PEORIA — While death is a pervasive theme in Bethany Carlson Coffin’s artwork, it is softened by beauty.
Based in Peoria, Coffin teaches art at Bradley University and Illinois Central College. She will be exhibiting her artwork Jan. 11 through Feb. 15 at the Contemporary Art Center of Peoria. Coffin works primarily in 2D formats, creating highly detailed drawings which take many days to complete.
“I see drawing as a way to be connected to something,” said Coffin, while sitting in the studio in the upper level of her Peoria home recently. “When I create these painstaking projects where I’m trying to render every hair or hole, I’m taking the time to appreciate the subject. Most people wouldn’t take that time. I'm cultivating this time with something.”
When Coffin was in graduate school in New Mexico she began “Liminal Eye,” drawings of wildlife killed by motorists.
“When you think of roadkill, there’s an indignity to it, but I would try to turn it into something beautiful,” said Coffin. “I think I wanted to just appreciate the nature of this animal who wouldn’t let me get close to it in life. I felt it was a chance to appreciate it.”
Coffin used a subtractive process for that series, first covering a board with many layers of charcoal and fixative. She used Dremel tools and sandpaper to expose the lighter layers with a precision which rendered each hair in the lush fur of her subjects. Though her subjects were dead, it’s not obvious in the drawings, which feature only portions of the animal. Many of the drawings are circular.
“I really liked the ritual of laying something to rest, making it beautiful and preparing a specific space for it to go. I saw it as a way to memorialize it and appreciate it,” said Coffin.
In "Fathom," another series, Coffin explored the ceremonial and psychological aspects of grief. The series speaks to the fact that the loss of a loved one is often difficult to comprehend. Coffin created installation works which reference the ceremonies that often follow a death. Flowers, wilted and dried, were used in several pieces, including a lushly-detailed drawing on clayboard.
A newer series of drawings explores celestial bodies. Coffin is currently working on a piece about the so-called “zombie star” which exploded twice (the equivalent of death for a star) in 60 years.
“I know very little about things like that, but I like to investigate,” said Coffin.
One work in the series shows the moon’s pitted surface, scars from a long life.
“They are magnets for debris, and the marks they leave are gorgeous,” said Coffin. “It’s related to the idea that life and scars can create beauty.”
Death and other difficult realities came to Coffin early. She was 6 years old when her father died of cancer.
“My art has always been centered around some sort of loss,” she said.
It’s a fact Coffin and husband Kyle have in common. He is also an artist who also explores mortality, his wife said. The pair met in graduate school in New Mexico, and came to central Illinois so Kyle could enroll in the mortuary science program at Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg.
“It was the practical decision. I wanted to teach, but he didn’t,” said Coffin. “After his father died unexpectedly, the idea of going into mortuary sciences just kind of occurred to him. He kind of saw it as an art form, a means of celebrating this person. He saw it as an artful gesture.”
Today Kyle works for a local mortuary and makes artwork in his spare time in his basement studio.
With Kyle’s profession, death is a more overt part of the couple’s daily lives than for most people. But it's not depressing, said Coffin. Death is a part of life. Only in recent years have people become more insulated from that fact, making the inevitable more difficult when it happens. It's far healthier for people to talk about death with their dying loved ones — it creates an important memory for when that person is gone, she said. And while losing a loved one is painful, it can provide powerful perspective to those who remain, said Coffin.
“When you suffer substantial loss, it causes you to look at things differently — maybe better. I feel like having those experiences has enriched my life.”
Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.