Loss and the Soul Tree of Life

July 06, 2020

Loss and the Soul Tree of Life

As a child, I spent hours throwing a ball against the brick wall of our home in Denver. This was until my Dad prohibited my new obsession, for fear of damaging the brick.  As is the nature of youth, I, of course tested that rule.   I was then sent to my bedroom with a warm behind, and without dinner.  I will forever remember the lesson that with repeated trauma even a brick wall can fail. I will return to this later.

Over the last few of years my wife and I have experienced the passing of many family. First, my wife’s mother lost her battle with brain cancer.  In October last year I lost my mother as her ninety-year-old body finally wore out. Then, in the new year, my wife lost her Dad also at the age of 90. Feeling that life’s challenges often come in threes, we thought nothing else would happen, but my cousin, unexpectedly passed in his sleep a few weeks ago, at the tender age of sixty-four in Colorado.  Such is the nature of life, but loss of a loved one leaves a hole in your life.  Loss of so many in a short period of time leaves a crater.

The Covid 19 pandemic we are living with will cause so many other people to pass.   I understand its part of the circle of life, but the rate at which we are all experiencing these deaths is unprecedented. When so much pain and inexplicable loss encompass our lives, how do we make sense of it?  Life is so fragile, and the time we get to experience it, is far too short for too many.

On a sunny day this March, I took some time to reflect on this.  How could I use my art to heal and grieve? I decided to look at the gifts each person I lost had given me.  I asked myself, what was the unique essence of each individual?  My mother-in-law, Gigi, had taught my wife love, compassion, caring and empathy.  Characteristics I cherish in her.  Next, I was forced to deal with my conflicted relationship with my mother. I knew she loved me, but we had many conflicts. After talking to my cousins, I learned that the parenting skills she had learned from her parents were also passed to each of her siblings and my cousins also had a lot of challenges growing up.  No parent is ever perfect, and raising children is a challenge.  There is no instruction manual.  My wife’s Dad was a very successful Ad man, with an MBA from Harvard. He loved to eat fine food and was known to imbibe. Think of the character in the series Mad Men and he fit the picture. His lack of planning and taking too much risk left him with few resources when he died.  He reinforced my plan for saving for the future.  Then I lost my cousin Rick so unexpectedly.  He was like a brother to me.  What a fabulous father and man.  Caring, smart and fair. He loved life and family. All of these essences are what defines the soul.

With all this loss it felt like I was running headfirst into a brick wall. To deal with this loss I relied on Meditation. I then turned to art as a way to help me heal.  I asked myself the question:  What remains when we lose the vessel that we call our body? All we have left is our soul.   Our soul doesn’t die as it reflects the blueprint of our lives.  How could this art work resonate with my losses and  the losses we are currently experiencing around the globe with Covid 19.   

What does that look like?   I’ve  had several ideas, but 2 resonated and led to this work. One was the tree and the other was the brick wall. 

Life and a tree.  With each experience in life, we grow, and we create more branches that are based on our experiences and challenges. 

Likewise, life is also like building a house and protecting it with bricks. We start with a foundation and then we build walls we cover with a surface to protect it. One of those surfaces we use is bricks.  They are strong when they are laid together with mortar. But, as I learned as a child, it is fragile and can fall apart with trauma (my ball throwing from my childhood).  A brick wall evolves one brick at a time just like one life event building upon another to form the whole soul.    

I combined these two metaphors into the present work. I made this work in glass as the process of fusing glass is similar to growth and fusing the lessons together into our souls.  I also wanted a panel that would also reflect the light. Lastly the glass is fragile just as our lives are.

There are 8 blocks of textured steel grey glass powder that are applied on the surface of this piece.  They are arranged as branches of a tree or bricks in a wall. Each block is made from several different types of glass with texture.  They are fused to a layer of amber glass that floats on the clear background. It is framed with a pink glass border giving it a feminine presence. The amber color of the central glass gives it warmth.   

The 8 blocks of glass powder represent the contents of the souls of those who have passed.  There is order and they will never be forgotten.  The glass panel is mounted on stainless steel tubular rails.   Light passes through the glass panel and it reflects colors on the canvas below the glass. Depending on the light that hits the glass these reflections will change. Just as our lives, it is never static.

With the creation of life,
God forms our individual souls.
As we grow and develop, we savor the passions and challenges of life.
With time, we all say goodbye to our life vessel
But the souls that we have created will live on forever
Etched In the soul trees of life.

Fused Glass, Glass Powders, Stainless Steel, Canvas and acrylic
22x22 1/4 x 5

Perhaps this will be the beginning of new series on how to deal with loss.  It is my attempt to heal and to bring meaning to this thing we call life.  Whatever the case may be, producing it has helped me heal from the powerful pain of losses of so many. I hope this will also bring solace to all who have lost a loved one with this Virus pandemic.  Thier souls will live on and they will be remembered in eternity in everyone's  Soul Tree of Life.


Al Heilman

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