Artist Ash Reynolds: I never liked coffins so we painted a 'Living Wake Box' for me

Told she had terminal cancer, Ash Reynolds brought loved ones together in a very personal art project that has both involved talking about death and creating something beautiful

Meath-born community artist Ash Reynolds, who has lived in Belfast for 30 years, has stage four colon cancer. Picture by James T Donnelly
Maureen Coleman

WHEN artist Aisling 'Ash' Reynolds was forced to give up work following a shock diagnosis of stage four colon cancer last October, she was plunged into a period of mourning.

A freelance community artist who often worked with children and young people, she struggled to cope with that loss of contact, not to mention the extreme fatigue and side-effects of chemotherapy which meant she couldn't carry on with her job.

The Meath born mum-of-one, who has lived in Belfast for 30 years, felt redundant and lonely. She missed the people she worked with and she missed her creative outlet. So Ash decided to bring these two strands of her life together by documenting her cancer journey through art and involving her family, friends and colleagues in the project.

The result of her endeavours is the subject of Ash's first solo exhibition, Platelets, which opens at the Duncairn Arts Centre today. The exhibition will consist of three elements; 24 'uplifting' canvasses which she painted in the chemotherapy suite, a small selection of body images taken by Ash on her phone since her cancer diagnosis, and the centrepiece, a Living Wake Box, created by her loved ones during special sessions at her art studio and through which she encouraged conversation around terminal illness and death.

Aisling Reynolds and friends painting her 'Living Wake Box'. Picture by James T Donnelly

“I've had a lot of grieving to do over the past year,” Ash says, from her bed in Belfast City Hospital. “I've never felt anger at all, but the grief really hit me, the loss of my work, the loss of contact with people. I really miss working with children, which was a big part of my job as a community artist.

“I was having lots of visitors coming to my home but some of my friends just couldn't look me in the eye and were too afraid to talk to me about death or accept I was sick and going to die. It's still such a taboo subject.

“I wanted to start the conversation, to get people talking about it. We're all going to die. So I came up with the idea of the 'wake box' painting sessions. I've never liked coffins so a friend made a box for me and I invited friends, in groups of eight or 10, to come along and paint flowers on the box. This meant I could see them in a creative way and those who found it difficult to look me in the eye could have something else to focus on.

“I wanted to keep home life as normal as possible for the sake of my son Robin, so the sessions were held in the Vault Artist Studio in Tower Street. We had cups of tea, we painted and we talked.

"Some people who came to paint had family members dying and didn't know how to talk about it to their siblings. We had some difficult conversations but mainly lots of beautiful moments where everyone opened up and shared with the group.

One of Ash Reynolds's 'platelet art' pieces

“The Wakebox sessions have been really special and I think they've helped my friends by allowing them to feel that they're helping me with this beautiful, collaborative piece of art.”

When Ash first presented to her doctor complaining of pain in December 2017, an ultra sound scan revealed she had gallstones. She was placed on a waiting list for removal of her gall bladder and continued on with her life, making changes to her diet by cutting down on dairy products and sugar. But she was vomiting a lot, going to the toilet frequently and losing weight quickly. In the space of a year, she dropped from 18 stone to just 10.

At her wit's end one day, she took herself to A&E where she was told she was malnourished. She underwent a CT scan and biopsy and when the doctor and nurse asked her if her husband was on his way to the hospital, Ash knew the news was bad. She told them to give it to her straight, saying she could handle it. The doctor broke the news – she had stage four colon cancer and it had spread to her bone, liver and lungs.

When her husband Jim arrived, the pair sat in shock, trying to take the diagnosis in. Ash's first thoughts were for her teenage son and then she went into practical mode, ringing around the various art organisations she worked for to alert them she'd be having to take time off work.

One of Ash Reynolds's 'platelet art' pieces

She was told that with chemotherapy, she could live for up to 30 months, without, between nine and 13. Within a month of her diagnosis, she began her first round of treatment.

Each time she went into the chemo suite, she brought two circular canvasses with her on which to paint colourful visualisations of healthy platelets being replaced by the damage of cancer. Following chemo, she added further layers and textures.

“I wanted to turn something scary into something uplifting,” she says. “Painting the platelets distracted my thoughts from what I was there for and allowed me to be creative.”

The third aspect of the exhibition is a collection of 15 self-portraits taken from her diagnosis and documenting her ever-changing body. Ash is determined to show that being terminally ill doesn't mean one has to 'creep off to bed and die' but can still be 'alive and vibrant and seen'.

Just hours before this scheduled interview, Ash and Jim were informed that the chemotherapy was no longer working and was going to have to come to an end. Ash says she is preparing to have the toughest conversation of her life when she sits down with son Robin to explain what this means.

But she's not giving up just yet and is looking ahead to her next artistic project – a new box to create for her cremation. Even facing death, art is still her life.

“I am sad that my hopes for a miracle have been shattered,” she says. “It's a lot to take in.

“But you know, I feel blessed. I've had this time to have real conversations and time to spend with the people I love and say my goodbyes. And I've learned so much about people and how kind and generous my friends are.

“The way I see it, is that we're all on this big train and my journey's a bit shorter than everyone else's. My stop is coming up and the journey's coming to an end. And that's OK, because it's been a great journey. It really has and for that, I'm incredibly grateful.”

Platelets runs at the Duncairn Arts Centre in north Belfast until December 5

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