|The art of dying; Two artists' works mourn the loss of
Friday, 21 March 1997
Pamela Portwood, Special to The Arizona Daily Star
THE ARIZONA DAILY STAR
I don't remember when I first met Diane Ferris, but it was probably at an art opening because
she was a ceramist.
What I remember is sitting outside a friend's house on a summer night two or three years ago,
eating grilled vegetables and sharing stories, talking about illness.
Diane was the kind of person who could get to know someone easily because she was open to
others. So it didn't surprise me to learn that she had wanted to share part of her life and her
approaching death from cancer.
The current exhibition at the Dinnerware Contemporary Art Gallery includes two bodies of
artwork that reflect on Diane's life and her death. ``The Dance'' is an exhibition of sculptures
and drawings by Gary Benna, Diane's husband of nine years. ``A Collaborative Portrait of
Diane Marie Ferris'' is a series of photographs by Ann Simmons-Myers.
While Diane had cancer for 10 years, it didn't become debilitating until two years before her
death in August 1996.
Gary, who has long been one of Tucson's most respected ceramic artists, could do little
artwork while taking care of Diane in the last year of her life.
Yet a number of the pieces in this exhibition were conceived during that year, and they reflect
the darkness of a grief that began even before Diane's death.
``Subsumed by the Light Within'' is a white porcelain sculpture of a Greek temple that is
lighted from within. But on the outside, parts of the columns and the façade have been gnawed
away by a pack of naked humans with the grotesque heads of rats.
The sculpture began as a piece about gangs destroying society, but soon it became clear to
Gary that it was a far more personal expression. He realized ``that it was about Diane, and the
disease eating at this temple, but yet there was this light within that was strong.''
``Embracing Love's Gift,'' a bronze sculpture, shows a little boy dreaming a bad dream. He is
sleeping on a bed with four tall bedposts that curl upward like snakes to support a canopy with
a man lying on top of it.
The man's chest is split open to reveal his internal organs, and a dove is pecking his heart out -
a scene inspired by the myth of Prometheus.
For Gary, the piece is about risking the pain of love because Diane had cancer all the years they
``When you open yourself up to that, you're vulnerable like a little kid. . . . I think a lot of
people back off from that. They don't quite open up enough to make themselves that
While Gary's pieces express his processes of care-giving and coping with loss, Ann
Simmons-Myers' photographs explore Diane's vision of herself.
Diane initially approached Sam (as Ann Simmons-Myers is known) about doing a series of
nude portraits. The images were shot in the sculpture and rock garden at Gary and Diane's
house during the last eight months of her life.
It was a collaborative process. Sam and Diane picked out the location for the images together.
Sometimes Diane had a specific idea for a portrait.
Sam processed the negatives, and Diane reviewed the proof sheets. Their selections of images
to print was nearly identical.
Because of the fragility of Diane's body, Sam would create a ``nest'' of foam covered with the
fabrics that she had used in her ``Shrouded'' series of photographs. These final images are salt
prints, and their pale brown tonalities at times create a sense of Diane's body merging with the
In ``Buried,'' her face is set within a mound of stones that have become her hair. Her lovely
face is quiet, and her hand is curled beside her face. Yet her other arm is held behind her and
has been replaced by a stone.
This vision is both soothing and disconcerting because it captures the surrender of the self to a
body that has grown as implacable as stone, yet it is a burial before death, in life.
For Sam, it was a hard process. Her cousin also was dying of cancer while she was shooting
the portraits of Diane. Working with Diane was both a gift and a tremendous responsibility for
She felt that Diane was frustrated by not being able to work in ceramics and that she wanted to
leave something more behind.
``There was still an artistic statement that she (Diane) needed to make, and I felt that she chose
me to do that through, and I felt very honored to be in that position,'' Sam says. ``I feel that
she would be pleased with the results. That it's what she wanted.''
What: ``Gary Benna: The Dance'' and ``Ann Simmons-Myers: A Collaborative Portrait of
Diane Marie Ferris.''