Podcast #137 Thoughts in Passing – Portraits and Stories at the End of Life with Claudia Bicen

I reached out to artist Claudia Biçen when I learned about an installation she had created some years ago that combined the portraits and words of hospice patients in a striking, intimate way. Our conversation ended up being about that, yes, but we also explore the richness of creativity, impermanence, adaptation, and the making of meaning. As Claudia said, “Life throws you this experience and you pivot and you pivot and you pivot and you keep trying to make meaning from it.” How might these “portraits and stories at the end of life” inform our living?





Diane Hullet: Hi, I’m Dianne Hullet and welcome to the Best Life, Best Death podcast. Today I’ve got kind of one of those out of the box guests that came to me in a really roundabout, interesting way. So I just want to start off by saying hi, hi, Claudia. Hi. Thank you for having me. Yeah. So this is Claudia Bishan and Claudia is an artist currently living in London.

So we had to do lots of Time change figuring to figure out a time that worked for us to talk and the long story short is that I met someone whose grandmother had been involved in an art project with Claudia in the Bay Area of California around San Francisco like in 2014 to 2016 kind of timeframe is when Claudia worked on this art piece.

And I was really intrigued by what this person said. So, you know, miracle of the internet, you just Google. And I was able to find this project, which is called Thoughts in Passing. So we’re going to talk about this big art installation and talk about Claudia’s work and talk about what. some of the people in this art project had to say about the end of life.

So that’s my long introduction, Claudia. Now we’ll let you get a word in edgewise. So tell us about you as an artist and how this project thoughts and passing got going. 

Claudia Bicen: Yeah. So, okay. So me as an artist, so I would say I’m an Artist and experienced designer. And what I mean by that is like everything that I do is about trying to help people get in touch with a deeper sense of their aliveness, a deeper relationship to themselves and the world around them.

Like, I’m really interested in how we make meaning in this vast and mysterious world that we find ourselves in. And this particular project, I. I was just fascinated by this question my whole life of like how do we create meaning and what is life for and and being so palpably aware of our own impermanence.

And I realized that like I had never at the time I was in my late 20s and I had never had a conversation with somebody who was dying, and I had this feeling that there would be wisdom there, that there were learnings there, and I hadn’t had a conversation with anyone who was dying and I talked to all of my friends and most of them hadn’t, maybe they had a grandparent or something but in many cases they’d never really had an encounter with someone who was dying at all, it was this sort thing that was like shrouded in, in sort of mystery and tucked away in our society.

And, and so I wanted to go, I was just drawn, I was drawn to that and I wanted to talk to people. So I decided to contact hospices all over the Bay Area and just say, Hey, I’m a portrait artist. I would love to have conversations with any of your hospice patients, if you’d be open to it. I would like to draw their portrait and ask them questions about.

what their life meant to them, what regrets they had, what we, the living, could learn from people who were dying. And every single hospice I wrote to got back to me and said, yes, let’s do this, which I was shocked by. Shocked by. But I think it really spoke to this, to this need to have people’s stories and voices you know, be heard.

Not just, not just shared, but also for people to tell their stories at the end of their life, I think is such a powerful thing. 

Diane Hullet: I love this. And I’m so struck by the fact that like you, just going back to what you initially said, that like you and several friends in your 20s had never had a conversation with someone who was dying.

I mean, put a pin in that, that’s just incredible, right? That that’s, that’s the time in which dominant Western culture in which we’re living, we’re simply dying is just not. on the radar. And so no wonder we have such fear and confusion and concern about it because it’s been so distant from us. So that’s, that’s put a pin in that.

That’s just amazing. And then also how powerful that every hospice you reached out to said, yeah, this is great. We’d like to be a part of this. This is really important because there is something really valuable about that storytelling. Like you said, that life experience and sharing that. Wow. So then how did it unfold and over what kind of time frame?

Because I can imagine every one of these portraits must take hours. 

Claudia Bicen: They did. They took many, many, many hours. So, to give some context, I would, I, Different staff recommended different people from the hospices. It wasn’t always the right fit. It was actually quite challenging to find the right people to work with because people at once had to be dying and in hospice, but also to be able to talk, you know, fluently and fluidly about their life experiences.

