Be Our Guest: Bearing Witness

In Art Projects, Fine Art Photography, Guest, Inspiration, Memory-keeping

We are very pleased to welcome Dawn Surratt as our June Be Our Guest blogger. Dawn earned a B.A. in Studio Arts from the University of North Carolina in Greensboro and a Bachelor and Master’s Degree in Social Work from the University of Georgia. Her years of work with dying patients in hospice settings is the backbone of her imagery combining photographs with photography-based book structures, installations, and objects as visual meditations exploring concepts of grief, transition, healing and spirituality.

Her work has been widely shown and is held in private and permanent collections across the United States. She is a 2016 Critical Mass Finalist and a 2018 nominee for the Royal Photography Society’s 100 Heroines.

She is a full time artist living in rural North Carolina with her husband. You can find her work on Instagram at @dawn_surratt or on her website at dawnsurratt.com

When I retired from working as a hospice social worker a few years ago, I wasn’t sure if I would ever turn around and look back. The work that I did with dying patients and families for the prior 22 years was sacred, profound and overwhelming at times. I needed time to understand how this work had changed my life and all the many ways it filtered into me and shaped me as not only the person I am, but the artist I had become. As I began to make work again, I slowly realized that every bit of art I was making was tied to my hospice social work experience. It shaped my values, my worldview, my relationships to myself, and impacted how I visually see the world.

One of the very first hospice patients I ever had the chance to get to know was a slight, frail woman who chain smoked cigarettes. She had lived a rich life and I loved hearing her tell stories of how she had come over from Europe on a boat with her family when she was a small child. One day she leaned close to me and told me that I should write a book. When I asked her why, she replied that I carried people’s joys and sorrows in my heart and she reached over and gently touched my collarbone. Many years later, I created a body of work called Sweeping the Graves in attempt to tell those stories and to honor the many souls who I had known over the years.

The title of this project was named after The Ching Ming festival which takes place in April every year in the countries of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. It marks the annual tradition of honoring ancestors by the sweeping of their tombstones, ritual offerings and burning of joss paper. I chose metaphorical representations rather than literal interpretations of death to make the stories more universally relatable.

I continue to hold the many stories of infinite grace, wisdom, and grief in my bones. Bearing witness to people’s end of life journeys has forever changed me and continues to influence me both personally and creatively. This body of work has been a way for me to metaphorically sweep off the graves of those many souls; to honor their presence on this earth and to thank them for allowing me the privilege of bearing witness to them during their most intimate and intense time of life.

Considering material items have long held importance in the grieving process as transitional mementos of memory and comfort, there are handmade objects that serve as tangible representations of familiarity that connect to memories. The photography based installation pieces are used to create quiet spaces for reflection and meditation.

There are quotes and perceptions from patients and families bound in a handmade book to offer as contemplations, as well as a memorial piece that invites people to tie a ribbon to the image as a way of remembering their loved ones.

Thank you for allowing me this opportunity to share my work.

Do you want to Be Our Guest?  Leave us a comment below with a link to your blog, Instagram account, or other place you post your images.  You can also add a hashtag to your IG images: #viewfindersio_beourguest.

See you soon.

xo lucy

3 Comments

  1. This was such a lovely post to read this morning. Thank you, Dawn, for honoring the stories of your patients and, even more importantly, thank you for the work you did with hospice patients over20+ years. I witnessed the deaths of my brother and father due to cancer and know how harrowing it can be. To know that you are honoring the stories of those who have similarly suffered is a great comfort.

Submit a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.