Art and Loss: A Tribute to a Departed Friend

Added on by Denise Gasser.

There seems to be a prevalent stereotype that artists are driven and inspired by tragedy, alienation, depression, and frustration with society. This is what drives them to create. This is what fuels their artistic genius. Being an easy-going, extrovert with relatively few tragedies to claim, I have never fit this stereotype. In fact, I have often joked that if my life was a little more tragic maybe I would be a more successful artist. 

In September of 2014 I had what I would consider my first introduction to absolute tragedy. My very dear friend of 20 years, Kayelyn Louder, went missing. Like, really missing...the kind of missing where her face was on posters plastered around the city and her story was on national news. It didn’t seem possible that the person I grew up with, went to college and roomed with, and somehow stayed in touch with over the years, was the same person that Nancy Grace was raging about as she spewed a mix of gossip, facts, and half-truths. It was a horrible time. I knew her so well, and I had so much information in my head that may or may not be relevant to her case, and no way to know because I was so far away from everything. I’m living in Canada and all of this was happening in Utah, so communication was tricky and I often felt isolated and disconnected from one of the most significant events of my life.  

After more than 9 weeks of torture, sleepless nights, and near constant emotional eruptions, her body was finally found by city workers in the Jordan River. This news brought a combination of equal relief and grief. Relief that we had found her, could bury her, and wouldn’t spend the rest of our lives looking and wondering if she was alive...and grief that all hope was lost and she really was gone. 

She was found in December 2014 and to this day we are still looking for answers. We have no idea how she got there, and fear that maybe we never will. This whole thing really changed my perspective; the world became a darker, more sinister place. That invisible barrier that always stood between me and the newscaster’s scary stories had crumbled, and suddenly I felt very exposed. For the first time in my life I felt alienated, depressed, helpless, frustrated with with society. I had all the classic symptoms of a tortured artist. But here’s the thing...I didn’t feel even the slightest amount of inspiration. I didn’t want to paint my feelings, I didn’t want to paint at all. I basically didn’t pick up a brush from September to December, it was literally the last thing I wanted to do. I felt somewhat robotic, just going through the motions to get through each day. I was drained and I really wondered when and how I would get back to a place that I felt more inspired than numb.

The moment I got the call telling me that her body had been identified, I thought of her family and wondered how they would ever get through this. I wanted so badly to do something...anything at all that would bring them even a moment of peace, or joy. I felt like my art was probably the best I could offer, so I determined to make a painting for them that would represent Kayelyn, and help them to remember her beautiful life. It took four months to complete, and I have never struggled so much to finish a painting. When I gave this to her family, I also sent a letter, which among many other things, included a description of the symbolism of the painting, which I will include below.

“This tree symbolizes Kayelyn’s beautiful life.  It is a banyan tree, known for their aerial roots, which drop down from their branches and secure themselves into the soil. They become deeply rooted then continue to thicken and grow until they are strong and almost indistinguishable from the main trunk. These trees spread out covering large expanses, but each trunk is connected to, and literally a part of the main trunk. This is how I think about Kayelyn. She spent her entire life putting down roots in every person she met. She loved so many people, brought them into her circle, built them up, and strengthened them. There is a part of her that lives on inside all of us who knew her. I know it’s not the same; nothing will replace Kayelyn in our hearts. But it’s a comfort to think that her sense of humor, her outlook on life, the music she shared, the books she recommended, her crazy ideas and adventures have changed us, and literally made us who we are. Though she is gone from this Earth, she lives on in this interconnected tree of family, friends, and loved ones who wouldn’t be the same without her. She will never, ever be forgotten.”

Though creating this piece was very frustrating at times, it was also very motivating. It gave me a goal and a purpose, and forced me paint even when I really didn’t want to. I still think of Kayelyn every day and dream about her often. I still want answers for what happened to her. My heart still aches for her family. I still cry. But I am painting again, and I know this piece was a big part of that process. Needless to say, I still don’t identify with the ‘tortured artist’ stereotype. Beauty, joy, and life has always been at the root of my work, and I hope it always will be.

Kayelyn’s case is still being investigated. To learn more, or to help, please join the facebook page ‘FindKayelynLouder’.