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A Woman Uses Art To Come To Terms With Her Father's Death

A month after her father died of sepsis, Jennifer Rodgers began creating maps.

She took a large piece of paper, splattered it with black paint and then tore it into pieces. Then she began to draw: short black lines mimic the steps she walked in the hospital hallway during her father's hospitalization.

"It was a physical release of emotion for me," she says.

The layered pieces document her father's seven-month fight with sepsis, a life-threatening condition when the body's response to infection causes inflammation that can destroy organs. They also represent her feelings of uncertainty and grief.

We talked with Rodgers, a high school art teacher in Philadelphia, about how she created the artworks. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

<em>Strata of Memories</em>
/ Courtesy of Jennifer Rodgers
Courtesy of Jennifer Rodgers
Strata of Memories

Why did you choose maps to visualize your father's illness and death?

I found a book called Geography of Loss by Patti Digh, and that has been my guidebook. A map organizes a place in a certain way and we use them to get us from one point to the next. My maps have become a way to get from a point in my life where I was very much grieving to another point where I came to a resolution with some of it.

In Strata of Memories, gold plays a key role. Why is that?

The gold comes from the idea of using a precious metal to heal. The Japanese have an art called Kintsugi that is over 500 years old. Instead of taking a bowl or mug that has been broken and throwing it out, the pieces are put back together with gold. The gold heals the broken piece of pottery and actually makes it more precious and more valuable.

<em>Last Day</em>
/ Courtesy of Jennifer Rodgers
Courtesy of Jennifer Rodgers
Last Day

In The Last Daythere are a series of lines that appear to be intentional.

The day he died we spent a lot of time in the waiting room outside the ICU and it was a lot of walking back and forth. I wanted to mimic the physical steps I took as the whole day was unfolding, almost as a way for me to honor that day.

[The red is] symbolic of sepsis and what it did to my dad's body, and watching someone die from sepsis, which was truly devastating.

Is it difficult to look back on these images?

Rodgers uses abstract shapes of home and movement to evoke her father's journey to living in a hospital in<em> Liminal Space. </em>
/ Courtesy of Jennifer Rodgers
Courtesy of Jennifer Rodgers
Rodgers uses abstract shapes of home and movement to evoke her father's journey to living in a hospital in Liminal Space.

To look at them, not so much. To talk about them and actually think about what was happening at the time, that is definitely difficult. At the same time it feels very healing to me. I don't know any other way to get through what became the most challenging time in my life. I didn't know any other way than to make art about it.

Rodgers has three pieces on display through June 10 at the Henry Gallery at Penn State University, Great Valley Campus.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Meredith Rizzo is a visuals editor and art director on NPR's Science desk. She produces multimedia stories that illuminate science topics through visual reporting, animation, illustration, photography and video. In her time on the Science desk, she's reported from Hong Kong during the early days of the pandemic, photographed the experiences of the first patient to receive an experimental CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease and covered post-wildfire issues from Australia to California. In 2021, she worked with a team on NPR's Joy Generator, a randomized ideas machine for ways to tap into positive emotions following a year of life in the pandemic. In 2019, she photographed, reported and produced another interactive visual guide exploring how the shape and size of many common grocery store plastics affect their recyclability.