And unfortunately, many people at the end of their life are not in that position to be able to do that. And of course, many people don’t want an artist to come into their, their Come into their life at this extremely vulnerable moment. So there was a, you know, massive filtering process. So I would suddenly out of the blue, get a call from maybe a nurse or, you know, a hospice worker who would say, I think I have someone you come, you need to come and talk to.

And so I would travel and meet them and just have an introductory meeting about, you know, does this sound like this is something that you want to do and, and give them context. And then we would generally meet for anywhere from three sessions of an hour. To 10 or 12. sessions and we would just talk and I would record their stories and at the time I thought I was going to use all of these recordings to write all of the text in the portrait, which I did, but then the stories and the voices were so, so powerful that I realized I had to bring those voices into the portrait pieces too.

 So that’s how it became an audio visual piece. So most of the work, as you know, from editing. Podcasts is that I just did hours and hours and hours of recording those, those audio pieces, which I’d never done before. I’ve always been a visual artist. And then each portrait obviously took tens and tens of hours to, to complete.

Diane Hullet: And were the portraits done, I’m guessing from photos. So there was also a photo component and then. The images. I’ll just hold up for people who are watching this on YouTube. I’ll just hold this up and then kind of describe it. So each one of these is a portrait of a person kind of typically sitting and typically from the waist up and On their clothing, in whether they’re wearing a shirt or a sweatshirt or whatever they have on, the clothing in very detailed, tiny writing has their words.

So the face is kind of this beautiful, clear, is 

Claudia Bicen: it pencil? It’s all in pencil, and just for context, they’re all life size portraits. They’re, they’re very, yeah, they’re very, well, they’re not very big. They’re life size, and that was really intentional because I wanted the viewer to be able to encounter the portrait as though they were encountering somebody in conversation.

So I really wanted it to feel intimate, that they were actually connecting with that person and connecting with that person’s story. 

Diane Hullet: Amazing. So when this was up in whatever space it was hung in, imagine you walk up to this life size portrait of a person who looks like they’re kind of sitting in a chair talking to you and their face is etched in this beautiful, beautiful, simple portrait, classic kind of portrait style, I would say, right?

But very soft and very accessible. And then on their clothing is the words that you can read of their story. And then at the same time, their audio is playing. Amazing, Claudia, such a beautiful combination of pieces. 

Claudia Bicen: One of the most beautiful places I was able to exhibit it was at a venue called the Chapel of the Chimes, where people’s ashes are stored all through this, this building.

It’s a Julia Morgan building in Oakland, California. And you go through. Many, many hallways and small courtyards with with big plants and just people’s ashes stored just like a library like all around you. And so we had each of the portraits was was down a little kind of hallway or or courtyard. So you would have to go through this like maze like building, which is just unbelievably stunning building and so profound space, sacred space to be in.

And so you would suddenly hear their voices down a hallway and sort of follow, follow that down and then be able to be there. And, and, you know, often just on your own with that, with that person. 

Diane Hullet: Remarkable. Oh yeah. Just remarkable. What a way to drink in the art and the story.

What were some of the, what were some of the stories? 

Claudia Bicen: Hmm. Oh my goodness. Where, where to begin? Well it was really important to me that the stories we would hear were diverse stories. So I, you know, it was a very easy at the beginning of the project. And then as the project went, went on longer, I became more selective as to who I was working with because I wanted to hear Stories with, you know, a background of socioeconomic status, a background of different genders and sexualities and races and ages, if possible. 

So the, so I wanted those stories to be, be rich in, in their diversity. So, you know, to give you, to give you an example, one woman who was very, very near and dear to me, Jenny, she was an extraordinary artist. And she lived in low income housing in San Francisco, and she had, she had grown up with an extremely abusive, traumatic childhood, and had lived unhoused, like, all over the States.

But all along the way, like, her art making had been her source of purpose and her source of transcendence. So when I went to visit her, she was, you know, In this tiny, tiny room in these blocks of low income housing in San Francisco. And she would just be surrounded by her artwork. And she would just sit there, like, slurping grape soda and chain smoking cigarettes.

