The Artists’ Grief Deck, created during the COVID-19 crisis, reveals the essential role of creative collaboration and art in helping individuals and communities move through death, grief, and trauma.
This article is part of our Collectivity + Collaboration series, a continuation of the ideas explored in Southwest Contemporary Vol. 5.
Adriene Jenik has vivid memories of early COVID-19 days, including the terrifying fear of the unknown that swept through many communities.
“I have friends who are still traumatized, because at the beginning there was so much we didn’t know, and things were shutting down and changing so rapidly,” she says.
In March 2020, the Arizona-based artist (who uses she/they pronouns) was part of a group gathered at Biosphere 2 in Oracle, Arizona, where discussions centered around creative responses to the ongoing climate crisis. Jenik had already created something called the ECOtarot deck, comprising cards with artwork and text she uses for climate-future readings reminiscent of traditional tarot practices.
Now, she’s also the creative producer for a toolkit called The Artists’ Grief Deck, a collection of sixty cards featuring artwork and prompts designed to help individuals and groups process grief and trauma, which was created in collaboration with myriad artists, caregivers, grief specialists, and organizations.
For some time, experiences of grief have deeply informed Jenik’s art practice and identity.
Jenik is an end-of-life doula, which includes providing comfort and support for individuals and families experiencing death and loss. According to the National End-of-Life Doula Alliance, it’s a role that can include providing “education and guidance as well as emotional, spiritual, or practical care.”
Her larger body of work includes durational performances related to recent American military actions. For The Sky is Falling in 2016, for example, they memorialized hundreds of deaths due to United States drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan by digging small holes in a pattern in the California desert, creating earthen mounds covered by small white cloths and stones.
The Artists’ Grief Deck grew out of Jenik’s conversations with Andrew Freiband, a multimedia artist based in New York who attended that same climate gathering in March 2020.
“One of the things I do is try to synthesize what artists are in their creative practice and their life,” explains Freiband. “Artists often get taught to separate those, and their unique way of knowing gets underappreciated and underutilized in society.”
In 2018, Freiband founded the Artists’ Literacies Institute, a non-profit based in New York City that engages artists in addressing complex issues such as social justice and environmental sustainability.
As co-director for the Institute, he’s played a critical role in moving The Artists’ Grief Deck forward, in part by convening collaborators and raising funds for the project, which has grown to include a website conceived as a living archive, The Children and Youth Artists’ Grief Deck, and a Spanish-language grief deck.
“This is a really concrete example of what artists can and should be doing in our society,” he says.
To create The Artists’ Grief Deck, organizers put out a call for artwork and written prompts related to grief, which yielded hundreds of submissions. As creative producer for the project, Jenik chose the particular pairings of art with text.
Every card has artwork on one side, and a prompt suitable for silent reflection or conversation on the other. Each prompt includes a unique theme, such as connecting with the body, distractions from grief, growth, letting go, living with loneliness, natural cycles of the universe, and connecting through rituals.
“We knew there were several important things to touch on, including grief and the feeling of losing control, the shifts in identity that happen with grieving, and how to recognize depression related to grief,” says Jenik.
Several artists based in the Southwest created art and/or prompts for The Artists’ Grief Deck, including Ashley Czajkowski, Angela Ellsworth, and Jessica Palomo in Arizona, and Molly Koehn, Hannah Spector, and Liliana Wilson in Texas.
The deck includes guidelines, which indicate that there isn’t a single correct way to use it.
The first 500-deck run, published in late 2020, went primarily to professionals working with people experiencing trauma and grief. After a subsequent print run, more people purchased the deck online.
In 2022, Princeton Architectural Press will publish the decks along with companion booklets, and they’ll be distributed more broadly through places like museum shops. A related app is also in the works, and there’s currently an open call for artists and caregivers who want to contribute to the evolving online resource.
Meanwhile, new collaborations inspired by The Artists’ Grief Deck, including one involving young climate activists, are taking shape.
COVID-19 concerns may be waning for some, but both Jenik and Freiband see an ongoing need for the toolkit devised through collective action, knowing that death and grieving continue to be a central part of the human experience.
“It’s been a great collaboration,” says Freiband. “Adriene is one of those artists who just sees a problem or an issue, and immediately thinks about the ways that artists can approach it with their unique capacities.”