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New art exhibit addresses one artist's will to live in midst of grief

emily mcilroy
Emily McIlroy
/
HPR
"The lilies how they grow IV" by Emily McIlroy. Oil and pastel on paper.

Windward Community College is showcasing a new art exhibit that addresses one local woman's journey with grief and healing.

Emily McIlroy's “Listening for a Heartbeat” exhibit opened last week with a collection of drawings and paintings she made between 2008 to 2021 when her twin brother and parents died.

"I was really grappling with the questions of who is my brother, who is my mother, who am I and who are any of us," she told HPR. "So it was kind of leaning in to or living in to that question, and also asking for help to try and stay on this side of death."

emily mcilroy painting pastel
Emily McIlroy
/
HPR
"Elk man" by Emily McIlroy. Ink and pastel on paper.

McIlroy teaches art at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. She said making art to process grief kept her going through a dark time in her life.

"There was a strong gravitational pull on the other side, so I was trying to paint my way through that emotional congestion — basically to give my spirit a place to live again," McIlroy shared.

Her abstract realism art style blends imagery of nature with the emotions she felt when confronted with loss.

Many of the pieces incorporate bones and carcasses — scenes from a dream McIlroy had shortly after experiencing death in the family.

Specifically, five of the nine paintings in "The lilies how they grow" series displayed in the exhibit incorporate imagery from a dream McIlroy had after the death of her twin brother.

"I was falling down a cliff and had nothing to hold onto. These two lilies appeared in the black abyss and I grabbed onto them," said McIlroy.

The exhibit displays over 10 of her large multi-media pieces. The paper is coated with 12 layers of gesso that McIlroy uses to carve into the paint and pastel to create shading.

“Listening for a Heartbeat” will be on display in Gallery ʻIolani at WCC until March 3. The exhibit is open to the public. For more information, click here.

Zoe Dym is a news producer at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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