Christopher Campbell Gardiner ties some string around a box in his artist studio.

Christopher Campbell Gardiner working on one of the objects in his studio. Photo: Adrian Halter (Halter Media)

Through a collaborative art project, this visual artist worked with parents whose children with disabilities had passed away to help them process their grief.
3 min. read

Parents of children with disabilities face many challenges: providing specialized care; worrying about the child’s safety, health and future; and feeling isolated from the community, with few people to turn to who understand their struggles. When the child passes on, the grief is intense and unending. “The love felt for their children is unmeasurable, and maybe that is because children with life-long disabilities are not valued in our society,” says Elisabeth Scheepers, facilitator of Families Experiencing Exceptional Loss (FEEL), a support group for those mourning the loss of children with disabilities.

Saskatchewan Beach artist Chris Campbell Gardiner has an affinity with these families, as he has a foster son living with complex disabilities. He felt his art practice, which takes objects of anxiety and seals them in vessels, could help them process their grief. Until recently, his practice has focused nearly exclusively on his own anxieties. “I’m not afraid to get naked, to be vulnerable. I’m not afraid to go places where people are afraid to go. I’m attracted to those places. I’m hopeful that it leads people to the belief that healing is possible,” he says.

With support from an Independent Artists grant, Campbell Gardiner collaborated with four families in the FEEL group to create individualized pieces of art around the loss of their child. “After I told them what I do, there was a sense of hope, a lightness in the room, something they couldn’t give words to or have the poetry to describe. I was offering a simple process for them to engage with,” he says.

Golden-coloured boxes lined up in a row.

The final FEEL projects. Photo courtesy of the artist.

He asked the families to provide an object, such as their child’s favourite toy, an autopsy report or another meaningful item, and place it in a small box. Campbell Gardiner covered each box in fabric, stitched it closed and sealed it with multiple coats of paint. Only the families know what is contained within. “There is a transformation inside the box, where ideas, feelings and hopes all come together,” he says.

Campbell Gardiner gave the finished works to the families at a private ceremony in his studio on October 27, 2019. “I did not know these families prior to this project, but now consider them like extended family to me. It was a deep honor in having my request to share in their grief be met with such love and fellowship. I was changed for the better through this exchange and was told that my work made a profound difference in their lives. Closure as a gesture, containment of grief and the effort to reconcile complex emotions through ritual, both private and collective brings about enchantment,” he says.

With the permission of the families, Campbell Gardiner hopes to show the works in a public gallery at some point to honour the memory of the children. “I want us to give a gift to the public, so they will be able to see how tragic, hard and complex this terrain is.”

He says the project would not be possible without public funding, as the artwork is not for sale. “I create abstract, non-commercial work. SK Arts has been nothing but a constant support for me, like a lighthouse. I’m off, adrift, and I’ve been able to rely on this place to keep my practice afloat.”