I’m not sure how relatable this experience is, but during our family’s Sunday morning breakfast ritual I would quite often find my mom poring over the weekly paper’s obituaries. The image of my mom choosing to begin her day learning about the last of someone else’s is both deeply perverse and darkly humorous. To my cynical teenage brain it seemed to be further evidence that my parents were from an entirely different world.
Artist Erika DeFreitas’s own version of this strange scene of morning ritual subversion provides the inspiration for an exhibit entitled “Deaths/Memorials/Births” that’s currently on display at the Centre3 gallery on James Street North.
“I remember asking my mom why she was reading the obituaries section of the newspaper and she said it was because she never knew who she was going to find,” DeFreitas said. “So I thought it was a little creepy and a little weird. But then I started reading the obituaries myself.”
Though DeFreitas was drawn to the obituaries in the same way as her mother, she’s still not really able to understand why. “I don’t know how to explain it. I was just looking for someone, not knowing if they were going to appear or not,” DeFreitas said. “It’s not that I was looking for someone I know to have passed away, but it was just the act of looking for someone.”
Looking for someone in the death notices seems almost morbidly ironic, but it actually makes weirdly perfect sense. People are often defined in death notices almost entirely by their relationships to others – as loving father, devoted wife or adored grandparent, for example. It’s like the people who write death notices are looking to reaffirm and reach out to the relationships in their lives.
“As I was reading, any sort of word that was interesting to me or that resonated me I would write down,” DeFreitas said. “My feelings were attached to certain words. They described how I was feeling when I was reading.” After deciding on a few words, DeFreitas would cut out the obituary but leave the borders of the notice intact. She then reattached the words she had chosen in their original location on the page, creating a series of incredibly evocative almost-poems told using the words of many peoples’ lives.
“After a while the whole thing became very bizarre to me,” DeFreitas said. “The newspaper is something that comes into many homes and many subway floors, but something as personal as an obituary is placed in this object that is then recycled. I guess that’s where I’m a little too sentimental. This is so weird but I remember getting angered that on the other side of the obituary notices would be advertisements. I started to take things personally.”
I too had my own personal experience with DeFreitas work, though in a much smaller way. I didn’t see the exhibit until after its opening during this month’s Art Crawl, but I’m glad that it was after the busy crowds had come and gone. There’s something about the work that invites you to spend time with it, to imagine the stories of people whose lives ended up becoming defined by words like “corrugated” and “typewriter table.” But perhaps more than anything else it made me think about the mortality of our own relationships – how the connections we make fade into a few words when they were once the novel of someone’s life.
“I think that’s something you question your whole life,” DeFreitas said. “When we’re out with friends, we’re always asking, ‘why don’t we do this more often?’”
Deaths/Memorials/Births is currently being shown at Centre3 gallery and will continue until April 13