‘Thoughts in Passing’ portraits are road map to art of living

‘Thoughts in Passing’ portraits are road map to art of living

To learn how to live, Claudia Biçen turned to the dying.

Over the course of two years, the San Francisco artist, born in London, spent time with nine hospice patients who had each been told they had six months or less to live. She recorded their conversations and spent 40 to 50 hours drawing a life-size portrait of each subject, writing their words onto their clothing and accompanying each with a three-minute audio clip edited down from their hours of reflection.

Last June, having completed five of these portraits, Biçen discovered You’re Going to Die — the monthly series, usually part open mike, part featured performance, that encourages people to explore their mortality together. Naturally, Biçen told You’re Going to Die creator and host Ned Buskirk about “Thoughts in Passing,” and showed him the portraits.

The project was perfect for the series, and Buskirk invited her to show at the event in November. But there wasn’t room to display the portraits, so Biçen created a simple video of each, zooming in slowly while the patients give a sort of concentrated reckoning of their own lives.

“I wanted viewers to be subsumed by the subjects’ portraits and stories, before their faces slowly faded into darkness,” Biçen said by email. “Almost nobody had seen the collection and I was very nervous about people’s reactions. … I tried very hard to do justice to the richness and complexity of my subjects’ lives. They put a huge amount of trust into me, and sharing their inner lives with an audience felt like a great responsibility.”

Getting to know the patients had a powerful impact on Biçen. Five of them died before she could finish their portraits. In the project statement, she writes: “In making this work I came to observe a profound paradox: In talking with me about dying, these people taught me how to live more meaningfully and more intensely.”

Earlier this month, one of Biçen’s portraits was selected as a winner of the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition at the National Portrait Gallery in the Smithsonian, where it will hang until next year. All of the portraits can be seen and heard at www.thoughtsinpassing.com, and a full exhibition is to take place at Oakland’s Chapel of the Chimes on Sunday, April 10.

At You’re Going to Die, each video was followed by a performance — a poet, writer or musician — and the evening crystallized when Andrew Blair of We Became Owls played a song about truck-driving in response to a man named Harlan, who spent his life driving trucks. The result was so powerful that Biçen, Blair and Buskirk decided to do a full show together when the project was completed.

“It’s hard not to put your guts into a song when you are seeing such incredible art and hearing people reflect on their life as death approaches,” Blair said by email.

“I think that’s the point of You’re Going to Die,” said Buskirk. “We get to be in a death and dying conversation, and that informs our aliveness.”


You’re Going to Die presents Thoughts in Passing: 7:30 p.m. April 8, SOLD OUT, Noe Valley Ministry, 1021 Sanchez St., S.F.

This article originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle.

Image by Claudia Biçen

Additional listings

Founding editor of Tin House Magazine Rob Spillman reads from and talks with Glen David Gold about his memoir “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 7. Free. Green Apple Books on the Park, 1231 Ninth Ave., San Francisco.

William Taylor Jr. celebrates the publication of his collection of poems “To Break the Heart of the Sun.” He’s joined by Jon Bennett, MK Chavez, Charlie Getter, Colleen McKee, SB Stokes, Zarina Zabrisky and Simon Rogghe.7 p.m. Friday, April 8. Free. Beat Museum, 540 Broadway, San Francisco.

Recent Steinbeck Fellow Yalitza Ferreras speaks with Erika M. Martínez, editor of “Daring to Write: Contemporary Narratives by Dominican Women” 3 p.m. Saturday, April 9. Free. Modern Times, 2919 24th St., San Francisco.

Nicholas Friedman, Rachel Richardson and Olga Zilberbourg read for the Bazaar Writers Salon, with music by Kathleen Knighton. Free. 6 p.m. Sunday, April 10. Bazaar Cafe, 5927 California St., San Francisco.

The Before Columbus Foundation, the Oakland Book Festival and the African-American Center of the San Francisco Public Library presents “Does the Secret Mind Whisper?,” a tribute to the life of poet Bob Kaufman, with performances by Anne Waldman, Will Alexander, David Boyce and Kevin Carnes. Free. 4 p.m. Monday, April 11. San Francisco Public Library, 100 Larkin St., San Francisco.