On Liminality

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Over the weekend, I had the fantastic opportunity to take a sneak peek at an exciting new exhibit at our local Museum Center.  A few years ago, through the gentle nudging of my friend Christina, an artist, illustrator and fellow sketcher-of-the-world, I began meeting some local illustrators for lunch every so often.  This wonderful group of story-telling artists collectively keep a blog that gets quite a lot of attention from interested visitors. The virtual space always has something exciting to offer about arty things happening around the city and beyond through the lens of the illustrators’ keen eyes.  Recently, our blog was made part of a grid of local news-reporting by WCPO news, and the illustrators were offered the opportunity to see the mummies exhibit, before it even opens to the public.

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Christina and I enthusiastically took them up on the offer, packed our sketching supplies, and headed to the museum for the morning.

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The exhibit is a mind-blowing collection of mummies of all sorts, not just the traditional Egyptian mummies which come to mind when one hears the evocative word mummy.  There are bog people, and animals, and objects which may have been slated to help the deceased beyond the grave.  There are mummies who never intended to become such, but have, due to perfect conditions in their long lost crypts.  It was utterly haunting.

Christina draws a shrunken head.
Christina draws a shrunken head.
This is my drawing of yet another shrunken head.
This is my drawing of yet another shrunken head.


While we were permitted to take photos, per an email from our hosts, we didn’t have the fancy press passes the other visitors had and so we decided to challenge ourselves to rely on sketching only.  It was very dark in the exhibit space, light shining down on the specimens only, leaving very little light by which to see what we were doing.  Both of us opted to use ink to draw.

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It took a few minutes to decide what to spend time with, as sketching is more time consuming than a mere snap of a camera lens.  I myself kept coming back to the mummies of two very young people and decided to draw them.  First this little bundle of a child whose life must have been one of great hardship according to what tests have shown.  He had faced the crippling condition of scoliosis along with malnutrition and chronic illness.  Of all the mummies, this one was my favorite.  So small and delicate.  I found myself wondering what his name was, and who his parents were.  What the breeze may have felt like on his face while he was living.  And now we are left with this mummy.  A shell of his physical self which can give clues to a life lived long ago.

Since it had been so dark while drawing, I finished watercoloring the drawing when I returned home….

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The other child I spent a bit of time with was this one below, from South America.  He or she still had hair on her head, hair that had been crudely trimmed, perhaps to make some semblance of bangs to keep them out of her eyes while she played.  In spite of her mummy-ness, I could still see that her legs and hands had that pudgy quality young children have.  My guess is she didn’t face quite as many hardships in life as the above bundle-child did.  And yet, to die so young….  Tests are still being made on this child to unlock some of her story.  I am curious to know what happened to her.  Was she royalty?  Or sacrificed perhaps to some selfish god who demands the life of a child…  I do not know.

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The visit to the mummies exhibit came on the heels of a visit I had made the day before to my aunt who is currently spending her last few days in hospice-care.  After that tears and laughter filled afternoon, I came home to the news that another good friend is also facing her crossing after long years of living with illness.  It would seem that death is in the air.  I am not one unfamiliar with death or how it comes, sometimes with some warning, other times with a swift cruelty – I have deep respect and regard for it.   I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to spend time drawing these beautiful remnants of a physical life lived long ago.  It would be amazing to go back, with a little more light even, and spend more time drawing.

There is a reverential quality in drawing, that exists in few other activities.  In a small way, the artist steps out of the self and becomes one with the subject.  This can be true when drawing the fleeting autumnal beauty of a fallen leaf, but is exceptionally powerful when faced with a mummy who was once a living, breathing human being.  This exhibit did a fantastic job of creating a respectful atmosphere in which to experience all it has to offer.  I am tremendously grateful for the opportunity to see it before the crowds find out how awesome it is.


2 thoughts on “On Liminality”

  1. Great post Amy! It was a moving exhibit. I always liked how Carl Sagan said we are made of Star Stuff. It is so true we are all part of the same pool of molecules that constantly reconstitute into different things.

  2. A poignant and sensitive post, Amy. I think I know what you mean with regard to the act of drawing the mummies. There’s something shamanic within the process, of recreation and connection all at the same time. Loved the cat picture; my cats keep reminding me they are gods!

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