The art of grief — brought up from the basement

What: The Basement Panoramas by Sandra Meigs

Where: Open Space

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When: Opens Friday at 7:30 p.m. Continues through Dec. 14

Home architecture and the human body have been linked from the beginning: The front door is how the home presents itself, windows are like its eyes to the world, the hearth is the heart and the back door is for putting out garbage.

So when artist Sandra Meigs began exploring her grief after her husband’s death, it makes sense that she went to the basement.

“I think we often project our psyche onto spaces,” Meigs said in an interview. “I spent so much time in the upper interiors and I thought, well, nobody ever really deals with that hidden space.”

The results of her project span the walls of Open Space gallery: Four 45-feet-wide paintings in monochrome that bend traditional basement architecture into living spaces, with arterial piping, breathing vents and restless characters.

The Basement Panoramas followed a year of creative stagnance for Meigs, after her husband, Paul Winters, died from cancer in 2011.

“I went through a year where I was kind of paralyzed in terms of inaction, in terms of my art. And I came out of it feeling completely transformed, like I wanted to make a work of art that dealt with that experience,” she said.

Grieving, she said, is not dealt with publicly in western culture. “In other cultures, it’s so open and part of life,” said Meigs, who was born in Baltimore and has taught at the University of Victoria for 20 years. “So that’s what this work became for me.”

The first panorama she created is all red — the colour of a body’s interior — and inspired by her own basement. The basement is in a house that she and Winters bought in anticipation of his retirement. However, Winters wouldn’t live to move in. From the beginning, even before his diagnosis, Meigs said she was fascinated with a huge rock at the centre of the crawlspace. She began photographing and documenting it before the project even began, and it takes centre stage in the painting as well.

“I think about that one as dealing with mortality itself, the idea that lifetime is limited and when you’re grieving, you become very isolated within yourself.”

The next painting, in royal blue with gill-like shapes, depicts the stage of learning to breathe again. The painting is inspired by Mohonk Mountain House, a retreat near the Catskills in upstate New York.

A bright yellow panorama is filled with restless energy and is peopled with all the “lost souls” who can’t find sleep. Inspired by one of her sister’s basements, it shows the state of insomnia.

“I couldn’t read, I couldn’t make art, I couldn’t settle my mind,” Meigs said.

Staged in front of it is an installation — a robot cloaked in the same yellow moves noisily around a platform. The fleet of rotating robots, called Bones in Gold Robes, were inspired by a vision Meigs said she had while meditating of a golden figure moving toward her.

Finally, the grey panorama, another sister’s basement, is where Meigs finds closure. It’s filled with reflections — split down the middle, the left side is filled with representations of life and appearance, the right is death and disappearance. A spine across its middle joins mirrored scenes above and below. At the centre is a vortex, where all sides spin together.

“I think that, for me, depicts transformation,” Meigs said. “That state where it’s like, OK, I’m a new person now, I can move on.”

asmart@timescolonist.com

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