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Jim McKenzie: Friends with Death

Still from Jim McKenzie's short film, Friends with Death

Two days ago, this short film appeared in my YouTube feed, and I have been thinking about it ever since.

Jim McKenzie is an artist and director based in New York City who creates whimsical, spooky, and vibrant worlds and characters. He expertly pairs the dark, bizarre, and uncanny with the lighthearted and humorous, and his works consider color with painstaking detail. Upon watching this short film, which highlights the magic behind McKenzie's creative process, I was immediately struck by the thematic connections between his work and my own: drawing nearer to death as a part of life, and replacing fear with a more poetic relationship. I was even more deeply moved when I read the video's description:

Friends With Death documents the step by step process of artist Jim McKenzie’s Grim Reaper sculpture in the form of stop motion animation. Over 7,000 photos were shot simultaneously as the piece was being sculpted to create this five minute short film.

McKenzie began creating the piece in November of 2018. Initially, the sculpture was not meant to be of the Grim Reaper, but of a friendly skull. Within the second month of the sculpting process, McKenzie experienced a loss in his immediate family. The following month his son was born. The two events unconsciously influenced a change in the sculpture’s direction, resulting in what is seen here. The finished sculpture was later displayed as a center piece in McKenzie’s mini solo exhibition, “Art Of Character” at Corey Helford Gallery which ran from June 29th 2019 - August 4th 2019.”

-Jim McKenzie, Friends with Death, YouTube

This backstory reveals that death found its way into McKenzie's work through an experience of personal loss, and that the artist evolved through the processes of creative healing and rebirth. This is a trajectory to which I - and many other artists - can very much relate. It also highlights that we as artists are always working through personal subjects in our practices whether we are conscious of it or not, and that we often don't recognize the depth of what we're making until after it materializes.

The journey from loss to rebirth and and discovery is not unique to artists; it's a part of the experience of every living person. We are all impacted by the ways that death separates us, but as human beings, we share it as common ground, and this can serve to unite us. Like the butterflies in McKenzie's sculpture, we can benefit from moments of quiet closeness to the concept of death, so that even when we take wing again, our relationship with fate is a little less dark.

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