And just with this, like, stunning, like, intricate, like, beadwork that she had, had done over, like, decades of, of her life. And she was just, she taught me that, You know, really finding purpose and finding meaning has nothing to do with, with privilege. It’s not a privileged thing to, to, it’s a privilege, but it’s not a privileged thing to be able to do.

She, she found it just in these moments of transcendence with her encounter with, with her creative life. And she, she was deeply inspirational woman. Wow. 

Diane Hullet: What were some others? 

Claudia Bicen: Let’s see. So Harlan was a man that I worked with who was, was, They’re all wonderful. It’s hard to say they’re wonderful. Everybody touched me in such, in, in such deep and, and different ways.

Harlan was a truck driver out in the, the East Valley, like out in the Central Valley, sorry. And he drove for 25 years and eventually got skin cancer on his, on his arm from having his arm like out of the window, like all of those, all of those years. So when I saw him, his arm was heavily, heavily bandaged. 

And he had been in hospital a very long time, and I think it had given him the opportunity to really shift into a Sort of more spiritual life, which I think for him was almost surprising that hadn’t been his, that hadn’t been his life. And he’d gone deeper and deeper into the present and just said that, you know, the joy he got from just hearing the birds sing or like feeling the, the sun on his face, these sort of like these simple moments.

And what I loved about him is he, you know, He was this truck driver and he loved like fixing up motorcycles and things. And when I would come and visit him, he would show me these, these model cars and model motorcycles that he had been painting. But what made it fascinating was that he painted them with his With the, with his opposite hand that he was used to painting with because he had cancer in, in his arm that he was used to writing and painting with.

And it just was this stunning story of resilience and meaning making and creativity that he once, loved riding motorcycles and fixing them up and here he was like finding meaning in teaching himself to use his other hand and painting these model motorcycles it just it was this beautiful meta metaphor for me of just like the power and the drive of just life to create.

And like 

Diane Hullet: that through line for him like that he just kept adapting and finding a way to be in contact with what had meaning and what he loved, even when it was as simple as a small motorcycle model and his non dominant hand. Wow. Like you said that drive the resilience that the, the intensity of humans to keep living.

Yes. So pretty terrible. Full terminal 

Claudia Bicen: stuff. Yeah. And you use, use that word to, to adapt. And I just, that again was just so inspiring to me. I’m just like, wow, like life throws you this experience and you just, you pivot and you pivot and you pivot and you just keep trying to make meaning from it. And it just, yeah, he, he was just a really beautiful person.

Are there themes 

Diane Hullet: that you extrapolated that people shared? 

Claudia Bicen: Yeah, there definitely were. I mean at first it was sort of almost hard to tell exactly what they were because everybody’s lives was so different. But then at the end of the project, I could just see how, and I’ve sort of almost alluded to this already, but how fundamentally at its essence, The act of meaning making is creative.

It’s about finding ways to be in the world in a creative participatory conversational way with the world around you. And that can manifest in so many different ways, but being an active participant and creator not just of your own life, but of your relationship with reality is what it means to make meaning.

I mean, meaning. is something we make. And I think you could also see in people, you know, where there was like regrets or a sense of, of loss where I think they felt like they either hadn’t been able to do that or, you know, and like so many people just think I talk about this on my, on my website for the project, but nobody cared about the opposite.

And what I mean by the opposite was what they had consumed and accumulated and owned and like all of these things that they had sort of taken into themselves. And that was really striking because here we are in the culture and the time and place that we find ourselves in where the entire philosophy and norm is like the idea of success is to be able to accumulate, you know, to be in a position to be able to accumulate.

And yet, when you talk to people at the end of their lives, it just, it couldn’t have been further from what was valuable to people. 

Diane Hullet: Oh, you just said so much. This idea of that we make meaning through Oh, you said it so beautifully. We make meaning through our participation. That was really, really a point.

And, and I think that means participation in community. And what does that mean? Is that the community of your small family with young kids, if that would? Is what you have is that your participation in your community with taking care of elders that you know, is that participation in something larger than a family unit, but that that sense of participation is such a powerful word for us.

