Death: our destroyer, our savior

Just as the ancients purportedly believed that the earth is flat, people in our day believe that life, too, falls off the ends of itself. But life is not a cube, it is a sphere, like our earthly home.

In the summer of 2016, I painted in a 5-day intensive, at home, connected to the group in San Francisco on my computer via Zoom. The painting didn’t go at all as I expected. I should know better, it never does. But this was rather extreme.

On my first painting, I painted myself half above ground and half below. My dead parents and brother were lined up underground, barely recognizable as human because of how long they’d been there. My arms were out to the sides, and my torso was stretched open, my cracked heart half-exposed. There was a big white space next to me, which I kept open until I was sure I knew what to put there.

On the other side of my body, I painted a large cross above a gravestone with my initials on it.

Eventually, Death came into the white space. He was oddly shaped, as if he were pregnant. One arm held a knife. Then the knife was bloody. This surprised me. I painted red gashes in my side, thinking, gee, some people get to die in their sleep. I had never painted Death any color but the iconic black, but it didn’t feel right this time. I painted a blazing heart and a blue-and-yellow body. A cross above his head, and a look of surprise on his face.


Then a thought came to me, full-blown and unbidden. From the outside, Death looks like a shutting down. The person we had known, who was so real to us, is no longer recognizable, an empty shell. But something about painting Death stabbing me made me think of Death as creating openings, piercing the body with light. The light destroys the personality (what we think Life is), and the soul is set free.

Then I saw that there was a baby inside Death’s body. Thoughts came rushing through me. Of course there is Life in Death and Death in Life. They are as one, together. Duality is an illusion.

I’m just painting this whole time, letting forms and colors come as they choose. And of course I feel great, like I have stumbled onto something very profound.


In my next painting, Death is holding me. My eyes are closed, body at rest. Knives of Death’s light are piercing me. I feel completely safe. Death has wings like an angel, and light rays emanate from his shoulders. My body is electrified: lightning comes from my hands and feet. Then I see that Death is standing in a river, and I paint an undulating wave from one side of the painting to the other. I don’t know what could be in the water, but I’m not concerned. It would come when it was ready.

Then I sensed that the spirit body that Death was holding had come from a corporeal body below the waves. I start painting with red and black, the body in the casket. Black figures appear with their hands seeming to hold up the casket. At some point I have no more feelings or thoughts about what to paint. It’s as if I really am dead in this red and black watery grave. The underground part of the painting is so incongruent with the top part that my exciting insight about Death no longer seems to matter. I feel empty—not free, just … not there. I paint fire, crosses, a tiny earth covered with crosses. Black and red tempestuous forces sweep across the space. I become desperate. I had often felt like I didn’t know what to paint, but this was different. I was in a dark place, seemingly abandoned. But I had to keep painting. So I paint Jesus on a large cross, the iconic imagery of the crown of thorns, the holes in his hands and feet, the swatch of cloth covering his nakedness. Then red and black birds flying upward but with nowhere to go. It’s as if I had come to the end of my creativity, as if I had entered the Void, or the Void had entered me.

The afternoon session was almost over. My last strokes of the day were on the body in the casket: I painted a crown of thorns, holes in my hands and feet, a swatch of cloth covering my nakedness. Although noting that I was painting myself as Jesus, nothing profound came to me. I felt that the creative process (or the life process, or the death process) had usurped my understanding so completely that I couldn’t keep up, I had nothing to contribute. My images felt false or simply inadequate. Death was no longer something I could even speculate about. I had been so proud of my earlier insights into the Piercing Light, as if it were all so easy to explain. You could say I felt dead, spiritually.

My painting, which was not finished, now consisted of two worlds or feeling states, but I felt that I didn’t belong in either one, it was all beyond my capacity to express, or even guess at. I had painted Death many times over the years, and I now saw that it was always a concept to me. It’s not that the concept fell away and I now saw Death with clear eyes; there was no clarity at all. While we are alive, Death will always be a concept. I had thought I was seeing the truth, but I was only seeing another unreality, a piece of hopeful fiction. I had unknowingly painted the duality. I live in duality, there’s no transcending it through paint or prayer or anything else.

Still, I had to keep painting, so on the last day of the intensive I started letting some darkness into the top of the painting, where Death held my Pierced-with-Light self. It felt good. I knew I wasn’t in control, but if anything had dropped, it was my need to keep Death and Life separate and clearly delineated. Knowing that I was free to paint whatever came helped me calm down and not take it all so seriously.

I hadn’t slept at all the night before. But as I told the group in San Francisco, through my computer screen, I learned that I could paint on no sleep, and I could paint without thought or comfort or anything to guide my brush. I had taken a small step into a dark world that nonetheless was not separate from the light world, in some way that passeth understanding.

Some previous comments:


What an amazing post! It helped me understand my own process much better. Thank you for sharing.


Hello! Cool post, amazing!!!


One Response to “Death: our destroyer, our savior”

  1. Maria Mikhailas Says:

    Thank you, Mary!! I have some catching up to do!! Sending love and hugs, Maria

    Maria Mikhailas Maria Mikhailas Art 575.770.2635 Visit me at… IG: @mariamikhailas

    On Sat, Feb 16, 2019 at 7:39 PM http:/ wrote:

    > editorite posted: “Death: our destroyer, our savior Just as the ancients > purportedly believed that the earth is flat, people in our day believe that > life, too, falls off the ends of itself. But life is not a cube, it is a > sphere, like our earthly home. In the summer of 20” >


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: