In February 2021, I lost my grandmother to cancer and found myself in a constant conversation around grieving, death, and ritual during a time when social support had been replaced by social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Within my artistic practice, I have been asking questions about how to have a public-facing conversation through art around the state of death and what constitutes death literacy, especially within a country that has not had the time to grieve the half a million people it lost this past year.
When the Art & Social Practice Program introduced the 100 Dollar Project, a commission-based project to invest in someone of our choosing, I immediately thought about Lucille Linville, an art undergraduate student at Portland State University. Within her work, Lucille was asking the same types of questions about death literacy—through the creation of a series of books called Dinosaur Death Books.
I first was acquainted with Lucille Linville’s Dinosaur Death Books while I was a graduate teacher’s assistant in the Advanced Drawing and Mixed Media class in Winter 2021 at the university. Within the class, she took prompts like Horror Vacui (The Fear of Empty Spaces), Plane Space, Unconventional Drawing, and Juxtaposition & Sequence and created an ironic and poignant spin on the objects she was producing. Through the allure of toys and the action of “play,” she introduced serious topics such as death to begin an exchange within the audience’s mind around the impermanence of life and the ebbs and flows of disasters. When talking about her work, she said that these objects were meant to be engaged socially—to be held, contemplated over, and used as conversation starters. When I asked her if she could see a future for these objects, I was surprised to hear that she wanted to engage more within a group setting rather than allow the objects to be displayed within a traditional art context. In this conversation, I ask her about her inspirations and influences around the topic of death and what she hopes to do after being commissioned through the 100 Dollar Project.
Shelbie Loomis: Lucille, what is worth talking about within this project that you couldn’t talk about before or yet?
Lucille Linville: I think, just really kind of death in general. There is a culture of avoidance, at least in a lot of the western world, around thinking towards death. And I think that it’s just an easy thing to avoid and not talk about, especially since it’s something that, you know, ideally happens to us much later in life. And so talking about death as a younger person is a bit taboo, and not something that you’re supposed to deal with yet, or have on your mind, or think about. I think that’s worth reevaluating. And I always wonder what it would be like if we talked about death the way that we talk about birth and pregnancy—how people are so open to talking about their experience with those things, but not their experiences with death or their ideas of it. I think a lot of that is fear-driven. The fear of the unknown, or fear of an end or change, or the end of a legacy, I guess, to something not being carried on, or being forgotten. That’s just worth reevaluating, because it seems a little bit archaic. Death is so much a part of life. And without it, there really can’t be new life in the same way. A lot of people think of death as this kind of ending point. I don’t see it as an end, but sort of a new beginning, as kind of cliché as that is.
Shelbie: It’s interesting because I feel like when I first engaged with you and this project, in a class setting, my impression was that you are very comfortable with having conversations around death, and you have a certain type of death literacy. I can see a parallel between death literacy and literally making books about death. Where does this death literacy come from? Can you give a little backstory about it?
Lucille: Yeah, my great-great-grandmother ran a multi-faith funeral home outside of Chicago, and she lived well into my lifetime. I knew her and could talk to her about these things when I was younger. She saw a lot of death in her lifetime—in her career and outside of her career. She outlived her husband and her only son and a lot of the people she knew.
She lived through almost all the wars of the 20th century, like WWI and WWII, while she grew up on a pig farm. There was just this kind of constant presence of death. And I think that it was much more familiar to her as being part of life. And she had a very matter of fact and blatant way of seeing it, and was very open about what she wanted to be done when she passed and how she wanted her funeral to go, how her possessions were to be split up, how she wanted to be remembered. And she was the only person who I ever experienced talking about death in that way. It just was not this kind of scary, enigmatic thing that we have to face. I think a lot of people fight against death because they do want to live and it’s a combative relationship, however it felt more symbiotic with her.
Shelbie: I hear you say that it almost feels like there has been some kind of shift, especially in our society, where we have an absence of conversation around death, an unwillingness to linger within it or address it culturally, which causes a distancing effect. And we don’t get to see it except for certain censored portrayals. I’m interested in how this conversation is being tied into a situation where we find ourselves in a global pandemic in which we have lost more than half a million people. Why is the conversation about death relevant now, since we have yet to consider that we’re a nation that is grieving?
Lucille: I think it puts the mass mortality going on right now into perspective and it’s overwhelming, especially since we don’t talk about it a lot. It’s easy to look at the numbers on a screen as a cold statistic. I think putting it into perspective is valuable especially in coming to terms with the fact that it’s happened before too. And, at least for me, just coming to terms with the fact that we’ve lost so many people, but that it’s a part of living in a world where diseases exist and natural disasters happen and though it’s disheartening, and we don’t want it to happen, it’s something that happens and will happen. And we might as well kind of learn how to deal with it, unfortunately.
