The Art of Dying | Culture | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Arts + Life » Culture

The Art of Dying

Fabric artist Deidre Scherer


Published November 8, 2006 at 2:00 p.m.

Williamsville artist Deidre Scherer creates portraits of individuals approaching death, and tableaux of families gathered around a deathbed. It sounds morbid, but her works are in fact extraordinary and deeply moving. That's why Scherer is featured in Camilla Rockwell's documentary-in-progress about easing the end of life through music and art (see accompanying story).

Though Scherer begins with a drawing or photograph, the finished pieces are in fabric and thread. "I paint literally with my sewing machine and draw with my scissors," she explains. "I layer and work until I have a narrative. It pulls the eye in and speaks to the sense of touch," she adds, "the sense you get when you're looking at fabric: Your hand wants to go right out and touch it."

Though the images resemble, from a distance, drawings or paintings, it seems somehow appropriate that they are made with a homier medium, such as quilting or embroidery. "I am not a quilter, but every once in a while I get invited to quilt shows and I think, whatever," she says. Scherer, 61, does attend the major craft fairs, but her work has also been shown at more than 100 fine-art galleries and museums over the past couple of decades. Case in point: Her series entitled "Surrounded by Family and Friends" opens next Wednesday, November 15, at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Museum in New York. The show, comprising six life-sized tableaux, has been touring "for several years," Scherer says - as far afield as Japan.

Her images have also been reproduced in numerous books and magazines. She teaches her methods in her own book, Deidre Scherer: Work in Fabric and Thread.

Most viewers tend to have similar reactions to Scherer's work, she notes. "I was amazed at one man's response - a man - at a gallery opening. Immedi- ately he thought of his own mother, then he thought of himself, and then he thought of his daughter."

She describes another "jolt of comprehension" from a man who saw one of her images on the cover of a nursing journal. In five seconds he went from "yuck" to "this is beautiful," Scherer recalls. If looking at an old, wrinkled, sunken face is initially off-putting, viewers seem to quickly relate, in one way or another. And because the images are not photographs, she suggests, "People can bring their own stories to them."

Our culture has "a lot of weird notions around death, primarily violent . . . the idea of natural death is still taboo. It's unbelievable," Scherer muses. "We're uneducated, unprepared, unthoughtful about it. I think there's this enormous perception that we'll get cut down violently, or by some horrible disease."

In fact, statistics indicate that more than 80 percent of us will live a full life, Scherer says. She hopes that viewing her artwork - and Rockwell's film - will help "people walk away with a different type of ending." And, she adds, "Maybe they'll think about a different way of living."