyone is getting something out of it.”
Her website features each day broken down, showing the new mark, as well as a short excerpt from each story, also functioning as a beautiful display of her artistic process.
Craven’s work spawns from words. Text, ‘sound bites’ from books, phrases on small scraps of paper, and conversations all create a base for her to build upon. Using an old trunk as a sort of sketchbook, she writes, collages, and creates under paintings with these tokens of text, using charcoal, traditional materials, and mixed paint in pastry bags to write and create her base.
“After I’ve built it up I start responding to it more intuitively” with large sprawling strokes of color, lines and repeating forms, layering more text as she creates. Sometimes conversations get lost, are illegible, or can overlap, which is one of things I greatly admire about Angela’s work. She is incredibly talented at teetering that line between language and mark-making, creating text that is abstracted and blends in much like the text within a Cy Twombly painting.
“I’ll look at the words as composition and have a conversation between the painting and myself, playing with what emerges when I put the mark of the word down, and seeing what that creates. Especially with something like a pastry bag, when you’re writing with it and it’s dripping and there is other things that are happening in the drips and the swirls, it becomes something different.”
Her skill with text may be a development out of her own writing practice; being an avid reader and writer, Craven has kept a bullet journal for roughly five years now. She uses this as a place to reflect every morning, writing lists of what she is grateful for and why, doing her practice of “Morning Pages”, something I myself also partake in, and setting an intention for each day.
“I know it feeds my artistic practice as well. It weaves its way in through intention”
As well as maintaining an art practice and a writing practice, both her and her husband have created lives around their creative passions, her husband being a metalsmith working out of the 40West Arts District. Their ability to do this has come from creating functional works, as well as getting creative with their talents. Craven uses her experience as a former user-experience designer to teach classes and workshops as well as design a custom commission process for clients who have experienced pain through loss.
Craven’s grief commissions start with a personal story, “I’ll start with ‘Tell me whatever you want to tell me,’ and usually that turns into so many things they didn’t even realize were on their mind, and then it becomes really intense because they are bringing up stuff, so we stop and just sit with that. Then we’ll come back to it maybe a week later.” Over the course of a few conversations, Craven interprets their story, the things that keep them going, and what they have said through an “emotional, energetic communication.”
“There is just so much magic in the process of it that I feel like the painting is just never going to capture. It’s just the process, and the painting happens to be a tangible outcome of it all. My goal of it is that we both gain strength out of the community of the conversation.”
She aims to be a very small piece of the entire process of healing and going through the process of grief. Even for Craven, just painting wasn’t the end of her journey, it just became another venue to release and heal.
“Grief in general is intangible. It changes shape and space over time. I don’t think that it’s a destination that you get over. It is felt in so many different ways, not just the loss of a person. To me, grief is about loss and change in general, and it is an intangible experience that we make more intangible, particularly in the US, because we don’t have a lot of ceremony around it. We don’t really let people experience grief or be sad, [we don’t] let them have their time with it. So I feel like I am trying to facilitate, in some small way, letting people come back to themselves and let them realize they are actually warriors for going through this.
“You can survive hard things, you can get through hard things and be okay, probably even thrive because of that situation … It’s a sad thing but it’s also this seed of strength and energy.”
An interesting intersection between creating space for others, creating work full of passion, as well an enacting business as an artist, Craven has been able to help a few dozen families through her grief commissions already. But much like the 100 Day project, leaving time for herself is important when making this work as well. She states, “I haven’t done a single one this year, it’s already April. And it feels right.”
“I hope that people feel the transformation of it, and there is a lot to unpack there. I don’t want to communicate, ‘Just make sure everything is optimistic and wonderful all the time’, and I definitely don’t want it to feel that way either, but I do think there is beauty in transformation that is beautiful and happy and strong and warrior-like.”
Now working on two new bodies of work both rich with metaphor, Craven is on the rise in the Denver arts community. Her new works focuses on the development of ghost towns along Route 66, which arose out of allowing them to be preserved rather than torn down, as well as a material investigation with joss paper. Otherwise known as ‘ghost-money’, this paper is used in Chinese culture as a way to bring abundance in the afterlife to those who have passed.
Along with these two new projects, Craven is continuing and finishing up her 100 Day project and is currently seeking more stories that showcase the male perspective of grief, as well as funding to create a book documenting the process and publishing the stories that have been submitted. With the funding she plans to frame and present each person who contributed with a piece of the collective painting upon completion.
If you have any questions about the project, or are willing to provide your story, reach out to Angela Craven directly via her website, where you can also find more of her work, as well as on her Instagram, or by visiting her studio at GRACe in the RiNo Arts District.