Gathering the threads of loss 

By Balbir Gill

One of the pieces that make up Collecting Loss, an online art project nominated for a Forces Avenir prize. Magnifying glass

One of the pieces that make up Collecting Loss, an online art project nominated for a Forces Avenir prize.

When Esther Kalaba and Karen Haffey first met years ago, each was trying to come to terms with the loss of loved ones. Little did they know they would be joining forces to create an innovative art project that would help people across Canada deal with grief.

Their project Collecting Loss: Weaving Threads of Memory has been selected by Forces Avenir as one of this year’s finalists. This Quebec awards program, honouring young people who have made important contributions to the community, is in its tenth year. Winners will be announced Oct. 1. Amongst the other nominees were film makers who worked with the Concordia Volunteer Abroad Program.

“We wanted to help educate people as to what it is to be with our grief and our loss and to show that there is change and life after losing the people you love so dearly. Sharing our stories is so powerful so there was an element of strength in collected stories,” explains Concordia alumna and writer Haffey (BFA 95).

They have received donations of clothing worn by deceased loved ones from over 100 people across Canada. Each garment was accompanied by a story from the contributor and reworked by textile artist Kalaba into something new.
“The transformation of the clothing is a strong metaphor for the transformation of the grief and the loss,” says Kalaba who is in her second year of a master's in art therapy.

“The reality is, from the hundreds of people I’ve talked to who’ve experienced loss, life is not normal again so you have to adjust to this new normal. It’ll never be the way it was before.” She feels that the process of taking apart the donated garments and reworking them into something new is highly symbolic. “It is a perfect metaphor to show how with the passage of time, these memories that were once this one item of clothing disintegrate and combine and get jumbled together and become something different.”

Haffey and Kalaba met at a bereavement group in Toronto; Haffey’s brother and sister had died due to a blood disorder and Kalaba’s brother had been murdered. Kalaba says it was when she went to his room and saw her teenage brother’s clothes in a pile on the floor that the reality hit her that he would never wear them again.

“Clothing is such a powerful reminder of a person and how they moved, their height and body structure”. When they opened up packages of clothing contributors donated, they were struck by how tangible the deceased person felt through the shape and scent of the garment. “Karen and I feel humbled that people have entrusted us with these very special items of clothing.” Kalaba also helped with the Art as Witness project discussed below.

They plan to have an installation in Toronto next autumn featuring art created from the garments as well as photographs of the original clothing and recorded stories by the contributors. Haffey says the collection is very life affirming. “We’ve called it Collecting Loss but now that I look at all the contributions and read the stories and know how people have responded, it has become for me a collection of life and celebration.”

Visit the project site "Collection of life and celebration"


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