Artist turns grief into landscape memory collages
Kathryn Kohn always had a passion for creating landscapes with watercolors, but when her son, Grant Malsberger, died in 2011 after complications from muscular dystrophy, she no longer was able to paint.
“I would try, but it was just ugly and dark,” she said.
Then one day, just over a year ago and only weeks before what would have been Grant’s 28th birthday, Kohn was having a “particularly difficult day.”
“I was praying ‘God, please relieve my sadness. I can’t stand this anymore.’ And, as soon as I finished praying, an idea popped in my head that I would get Grant’s clothes and find a photo of a place he liked, and make a picture using his clothes.
“As a parent, it’s very difficult to let go of your child’s clothes,” said the Clinton Township resident. “I just didn’t have the heart to let go of them, and I thought this way, I don’t have to let go of them. I’ll have a work of art of a place he loved, made out of his clothes.”
That first resulting artwork gave her a sense of solace and later the ability to help others grieving. Kohn now offers her fiber-art skills under the name Grant Art, a growing business she launched several months ago in memory of her son.
Psychologist Pauline J. Furman, executive director and owner of Center for Individual & Family Counseling in Southfield, said Kohn felt comfort because her son “lives on in her artwork. It’s something she can feel, it’s something she can touch, it’s something she can see, and it’s something she can remember.”
“The loss of a child is significant because, as parents, we don’t anticipate our child preceding us in death,” Furman said. “Holidays and special memorable occasions often cause us to recall our deceased loved ones. Discovering how we may choose to cherish their memory can be a very healing process.”
About a year after Grant died, Kohn joined the Macomb County chapter of Bereaved Parents of the USA. A few years later, after she began making the collages, a friend from the group asked her to make two for her. Kohn later showed her work publicly for the first time in June at the national conference for Bereaved Parents of the USA June in Indianapolis.
“I took my son’s, and my friend Diana (Lewno) had two she brought that I’d done for her. My husband (Roger) made a display, and they raffled off that I would do one for someone for free,” Kohn said.
Following the death of her daughter, Diana Lewno, a resident of Washington Township, co-founded the Macomb County Chapter of Bereaved Parents of the USA with Christine DeClerck of Utica.
The first time Lewno saw Kohn’s work, she said it was breathtaking.
“I have done a lot of bereaved parent conferences and seminars, and I have never seen anything like this before,” Lewno said. “We’ve seen paintings of kids, jewelry with their names, quilted blankets, Teddy bears (made with their clothes), but I’ve never seen anything like that. When you can take your grief and turn it into something positive, that’s the time healing begins, I believe.
“With her background being an artist, she had that gift to be able to use her artistic ability to honor a child. But, to use their precious clothes, and be able to turn them into something like this is an awesome gift.”
Starting a business
Before attending the Indianapolis conference, Kohn established Grant Art as a home-based business to share her skills with other individuals in need of such comfort. So far, she’s filled 17 orders, including two for out-of-state customers.
“It’s such an honor to do it for other people,” said Kohn, 58. “You’re touching their loved ones clothes. It’s so intimate. There’s a reverence about the work. I think about their loved one they lost, (and) I think about them. When I do one, I like to get a picture of that child, and I like to know a little about them.”
Customers deliver the clothes to Kohn. It’s not necessary for them to be clean. She once did an artwork using the clothing of a young man who had been a chef.
“There were some stains on his apron, and I actually used those stain colors in the picture. It was a sunset on a beach where he lived,” Kohn said.
Customers sometimes worry that the clothes may be missing a color needed to create the landscape, but Kohn said she’s able to dye one of their white or off-white garments the color she needs.
Kathy Hofius of Midland commissioned Kohn to make four collages after the death of her husband in 2012.
“I think it’s an incredible gift that I’ve not seen from anyone else,” Hofius said. “She has some kind of innate ability to make a connection with the deceased member, and somehow make that come out in her artistry.”
Once the piece is complete, Kohn flattens it with a weight and sprays it with an acrylic matte finish the following day to prevent the fabric from fading. She then lets it dry for a day, after which it’s ready to be matted. It takes her from 25-30 hours to finish a piece measuring 8 inches by 10 inches, which is the smallest size she makes, she said. Each is priced at about $2 per square inch.
Whenever she’s asked to do something different, Kohn said she accepts it as a new challenge because she doesn’t want to rule anything out, except doing a likeness of the person.
“I won’t do a portrait. I don’t think it could ever do the person justice in this genre that I work with.”
Jocelynn Brown is a longtime Metro Detroit crafter. You can reach her at (313) 222-2150, email@example.com or facebook.com/
Contact Grant Art
at (586) 263-7534, or on Facebook. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.