Peter Bruun is an artist, writer and curator living in Damariscotta, Maine. In this article, he introduces and shares excerpts from Bibliography, his 2022 online project tracing his emotional journey from pain to healing in the aftermath of his daughter’s death from an accidental overdose in 2014.
Bibliography is an online exhibition I worked on for years.
More than once I doubted I could complete it. I did not know how to bring the layers to life.
When we go through profound loss, it feels large. How to tell that story?
(Stunned. Bewildered. Blasé. Shaken. Dizzy. Euphoric. Serene. Melancholic. Nostalgic. Altered. Shattered. Disaffected. Abnormal. Confused. Ordinary.)
For me, stumblingly.
I don’t think you would know that, viewing, reading, and experiencing the exhibition.
In the thick of things, life can feel impossible. My daughter was ill and then she died, and somehow I had to go on: how do I even move my legs? I had a loving marriage for thirty years and then something was different: how can that even be? My life became increasingly unrecognizable as my own: who is that in the mirror?
And yet here I am, and only in hindsight is there any arc to this story.
It took so long to find it . . . to express it . . . to weave my art and words into something cohesive.
To build Bibliography.
It’s a demanding show: it asks you to look, to read, to listen; to think, feel, and reflect. But I believe if you take time with it, it will give something back. There are layers.
For me, making Bibliography has delivered release and relief, for in confronting the grief, pain, and confusion haunting me in the wake of disasters, I find myself free of those hardships’ disabling grip: I can bear my sorrow, and joy is no longer elusive.
My story is finally shaped, and here I am: whole.
Chapter 1: The Quickening
I make my trek to the water’s edge two miles from home, the promise of spring in the light air. I sit, pull out my lunch, and read my new book, a collection of essays by Leslie Jamison.
There you were: an arrival, a cry, the beginning of another world.
Nostalgia for my Elisif: such promise, so much pain.
My thrill at her birth (more than thirty years ago now) rendered by Jamison’s words. From them, my drawing: a seed becomes a child, her fate her own, flowing like a river.
(There she was, before she was not.)
Chapter 3: Amy (Elisif)
I would have loved to hear Amy Winehouse sing sober.
Leslie Jamison (who I’m reading again today) had also been lost to substances for a time. For her, it is no leap of imagination to Amy (to Elisif).
Like she’s been air-dropped into a moment she can’t possibly fathom.
A cloud’s shadow skitters by. Looking up, I think of them as a trio of raging brilliance: Amy the singer. Elisif the artist. Leslie the writer (the survivor), her prose elegiac.
Drunken stumbling under the broken tower of her beehive, her body barely holding up the weight until it wasn’t, until it couldn’t any longer.
That’s the moment I draw: her beehive, swaying in purple and black.
(I would have loved to see you draw sober.)
Chapter 4: Elsewhere
To Peter, who has been elsewhere.
This, the inscription from Mark C. Taylor to me in the copy of Field Notes from Elsewhere: Reflections on Death and Dying. In his book, he writes of his own near-death experience, and where it brings him.
After such a journey nothing, absolutely nothing, remains the same–everything must be reconsidered and reevaluated. Family, friends, foes, colleagues, values, ideas, work, play, success, failure are no longer what they previously seemed to be.
I toss my apple core aside. The ocean is different today: frothy, like the aftermath of a storm.
My daughter has died, and I am elsewhere.
(My drawing, puke-yellow and green; all teeter and fall.)
Chapter 9: Love Doesn’t Die
Autumn. Ochre needles carpet the forest floor and browning leaves cling to trees. I sit again at the shore, lunch in hand. Low silver light dances on the water’s dimpled surface as jittery red squirrels leap from branch to branch gathering cones for winter.
I have come so far; endured so much.
I read once more: Merrit Malloy’s Epitaph.
Love doesn’t die,
So, when all that’s left of me
Give me away.
In the soft light of day I exhale, and know everything is okay.
Image at top: Peter Bruun, “The Quickening” by Leslie Jamison, watercolor, gouache, pencil, and ink on paper, 15 x 22 in., 2020 (photo: David Clough).