And I think it’s gotten so poignant for people with the pandemic. I see so many of us and young people in particular struggling with how do I get back to community? And what does that mean? Because. Again, this piece of what makes meaning, what is meaningful at the end of your life is what you said. It’s, it’s the opposite of what we think it is.

Claudia Bicen: Yeah. Yeah. I definitely, I definitely feel that way. And I think that participation can also, I think community is really crucial and it can be communities of like the more than human world. Like how are we participating? Within like natural spaces. How do we like with Jenny, who I just mentioned with her, it was about creating art and that was sort of participating in the world through creating beauty.

I think there are like so many ways to be a participant in the world and create meaning from it. And as social beings, other people, I think are one of the, one of the most important. And having a sense of belonging is one of the most crucial things that we, we can have as humans. Yeah. 

Diane Hullet: I, sometimes people say, Oh, you know, Diane, what are your favorite TV shows?

And I’m like actually I hardly watch any TV shows cause I’m always creating, I’m always making. And, you know, for many years, that’s been different kinds of things, whether it was painting or drawing in a totally nonprofessional way. And then I switched to quilting like much to my surprise. I mean, I always say, if you had told me I’d be doing something that involved math and ironing.

I would have been like, yeah, no, probably not. And then there are math and ironing is how you make quilts, you know, but currently it’s creating this work. Currently. It’s like creating this podcast and creating end of life materials to share at this broader level. And the satisfaction, the internal, like joy of connecting and finding ways to channel our purpose, if you will, is just really profound.

Claudia Bicen: You know, it’s funny that you would mention quilting, because I just ran, I run workshops around finding purpose and meaning and things like that, and I do a lot of metaphor work, and I just ran one on Tuesday, and we had all these cards to, pictures, cards to represent different ways that you could imagine success, different ideas that we have about success, and the one that I picked out to represent my vision of success was Quilting.

And the reason, you know, not literal quilting for me, I’ve never made a quilt in my life, but the, the metaphor being that I feel like at this point in my life, what is so important to me for, for purpose and for meaning is feeling like I’m Contributing to something much bigger than myself. Something, an old craft that has existed long before me that many, particularly women, right, have done this craft and quilting represents just like adding to it and layering on and being part of some much bigger network of creativity.

Diane Hullet: Yeah, like stitching together disparate pieces. And I always think about this quote I have on my wall where I sew, which was an old pioneer woman. And she said, I sew as quickly as I can to keep my family warm. And I sew as beautifully as I can to keep my heart from breaking. And I think about how that craft had to do with both utilitarian, like using every scrap of fabric in a household to repurpose it.

And then how it became this art and how it became a symbol of, you know, beauty and community that people would come together and sew together and create quilts in such a fast timeframe, like a barn raising, you know, they would have quilting bees and quickly quilt these pieces together, but, but it was taking the disparate pieces and making something whole.

That is the metaphor, right? Oh, I 

Claudia Bicen: love that. That quote is, is divine. I love that. Yeah. 

Diane Hullet: Yeah. So stunning. So you, I mean, that’s really what you were doing with this project was taking community, taking individuals and then in a different way, stitching their words onto their fabric with your pencil. And so their words would be captured.

Claudia Bicen: Yeah. And that piece was so important and it was another, like the, the, the reasoning behind that was. Again, it was a metaphor. It was a metaphor for how we carry our stories with us and how our stories both make us and we make them. It’s this sort of interrelated, interdependent creation of meaning, again, personal narrative.

And also from just an artistic perspective, the reason I wanted their stories on their clothing was, again, then as the viewer, You could come and really spend time with the piece, really slow down, really come right up close in order to read it. You have to come, you know, almost like here to get really intimate with the piece.

And I wanted to find a way to encourage people to really slow down. And I think when we are confronting these massive topics like death and dying, this isn’t something to just sort of swipe through your phone, right? This is something to really sit with. meditatively, contemplatively. 

Diane Hullet: The image of these pieces being hung in that building you described are just so lovely that you could wander through a maze of cremated remains and then come to this person telling their story.

Ah, incredible. Where can people see this work? 

