In Richmond, a Shrine for the Living

For Richmond, Va. art director Ann Rudy, a class in narrative collage turned quickly into a cathartic experience.

In October, she signed up for a course at the Studio School of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, with instructor Chuck Scalin, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor emeritus.

“When I started, I was excited,” she says.  “In the middle, when I was working through the process, it got ugly.  But at the end, it all came together – it’s grown up and matured.”

Through the lens of a three-dimensional altar to three people she’s loved and lost, Rudy’s worked her way through tragedy and grief – and discovered beauty.

“On the surface it’s a portrait of them, but in a bigger sense, it’s a portrait of me,” she says.  “It reflects my feelings about these three people, by virtue of my relationship with them.”

Her chosen medium draws strongly on shrines for the Mexican Day of the Dead, assembled in that country in early November to welcome home lost loved ones for a day.  There, the altar is temporary. Rudy’s, though, is different.

“This is an all-year-round welcome,” she says.

It stands 24 inches by 24 inches, five inches deep, with three niches crowned by an arch and blessed by a deer, sacred to Mexico’s Huichol tribe of pre-Columbian Indians.  On the left is her father, on the right, her mother, and in the center, her husband.  Surrounding each are symbols of the things they loved while here.

There are the sun, the moon, a Mexican mountain, a coke bottle, a coffee cup, a fishing lure, a Tootsie Roll, a Hershey Bar, a paint brush, a few spools of thread, an abundance of pink and yellow roses, and a shaman’s healing stick clearly marked RRI KoMZ – an oblique reference to a secret society known as the Roto-Rooters International, Knights of the Mystic Zud.

In the niche occupied by a portrait of her father the doctor, a stethoscope-draped skeleton rests in a corner smoking a cigarette; next to a photo of her mother the artist is a tube of oil paint; below a color image of her bike-riding husband is a joyful skeleton straddling a motorcycle.  Above all three, a bare-boned mariachi band wails blithely away at two guitars and a fiddle.

“In Mexico, the skeletons usually portray their occupations, or the things they liked to do,” she says.

What began as an assemblage of photographs and writing became, at Scalin’s urging, a reliquary.  Then it was transformed into a means of dealing with loss and grief.

“Here, when we look at death, we talk about moving on and closure, which implies forgetting and putting aside,” she says.  “I like the Mexican approach – it’s not hands-off, but kind of embraces it.  When you do that, it’s accepting it, not shutting the door on it.”

Which is, of course, the final stage in the grieving process.

“I didn’t want it to be morbid or sad,” she says.  “I wanted it to be happy and joyful.”

And she succeeded.

She calls her shrine “They Are Now Resting in Peace with God.”  It’s part of a “Portraits” exhibit featuring work from students in Scalin’s class.  It runs through March1 at the Studio School Gallery, 2911 Grove Avenue in Richmond’s West End.  A public reception will be held this evening from 5 PM to 7 PM, with gallery hours Monday – Friday, 9 AM to 5 PM.

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