Art to heal grief – one woman’s 100-day project

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By Sarah Halfpenny

As poet and singer Leonard Cohen famously wrote, “There’s a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in”. For American woman, Janet Willis, the broken hearted grief she experienced upon her mother’s death in 2019 was channeled into an art project that has brought light to thousands around the world.

A legacy project with a difference

When Janet took on a 100-day artistic challenge with a group of her graphic design co-workers, she would not have been able to foresee the widespread and emotional impact it would have.

The exercise to create something new on a daily basis coincided with her mother’s death from cancer, and as she struggled with her grief, she developed a poignant legacy project, using the pressed and preserved flowers from her mother’s funeral, which she began posting to her JRWillis100Days Instagram account.

Beginning in late August 2019, Janet crafted a different artwork for each of the 100 days and found healing in the process. Using the flowers as the medium allowed her to express her talents in an artistic tribute to her mother that was both achievable and honoring.

Even the simple act of holding and arranging the flowers has been therapeutic, not just for Janet but also her sisters – in fact they’ve had several family sessions creating with their mother’s funeral flowers, including while on vacation together.

Going with the flow

Janet sees each piece like a beautiful gift and is happy to surrender to the creative process, seeing it more as receiving a message rather than aiming for a specific outcome.

The spontaneity shines through in her exquisite and whimsical pressed flower scenes, which often bring viewers to tears.

As Janet explains, “I don’t start out with an idea in mind. I pick a few petals that I think are interesting for the day and I put them down on the page. Then I respond to those by repositioning, removing and adding as I go, seeing different things along the way… until the piece sort of reveals itself… it’s quite a surprise to me each day!”

Sorting the petals by shapes, colours and textures, Janet has no idea when she starts what she’ll come up with. A glance at her Instagram feed shows a diversity of characters including an elephant, a chicken, dogs, insects, a mother and child, a sassy model, a turtle and even a mermaid, as well as striking patterns and form.

Sharing her work on social media has touched others, many of whom are grieving themselves and who say that Janet’s artwork has made them smile when nothing else could. Janet herself has found grieving to be a journey full of different emotions and admits that sometimes it’s been hard to function. As a result, the 100 artworks haven’t been done every single consecutive day, but rather fitted in around her life and how she has been feeling.

Embracing the ephemeral

None of Janet’s images are kept – after she’s done, she takes a photo then sweeps them back into the pile, ready to be given a new lease on life in another picture.

For Janet, the wilting flowers quickly became a powerful symbol of the impermanence of life.

Much like people, while they started out fresh and vibrant, they have slowly aged. Also like people, however, their usefulness does not diminish over time – they simply transform and can come back as something completely different. Even the broken stems, leaves and petals have value and beauty – as Janet found, you just have to look for it!

While imitating life and loss, Janet’s project has also generated positivity, turning one of life’s saddest moments into something that makes people happy each day.

By pouring her soul into her Instagram account, Janet’s art has become the messenger of overwhelming love and of remaking life. She may feel like she lost a piece of herself when she lost her mother, but she has grown a garden of empathy and unity that stretches right around the globe.

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