Laurie’s Art Process

It’s been an amazing experience to work with the Anderson family on this art book project that started in 2010. I feel honored to be entrusted with their stories and have tried my best to represent their intimate experiences. 

I believe that one of the strengths of art and storytelling is showing us different perspectives than the one we’re currently stuck in. It also validates our experience. Trauma can make us feel isolated and alone, but art can knit us back into the fabric of human life.   


The story bits are taken from interviews with each family member and edited until they contain as few words as possible to convey the story. The person I’m working with has to approve everything before I use it so it’s a true collaboration. In this case, Rebecca had the final say over her children’s stories and images.

When the text is finalized I ask the person I’m working with to give me a number from +100 to -100 that quantifies the emotion they felt in each situation represented in the story bits. -100 is the worst they’ve ever felt, +100 is the best they’ve ever felt. That gives me mathematical plot points to use for the Heaven /Hell graph. The top of the page equals +100 (Heaven) and the bottom of the page equals -100 (Hell). The dashed lines between each text piece act as a connecter between story elements.

Readers understand a story through specific experiences. What allows the story to feel universal is the up and down emotions. A graph makes this explicit.  


A big part of the visual strategy I use to tell the Anderson’s story is iconography. The icons start as commercially available clipart that I ask each portrait subject to help me choose.  I then redraw it with my less-dominant hand (in my case, my left hand) so that it looks raw and unpolished. I do that to reflect the rawness of the emotional experience. I like to "mashup" clipart because it’s the symbolic pool for so much of our emotional history — the Greek comedy / tragedy mask is the direct ancestor of the smiley face emoticon. The cuteness of clipart is appealing on a basic level, but my mash-up of it adds another emotional dimension.


For the photographic portraits on the book covers, the icons are richly saturated, transparent jewel tones that stand out against the dull backgrounds the figures are situated in. To me, that represents how storytelling can move us out of depression into a place of saturated connection with the history of human meaning. Storytelling takes a senseless, overwhelming experience of suffering and gives it context by connecting it to universal human experience. Telling your own story or working with someone else to represent your story are excellent ways to transform trauma.


One of the side effects of experiencing a trauma like a loved one’s suicide can be the feeling of being absolutely alone, in a bubble that separates you from everything and everyone else, separating you from all of human history. A tool to ease this feeling of isolation is storytelling.

Humans have been telling stories visually since the caves at Lascaux — those beautiful smudgy drawings of animals that would look at home in any modern art museum. Whether they are told verbally, visually, musically, or kinesthetically, stories connect us to all of human history.

When we tell our own story, we’re joining a community of sufferers, of humans who have made sense of their experience by sharing it. 

To see the original artist books and more of my art projects, please visit

Laurie Phillips

Rebecca and her son Aidan are available to speak to your group about using art and storytelling to heal from grief surrounding the suicide of a loved one. Please contact Rebecca for information about scheduling a presentation or ordering book sets in volume.