Shelbie: Yeah, and that’s something that I appreciate about these artifacts that you’re creating with the Dinosaur Death Books. It almost serves as a visual means of creating perspective in a playful way—to see the larger picture of how the ebbs and flows of death throughout history could take the view from microscopic to macroscopic. In other words, taking an individual personal experience and expanding the horizon to include death on a larger scale like mass extinction. I think it’s an interesting topic to introduce within a kid’s toy.
Lucille: I’ve kind of struggled and keep going back to this notion, a “death is unfair” mindset. I lost a friend in November and she was only 22. She died of a brain tumor and that was hard. It felt just unfair. I wanted to just take a step back and think about it from a greater perspective, and to allow other people insight into that viewpoint. The idea of making it in a more playful, easier-to-swallow version was to ease into that conversation, I guess. Because when you put it on paper, millions of people are dying of COVID, and you know, my friend died at 22. It’s rough and it’s sad. But if you think about it, on a grander scale you have no control over how, when, or where you’re going to die—it’s unavoidable and it’ll happen to everyone. You’ve just got to be ready for it and accept it. I was trying to return to a point of acceptance and rationale.
Shelbie: As you’re talking, it makes me think differently about processing deaths in our day to day lives. We have these moments of clarity, where the existential dread becomes intense and it allows us to figure out how to almost create a coping mechanism—and not necessarily one that makes that dread go away. Making art out of grief allows us to have insight about feelings, like not having control, and coming to terms with that. And so do you think that through this process of creating, this has been a healing process for you? And would you envision this being similar for an audience in their response?
Lucille: Well, in making them, I was hoping that, even though they are made out of toys, which would be perceived as targeted for children, I would like to think that these objects cross the boundaries of age and can be used by anyone. I think that it was healing for me to make them and to have them around to look at and reflect on. I would love for other people to have the opportunity to do the same with them if they wanted to. I don’t see these as art objects that belong in a gallery, but more out in the public sphere. I can imagine these getting brought into more therapeutic settings too, to explain or explore death with people. And maybe even younger kids because it’s not such an in-your-face gory idea of death. Yeah, I think that I would like these to kind of be handled and experienced personally, and in a space where people can speak about their perspectives on death and not feel prohibited by a gallery space, or who’s around them, or other people’s ideas of death—it can be very much something that they experience on their own.
Shelbie: When you say that, what I’m hearing is, these could be used as conversation starters. Do you think you will facilitate sessions to engage people in conversations around death and dying? For example, creating a space where people are holding these books and you invite them to talk about what resonates or what stories come to mind. Would you imagine this being one on one, or with a larger or a smaller group? What do you envision?
Lucille: I envision one on one or maybe even a smaller group. I think between the size and the subject matter, that it would be more impactful in a smaller setting. With too many people, the books become too small and distant and the number of people would overcome the piece itself. And so I would like it to be a more intimate, smaller scale interaction with people, so it would feel more comfortable to be within themselves and have a peaceful experience.
Shelbie: I’m gonna pivot because I want to talk a little bit about the commission. I’m commissioning you to continue what you are doing but also to figure out what you would do with $100. How do you plan to use the $100 for this commission?
Lucille: Well, I plan on making more of these death books. My twin brother recently asked for one because he works at Child Protective Services (CPS). It’s a tough job. He also lost a kid on his caseload to natural causes a few months ago, and that was hard on him. And he wanted one to keep on his desk to help him and other kids that come through his office to have that conversation and a reflection on death. So I want to make a special one for him. He wanted a T- Rex, but honestly, those are harder. It’s easier to do the ones that stand on all four feet and it’s easier to deconstruct.
Shelbie: What do you envision in terms of site-specific areas?
Lucille: I could see this being part of PSU somewhere. Whether in the PSU library or The Institute of Aging through gerontology. I could also see these objects existing in a school therapist’s office, or, maybe more than one setting, but still reaching a broader audience. And I could also really just see these books living on someone’s bookshelf for when they’re having a hard time. Maybe they could make themselves a cup of tea and look through a dinosaur book and think about death and life and ultimately their feelings. This project has a lot of possibilities for versatility, and it’s not necessarily just a one-time conversation. It’s always an ongoing conversation with a community or with oneself.
Shelbie Loomis (she/her) is an artist and graduate student in Portland State University’s Art and Social Practice MFA program. She graduated from Santa Fe University of Art & Design with a Bachelors of Fine Arts degree in Studio Arts and currently lives in Portland. A self-proclaimed economist and sociologist, her art and career has engaged with finances and social issues around the elderly and death and dying. She is a member of American Federation of Teachers-Oregon and American Association of University Professors-Oregon.
Lucille Linville (she/her) is an interdisciplinary artist living and working in the Pacific Northwest. She will be receiving a BFA in Art Practice from Portland State University and has studied at a range of institutions across Oregon. Her practice merges mediums and methods to create engaging work that questions social standards, preconceived notions, and material limitations.
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