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  • Writer's picturemarti mcginnis

Shrouds: Artist Journey


Death and what’s after it have been a consistent element of my consciousness since my sister died from an inoperable brain tumor. She died in a hospital bed that had been set up in my parent’s sun room. As her breathing shallowed, a spiritual companion of the family showed up unbidden and he and my parents toasted her impending transition with flutes of champagne. That same night many family members experienced an interesting occurrence in our homes with no immediate knowledge of the toast and transition. Various things happened. A window slammed shut but there was no wind, a warm embrace was felt, things like that. For me, it was a cameo appearance in a dream where my sister said “Hey, see ya later, Puppy!”. (The sisters called me that early on.) As we compared notes the day following her death, it seemed Laura, or her spirit or essence, was allowed, or took the space to claim, a moment to say goodbye with each of us as she left this realm.

I took this evidence that whatever’s next isn’t a non-thing. Likely it is a next thing. So death doesn’t give me the willies like it does others. But it does offer a certain finality to this life. Thats’s why I completely upheaved my life plan after her funeral. I started working on a life path with way more intention. My vibrant, gun totin’, hound dog raisin’, forester sister died at age 31. Shit. Can. Happen. You better get cracking with the Living as soon as possible. Immediately, actually.

After Effects

So that’s what I did. And ever since I have lived mindful that this could all end right now. Or now. Or now. Or next week. Or maybe not for years. But you catch my drift. As a result I have spent a lot of time reading and researching what is thought about death and whatever is next. And that line of inquiry has lead me to ask what’s before life? And what is life? My art has reflected these questions though that doesn’t always look obvious. I use a lot of vibrant hues and lightly conceived figures to represent the “what is this” and “what’s next” of my ever-wondering inner dialogue.

I tend to rest the search with a deep understanding that Connection is the answer. Love and its many iterations. For me this is best represented with a liberal use of animals and upbeat life forms because humans are too close to home and create confusion in my understanding. Animals seem to embody a purer form of connection. They’re less burdened with the relentless teasing of existence and the branded “answers” of organized religion. Animals seem to be a friendly gateway to Bigger thought as they aren’t saddled with thought redirects like race, wealth and other cumbersome aspects of the human condition. I’m not the only one who has landed on this solution. Many cultures use animals to represent Very Big Picture thinking. Think of spirit animals, animal guides, stories about animals, icons, talismans, and even gods, goddesses and spirit guides.

Below are three drawings often seen as light fare but actually are evidence of me exploring these deep questions. (All included in my “400 Mornings” book projects", available on


The Love Particle

A seminal image of my thoughts on the essence of being as considered by science, religion and spirit.

At first glance may of look light and insignificant, but I assure you, a ton of thought, research and life lived has gone into this simple painting.

New Project

Recently I approached a local gallerist to get her thoughts on where I should attempt to show my newest work here in San Miguel de Allende. As we chatted I thought about what her gallery is doing. Lena Bartula‘s La Huipilista ArtSpace is dedicated to the many forms of creative expression that working with textiles takes. She focuses on the explorations of women. We parted and I went home determined to create a proposal I hoped she would find irresistible for her gallery. I’m like that. (see above)

I started drafting the plan for a completely new collection that would bring together the newer approach I was using with my paintings and tie in my lifelong commitment to pondering life and death. I landed on the concept of death shrouds. For starters they’re textile and perfect for Lena’s art space and secondly, I haven’t seen anyone work with the concept as a creative expression. This project was going to let me bring together some of life’s biggest questions with imagery that leads to lingering thoughts!

I brought the idea to Lena and she got behind it right away.


Death shrouds have been in use for millennia in many cultures. Generally they are a length of cloth that wraps around or enfolds a dead body. You’ve probably heard of the Shroud of Turin  (A length of linen cloth bearing the negative image of a man who is alleged to be Jesus of Nazareth.) And you’re undoubtedly aware that ancient Egyptians wrapped some of the important of their dead with many layers of cloth that we call mummies.

Here’s what Wikipedia says on the topic:

Shroud usually refers to an item, such as a cloth, that covers or protects some other object. The term is most often used in reference to burial sheets, mound shroud, grave clothes, winding-cloths or winding-sheets, such as the famous Shroud of Turin or Tachrichim (burial shrouds) that Jews are dressed in for burial. Traditionally, mound shrouds are made of white cotton, wool or linen, though any material can be used so long as it is made of natural fibre. Intermixture of two or more such fibres is forbidden, a proscription that ultimately derives from the Torah, viz., Deut. 22:11.


The Aha Moment

Traditionally these winding cloths or shrouds have been plain with no decorations. But I wondered “Why not decorate them!”. In fact, why not decorate them with thoughts on what’s next, symbols of where one might like to be headed and visual musings on what’s been enjoyed in this existence that may fill one with gratitude. And I was off and running with ideas poring forth. Immediately I knew I was going to explore images about:

• gratitude

• hopes

• wishes

• things to be remembered in the ‘beyond’

• people I want to find

• pets I want to find

• ideas

• questions

• quotes

• comforts

• transitional symbols, etc.

I realized what I was going to create would be excellent visual reminders of the certainty of death and that they could also be great inspirations to be placed in one’s life right now! As a symbol of mortality a shroud could represent one’s commitment to maximize life in the here and now. It can serve as a reminder to render your path with intention highlighting the choices you make on a daily basis that serve your intentions. In this way a death shroud can serve as a life shroud.

Shrouds Reconsidered

Hanging a shroud in a place in your home where you encounter it on a daily basis creates a healthy spiritual and practical reminder that this life isn’t forever and the here and now is the only guarantee. Having a physical reminder that depicts elements of your deepest thoughts on the biggest considerations we know sets in motion the way to make the daily choices of life carry more personally directed purpose.

A shroud is also an excellent place to store access information about last wishes and facts having to do with access to practical information about estate for those you leave behind. For example, you may leave the contact information for the person or people you have given access codes or passwords to an online service where individuals can spell out every single aspect of preparing for death to closing down’s one’s legal existence.  I use Everplans. More info on these types of services later.

Early sketches for the project

The pieces shown below will not be a part of the gallery show, but depict how the mind wanders as it contemplates a new idea. Who knows, maybe they’ll come to fruition some day.


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