From quilts to embroidery: Creative ways artists memorialize those who've passed away.

Everyone who's lost a loved one has memories and stories of them that they will always treasure.

Talking about those memories and sharing them with others can help people cope with grief and also to celebrate the legacy of their loved one. Something else that's a good healing tool? Art.

Artist Bisa Butler uses quilting to memorialize those who've died.  

"I’ve suffered loss and I know that longing for that person," she said.


For the past 15 years, Butler has turned loss into warmth and comfort through commemorative quilts. She bases her quilts on photographs of loved ones — including her own grandmother as she neared the end of life. Butler works to find ways to pour extra meaning into her quilts; for her grandmother's quilt, for example, she incorporated violets into the pattern because that was also her grandmother's name.

When Butler was tasked with making a quilt to honor the late Howard Fitch, she used parts of a military shirt to commemorate his service and commitment to his country.

"Abundant Blessings" image via Bisa Butler, used with permission.

Butler made the quilt for Dawn Fitch, Howard's daughter, as part of Prudential's "Masterpiece of Love" campaign. The series honors life, love, loss, and the power of the human spirit by bringing together four artists with four survivors of loss to create works that celebrate their loved ones.

Butler's quilt of Fitch was intended not only to celebrate him, but to provide comfort and protection to his family.

"For me, the very nature of looking at fabric stitched is a comfort," she said. "For people to have that tangible piece, it's not only something nice to look at, it's something nice to touch."

Artist Christine DaCruz discovered a different way of interpreting death — through an embroidery project.

During an artist residency that focused on how news is interpreted, DaCruz got an idea to embroider obituaries from The New York Times.

"The shift became to not necessarily talk about their death but to reflect on their life," she said. "I thought the New York Times' obituaries did such a good job at collecting the stories of how these people lived and what was important to them."

Image from "The Obituaries" via Christine DaCruz, used with permission.

In "The Obituaries," a series that can be found on her website, DaCruz takes photographs used in obituaries and hand-stitches colored thread through the paper to embellish the photos. What makes them extra interesting is how she draws outside of the cropped photo images to include what she imagines the rest of the photo to look like.

Image from "The Obituaries" via Christine DaCruz, used with permission.

It's just one way she likes to celebrate life and learn people's histories — even if they may be strangers.

"We are all affected by [death]," DaCruz noted, "but just reflecting on the person's life and all the good they brought into the world and how they affected people positively is a way to embrace and celebrate them."

When DaCruz was asked to memorialize the life of Mickey McNany, she knew just the route to take.

Mickey, the late mother of Ryan McNany, is another of the loved ones featured in Prudential's "Masterpiece of Love" series.

McNany was the founding director of the Theatre School at the Paper Mill Playhouse. Even after losing her fight with late-stage cancer, she continues to touch countless lives; 87% of the kids McNany mentored throughout the years have ended up in a career in theater arts.

"She was a force to be reckoned with," said DaCruz, after learning McNany's story.

Mickey McNany. Image via Prudential, used with permission.

McNany helped so many people realize their dreams, DaCruz thought, so why not give her her own playbill cover?

DaCruz used inspiration for the piece "Show Biz Kid" from a photo of McNany doing what she loved: teaching.

"Showbiz Kid" by Christine DaCruz. Image via Prudential, used with permission.

"She motivated all these kids to get out on stage and break out of their isolated boxes," DaCruz recalled. "She helped them come out of her comfort zone."

Art — whether it’s writing, painting, dancing, observing, or something else — can be a productive outlet to promote healing and expression.

There's a reason art therapy is becoming an increasingly popular method of care. Art, prayer, and healing can help to bring one's thoughts inward, and that journey can be deeply transformative.

"People really connect with art," DaCruz said. "Even if they don’t visit museums on a regular basis, everybody is drawn to something beautiful, especially if it’s about something they recognize."

"What’s more recognizable than somebody they love?"

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In many ways, 18-year-old Idaho native, Hank Cazier, is like any other teenager you've met. He loves chocolate, pop music, and playing games with his family. He has lofty dreams of modeling for a major clothing company one day. But one thing that sets him apart may also jeopardize his future is his recent battle against a brain tumor.

Cazier was diagnosed in 2015. When he had surgery to remove the tumor, he received trauma to his brain and lost some of his motor functionality. He's been in physical, occupational, and speech therapy ever since. The experience impacted Cazier's confidence and self-esteem, so he's been looking for a way to build himself back up again.

"I wanted to do something that helped me look forward to the future," he says.

Enter Make-A-Wish, a nonprofit organization that grants wishes for children battling critical illnesses, providing them a chance to make the impossible possible. The organization partnered with Macy's to raise awareness and help make those wishes a reality. The hope is that the "wish effect" will improve their quality of life and empower them with the strength they need to overcome these illnesses and look towards the future. That was a particularly big deal for Cazier, who had been feeling like so many of his wishes weren't going to be possible because of his critical illness.

"In the beginning, it was hard to accept that it would be improbable for me to accomplish my previous goals because my illness took away so many of my physical abilities," says Cazier. His wish of becoming a model also seemed out of reach.

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Make-A-Wish can't fulfill children's wishes without the generosity of donors and partners like Macy's. In fact, since 2003, Macy's has given more than $122 million to Make-A-Wish and impacted the lives of more than 2.9 million people.

Cazier's wish experience was beyond what he could've imagined, and it filled him with so much joy and confidence. "It is like waking up and discovering that you have super powers. It feels amazing!" he exclaims.

One of the best parts about the day for him was the kindness everyone who helped make it happen showed him.

"The employees of Macy's and Make-A-Wish made me feel welcome, warm, and cared for," he says. "I am truly grateful that even though they were busy doing their jobs, they were able to show kindness and compassion towards me in all of the little details."

He also got to spend part of the shoot outdoors, which, as someone who loves climbing, hiking, and scuba-diving but has trouble doing those activities now, was very welcome.

Courtesy of Macy's

Overall, Cazier feels he grew a lot during his modeling wish and is now emboldened to work towards a better quality of life. "I want to acquire skills that help me continue to improve in these circumstances," he says.

You can change the lives of more kids like Cazier just by writing a letter to Santa and dropping it in the big red letterbox at Macy's (you can also write and submit one online). For every letter received before Dec. 24, 2019, Macy's will donate $1 to Make-A-Wish, up to $1 million. By writing a letter to Santa, you can help a child replace fear with confidence, sadness with joy, and anxiety with hope.

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