Claudia Bicen: Well, so most of them are now at one, one of UCSF’s hospitals in San Francisco at their cancer center in Mission Bay. Yeah. So, I mean, it’s not really, most people will not find themselves in the hospital, but I wanted, I really, I was thrilled at the opportunity to have them in the hospital because I wanted them somewhere that people would be able to encounter them, like where they really needed.

And I think a hospital is such a wonderful space for that. And I actually have an amazing story when they first were hung in the hospital, like several years ago, one, I think, I believe it was the great grandson of Aura, who was one of the one of my subjects came in with his wife who was heavily pregnant at the time and they saw, they didn’t know that his great grandmother’s portrait was hanging there and they saw her portrait hanging and they were very, very religious people and they called me and they were like, we, it, this was just a sign.

It was a sign that she was, she was looking over us and looking over our unborn child and we knew it was all going to be okay. 

Diane Hullet: I love to what you said is that the way the portraits are created and with the words on the on the canvas, a hospital is a place where people have time to slow down sometimes and have time to look and family members who are waiting can read these stories and and come to experience that sense of meaning that people conveyed in their stories and in their words that they shared.


Claudia Bicen: Somewhere like a cancer center, you are contemplating mortality and probably in a very scary, scary way. And so to be able to offer something that maybe, maybe in some small, small way, offers it in a, in a, in a, Through beauty and intimacy and compassion is the hope 

Diane Hullet: is the hope incredible. I bet there’s been other kind of incredible ramifications like people who’ve come back to you over time and said, oh, like the person I met who said, Oh, my grandmother was part of this project.

Are there other stories like 

Claudia Bicen: that? There are there was actually not long ago last year, the sun. Daniel called me out of the blue and said, we just found my dad’s portrait online. We had no idea that he had participated in this project because they had become estranged from one another. And I don’t know how it must have happened.

He normally, I don’t put the last name, but somehow this, he found this portrait and he was like, can you just send me like everything? Like we hadn’t talked for years. My, my kids hadn’t met him. Please tell me more about, about my dad at the end of his life. And that was just, yeah, that was extraordinary.

Yeah. We talked on the phone for a long time and I sent him everything, all the recordings that I had in like some strange way, probably. temporarily sort of brought him back to, back to life in a way that they’d never heard. How amazing 

Diane Hullet: that kind of sense of reconciliation and healing, even after he was gone.

Yeah, I hope so. You can find these pieces, you can look at them at thoughtsinpassing. com. And of course, these are on your, you know, they’re on a website, it’s going to be on your computer screen, not as stunning as the real thing, but still a really powerful way to get a sense of these portraits that Claudia and I’ve been talking about.

Where else can people find out about your work? 

Claudia Bicen: Yeah, so my, my main website is claudiabeachan. art. My last name is B I C E N dot art. And then you can see lots of other projects that I’ve worked on there. I also have a, a book coming out next year that’s, that’s being published by Unruly. And I’m really excited about that.

Completely different kind of project. But one that still is celebrating life and finding meaning in life. It’s a story of. How life evolved on earth told us this sort of whimsical mythical story, but it was a collaboration with a neuroscientist biologist poet. So that one I’m extremely excited about. I did all of the all of the illustration.

I started that immediately after. Thoughts in passing. So I’ve been, I was illustrating that alongside my main job for about six years. Yeah. 

Diane Hullet: Fantastic. Okay. Wait, back up. Neuroscientist, biologist, poet. Sounds like somebody I should interview. 

Claudia Bicen: Yes. He’s an ordinary person and a very, very dear friend of mine, Brian Isaacs.


Diane Hullet: cool. Very, very cool. Well, Claudia, I thank you so much for your time. I just think everything you said about meaning, creating meaning and what it meant to you to take these portraits of people at the end of their life and their stories and their thoughts and wrap those into a piece of art that’s now hanging in a hospital.

What a beautiful story. Thank 

Claudia Bicen: you. Thank you so much 

Diane Hullet: for talking with me. Yeah, thank you. As always, you can find out about the work I do at Best Life. Best death.com. And again, you can find out more about Claudia at Claudia Bien, BICE n.art. Thanks for listening.

Picture of Diane Hullet

Diane Hullet

End of Life Doula, Podcaster, and founder of Best Life Best Death.