Sinead Dinneen and Katie Verling are friends and arts practitioners curious about illness and death. We have experienced life-threatening cancers and live with ongoing medical problems. We developed Kicking the Bucket (KTB) as a creative, humorous and thought-provoking participatory project on illness, dying, death and grief based on our personal experiences.
Ten individuals signed up for the KTB initiative; they shared curiosity and more than a little trepidation. Guided by Sinead and myself, Katie Verling, they produced writing, paintings, sculptures, coffins, masks, funeral cookies and audio-visual pieces inspired by their experience.
The group included three practicing artists – Pauline Goggin, Ruth Wood, Alison Kerrigan; an art researcher / lecturer – Dr Tracy Fahey; an art teacher – Pat Boland; two social workers – Margaret Haugh and Maire Walsh; a psychotherapist – Donna Curtin; an arts and therapy researcher / administrator – Holly Cowman; and a social scientist / thanatologist – Dr Jennifer Moran Stritch.
Deeply personal issues are hard to talk about; we are afraid of exposing ourselves, and we are afraid of upsetting others. Sinead and I have experienced loneliness and isolation as a result of our health. We have discovered that by speaking openly and honestly we can help ourselves and help others to talk about their fears, and maybe even to develop compassion, and get solace from these conversations.
Our aim with this project was to encourage conversations about illness, death and grief with our families, friends and in the wider community.
The core objective of the project was to look at ways to talk about death and illness in such a way that the sick and the grieving amongst us would experience more compassionate care.
Sinead and I mined our own health and emotional experiences, as well as our arts practice and research, as a basis for the project.
Sinead is a visual artist working in multimedia and focusing on arts and health subjects and is an inspiring art teacher. I, Katie, talk, write, commission, produce and mentor based on my interests in philosophy, medical humanities, literature, music, visual arts, and a former career as artistic director of Glór.
Kicking the Bucket was an exploration of human existence through creativity, culture and conversations; it was not intended as a therapeutic project (though it may have had therapeutic consequences for participants and listeners). So, while KTB brought up a lot of deeply personal memories and experiences, the participants were supported to direct these into creative expressions in a supportive environment.
Each evening began with a presentation on an issue relating to death or illness, for example:
- Good and bad funerals and burial rituals
- How death and illness is mentioned or discussed (or not) in our communities
- The Victorians’ interest in death as seen in the ‘gothic’, in literature, jewellery, memento mori etc.
- Comparing Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illyich to Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety
- Irish funeral traditions; the wake, funeral garments etc.
- Hospices and palliative care
These presentations prompted lively discussions and personal accounts from the participants.
The second part of each evening was devoted to working on ideas for creative expressions to present in the public exhibition at the end of the project.
To establish the cultural and artistic context of the Kicking the Bucket project, basic techniques in working with clay were introduced. Fewer than half the participants had a visual arts background; therefore, the first two classes focused on using clay to form funeral objects – coffin shapes and urns. This developed a sense of creativity in the group and allowed the participants to chat with ease as they literally got their hands dirty. It plunged the participants directly into making and talking about funerals, coffins, cremations and rituals.
Given the broad range of interests and skills in the group, participants were encouraged to discover a medium to express and communicate their personal interests. Visual art works predominated: paintings, sculpture, mixed media and multimedia installations, including audio, audio-visual, culinary and interactive works. Also included were two text-based works.
As ideas emerged, Sinead and Katie mentored the participants to refine the concepts. Opportunities for peer-to-peer learning were encouraged and developed.
- When Breath becomes Air: A public exhibition featuring the work of all the Kicking the Bucket participants. The exhibition included paintings, sculptures and 3D mixed-media work, installations, audio-visual and audio installations, and text.
- Kicking the Bucket – the radio documentary: Broadcast on RTE Radio 1 on Saturday 26 and Sunday 27 November 2016. Available on podcast: http://www.rte.ie/radio1/doconone/2016/1119/832639-kicking-the-bucket/
- Compassionate Cities International Summit and ‘Making a difference, measuring the difference’ conference, Limerick, October 2016: Kicking the Bucket was invited to exhibit a reduced number of works at this summit/conference.
- International Psycho Oncology Society conference in Dublin exhibited work by Sinead Dinneen and Ali Kerrigan and a presentation by Katie Verling based on the Kicking the Bucket initiative in October 2016.
- Invitations to show the Kicking the Bucket exhibition in arts and health venues around Ireland
Sinead and I spoke weekly and met regularly to evaluate the sessions and to plan for the upcoming workshops. We also discussed concerns and insights into each participant’s contributions and progress. From this, we developed new strategies and introduced artists’ work and relevant concepts to the participants to support individual work.
Kicking the Bucket set out to investigate – using an arts and creative approach – how to encourage conversations, and to develop a comfortable curiosity about illness, death and grief. It is not an academic study; we did not set out or seek to collect quantitative data. Our evaluation is personal, based on the quality of conversations we have with friends and strangers.
Following the broadcast of the radio documentary, we will get a better grasp on the public reaction to the initiative through Facebook, email and Twitter responses. In fact, the qualitative evaluation of Kicking the Bucket is ongoing.
Documentation and Dissemination
From the outset we made audio recordings of meetings, Kicking the Bucket sessions, and key phone calls as a way of documenting the evolution of the project.
Participants who used photography in their arts practice took photographs at KTB sessions also – some of which accompany this case study – and many others are available here.
Milford Care Centre’s Compassionate Communities
RTE Radio 1 – Doc on One
Limerick Methodist and Presbyterian Church provided the training space as well as the gallery / exhibition spaces.
February – May 2016
Dead Certain – Katie Verling and Sinead Dineen’s partnership
Milford Care Centre’s Compassionate Communities Project
Alison Kerrigan, Donna Curtin (psychotherapist), Dr Tracy Fahey (art researcher/lecturer), Holly Cowman (academic researcher / administrator), Jennifer Moran Stritch (social scientist), Katie Verling, Maire Walsh (social worker), Margaret Hough (social worker), Pat Boland (art teacher), Pauline Goggin, Ruth Wood, Sinead Dinneen
Nature of project
Collaborative/ participatory, Exhibition