Claudia Biçen, an artist based in San Francisco and London, spent the past two years interviewing and sketching hospice patients. She was convinced, she said, that the dying could help answer the question of how to live.
The result is a new multimedia exhibit, “Thoughts in Passing,” featuring nine sketched portraits and brief audio narratives in which the patients reflect not only on what it’s like to be dying, but on the lives they led.
The exhibit, completed in recent weeks and which will be shown in San Francisco, has already generated a passionate response. It is likely to be shown in other cities, and can also be seen online.
“Doing this felt like shining a light into this very dark, scary area for me and I’m sure for lots of people,” Biçen said in an interview. “It’s made me feel in my life more. I’m more in each moment.”
Born 30 years ago in London to a mother who brought home orphaned kittens and puppies for foster care, Biçen often held the animals as they died, and she grew accustomed to “the idea of death being close by.”
She earned degrees in psychology, philosophy, and anthropology before romance brought her to San Francisco, where she sketched portraits of family members. The work earned the attention of local galleries, but failed to deliver lasting satisfaction. Deeper wisdom, she thought, might be found in subjects facing death.
Biçen asked Bay Area hospices to find patients to sit for portraits and reflect on life and death, and in 2014 the first candidates emerged. She met several times with each, posing the question: What does it feel like to be dying? They had never been asked the question, they told her, and they had much to say.
She retreated to a studio, where she surrounded herself with photographs of her subjects and audio recordings from their meetings. Just 400 words would make the final audio cut. In the portraits, she would embed words taken from fragments of their conversations.
One subject, Jenny, is an artist herself. Written on her blouse are allusions to time spent locked in a mental institution with the criminally insane. In her audio recording, she tells of a childhood of being kept in an attic by foster parents, the terror of shock therapy, her later discovery of art, and the peace she found in it.
“I wonder about people who never ever know high peace,” Jenny says. “And I felt lucky that I knew. Little old nobody me could get high peace.”
Biçen’s pencil sketch of Jenny will hang in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery starting March 12 — a significant achievement for an artistic project, but one that doesn’t in itself speak to Biçen’s more spiritual achievements.
Experiencing her exhibit, even online, is like stumbling onto an exquisite, futuristic cemetery: portraits that capture the subjects’ essence; spoken words that distill their feelings on life and death; written words that hint at experiences that shaped them.
On screen, the portraits fade to black before their voices go silent, leaving viewers to confront their own reflection on the screen as patients offer their final thoughts.
The exhibit begs the question: How will you be when the time comes?