Claudia Biçen seemed to be living the millennial dream. The tall, striking British American worked at a San Francisco start-up, surrounded by people eager for the next big shining thing.
But, living in that city she calls “the center of the future,” Biçen felt disconnected. She had studied anthropology and cultural narratives of mental illness. After leaving her job, she began to poke into the city’s hidden corners – specifically, into hospices. Armed with a tape recorder, a camera and a pencil, she began spending hours with some of the culture’s most invisible people: those who would soon die.
This week, the project she started two years ago came to a head: her portrait of Jenny Miller, a 71-year-old barber sick with two kinds of cancer, took its place in the National Portrait Gallery. It will hang there until early next year along with other winners of the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition at the National Portrait Gallery, a national award granted every three years to outstanding portrait artists.
Miller is one of nine hospice patients portrayed in Thoughts In Passing, Biçen’s series of pencil and cut-out portraits accompanied by audio clips. All had been told that they had 6 months or less to live. And, in different ways, all found that the nearness of death sharpened their understanding of life.
Sitting in the museum’s atrium the day before the show opened, Biçen, 29, said she embarked on the project believing the dying might have lessons to teach her.
“Birth and death – these two moments of life are really sacred, and everything in between is kind of the madness of life,” she said. “I thought that lying there on your deathbed you’re going to be confronting your life. What did it feel like to be dying? I think most people haven’t had a conversation with someone who is dying. It’s just pushed out of social consciousness and I think that’s problematic.”
She had volunteered before, with orphans in Africa and people who were struggling with addiction or suicidal thoughts. And she had studied Buddhism, whose philosophy is accepting of transience and impermanence.
Still, approaching the hospices was intimidating. Would they think it presumptuous, this young woman with so much ahead of her, barging in on those whose lives had been curtailed?
Of the 10 hospices she contacted, “Every single one said yes. Yes, we want to bring people who are dying into the public eye; yes, we want to create a legacy for people; and yes, we like your work.”
Between March 2014 and November of last year she met between 4 and 7 times with each person, getting to know them, talking about their lives, and recording the conversations. It took another 40 to 50 hours to do each portrait, which she drew from photos she had taken.
Her criteria for choosing people: they couldn’t have dementia, and they had to be willing to delve into the delicate, often painful, subject of their own mortality.
“Most people are not right for this project because most people are not going to be able to go there,” she said. Some people in hospice are still in denial about what that means, and even those who accept it may not be ready to talk about it with a stranger or have their portrait done when they are so ill. “It was a big ask of people. I was very aware that it’s a huge ask.”
In the portraits, which are life-sized, the subjects’ words are written literally on their sleeves – and all over their clothing – in Biçen’s neat, even handwriting.
It is, she said, “a metaphor for how we carry our stories with us.”
It is also, she hopes, a way to slow people down. “You see artwork and you take a snapshot and move on. I thought, ‘how can I draw people in?’ When you’re up close to the piece you have kind of an intimate experience.”
The recordings help. The subjects’ voices can be wavering and raspy; weathered from the years and the sicknesses they are confronting. They are meant to evoke a conversation between viewer and subject.
“I wanted to create a feeling of compassion and empathy, of seeing yourself in that person,” Biçen said. “We put the elderly and the dying away, we shut them away. We’ve kind of given up on them. They’re no longer productive…Particularly in American culture, productivity is so much at the core of what we value in people.”
Biçen’s subjects were based in the San Francisco Bay Area, but they and their stories are as far as possible from the hypercharged dot-com perspective. They are more universal. A truck driver looks back and wishes he’d spent less time on the road and more with his family. A Texas farm girl born in 1916 says she accepts the idea that she will soon go, “just like my mama did.”
Finding a diverse range of people was a challenge. “Eighty-four percent of people in hospice are white,” she said, adding that in African-American and Latino cultures there is more of a tendency to die at home.
Although the project is about death and dying, for Biçen it has been life-affirming. “Even though they were dying they were almost living more deeply than they had before. People talk about moving into the now. Having the future stripped away really pulls you into the now. They would sit and look at the beauty of a tree. One man, Harlan, would leave his window open 24 hours a day so he could see the sunrise because it meant he had made it to another day.”
But it was not easy to become close to people with so little time left. Five died before their portraits were finished. That hit Biçen hard.
“It’s this really empty feeling. I’d said, I’m going to go back, I’ll do one more interview. It really woke me up to what I was doing, and I really realized I can’t sit around and say, ‘Oh, I’ll go next week.’ I think it really showed me my own denial. I hadn’t really come to terms with the fact that they were [dying].”
Biçen never studied art formally, but her submission made an impression on Dorothy Moss, associate curator of painting and sculpture at the museum, and the director of the competition. “We were really struck by her draftsmanship and the expression on her face,” she said. “There’s something really compelling about that gaze.”
Miller, whose gaze it is, had a more matter-of-fact reaction.
“There’s too many wrinkles,” she joked, speaking by phone from a hospital in San Francisco that she was moved to recently. She has outlived the two months she’d been given when Biçen showed up at her door.
Miller, who spoke of being abused and neglected as a child, said she appreciated the interest Biçen took in her. The two would go to the park with Biçen’s dogs and eat sandwiches, and Miller began to talk about what would happen when she died.
“Someday I’m going to help grow a beautiful tree, and that doesn’t seem so bad,” she said. But until Biçen came, she said she’d never spoken with anyone about these things. “There hadn’t been anyone to tell.”
The family of Ena, a nurse who died last month at 97, contacted Biçen after her funeral. “They had the memorial and sent out the portrait and the audio. Several members of her family called me to say how much it helped them in their mourning process.”
The daughter of Harlan, the truck driver, who died at 53, said she has listened to the interview around 100 times. “She says it feels like it almost brings him alive again.”
At parties, when Biçen tells people what she does, their faces often go blank. Some say, why would you want to do that? But friends and family get it. And the subjects themselves had strong reactions to seeing the portraits. One couldn’t talk for several minutes; he just cried.
Doing the project has also made Biçen slow down and look more closely at her own life. She has started making audio recordings and drawings of her grandmother. She speaks at high schools, assigning students to talk to older people in their community. “I think it’s something kids want to talk about and we’re not providing the space. Being a teenager is that time when you’re thinking about these big existential questions.”
As for the lessons she sought from the dying, the main one is simple.
“I went into this thinking that every person was going to provide me with some kind of wisdom,” she said. “But people just die as themselves. We die as ourselves. There isn’t going to necessarily be some kind of revelation or change – this is it.”
But rather than think more about dying, she now thinks about it less. “This anxiety about my mortality, I feel like now it has gone away.” She laughed. “I mean, I’m sure it’ll come back. But hey, you know what? You have everything now, so just be with it. Tomorrow is not promised. When you hear that from people who are standing on the edge, you listen.”
View more of Bicen’s work and listen to the audio of her subjects here: