When he lost his father to cancer, David Powell couldn't accept the words of comfort people tried to offer.
"They'd say 'Aren't you so glad you know what you know?' " Powell said, referring to the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints about what happens to the soul after death. "To me, it was painful to hear that. It was well-intended, and I don't fault them for that, but I just thought, 'What is it I know?' I don't know anything. Does anybody really know what happens after death?"
Over time, through art, he was able to find hope. An exhibit of the art he created, exploring his feelings about life and death, opens March 4 in Ogden's Universe City gallery in conjunction with the First Friday Art Stroll.
Powell, of Kaysville, is an art student at Weber State University.
"What I've been wanting to do, as a career, is go into film and do conceptual design for movies," he said.
To add depth to his skills, he took a costume design class in the school's theater department. He ended up winning an award for leather masks he created for the school's 2009 production of "Sleepy Hollow," and is now working on leather armor for "The Lion in Winter," opening March 4 at WSU.
He's also been sending samples of his leather work to Weta Workshop, in New Zealand, and says the response has been encouraging. He hopes to one day work for the company known for creating costuming, props and digital effects for "Lord of the Rings" and "Avatar."
Powell learned to work with leather from his father, David Linden Powell.
"I was lucky," he said. "My dad and I had a great relationship."
Powell's father died March 12, 2009.
"It felt like more than was possible to bear," Powell said. "He was a huge part of my life. We related to each other more than I do with anyone else, so the loss was incalculable."
His feelings of grief were compounded by a loss of faith.
"I was raised LDS, and served a mission to Brazil," he said. "I started having struggles with my thoughts on religion -- that was a while before my dad got the six months' notice, I guess, of his prognosis."
Powell struggles to define what he's been going through.
"I still don't know where I stand on that issue," he said, adding that in his core he still holds on to what he was taught, but he has doubts and disagreements. "At times, I feel like I have a contradictory personality."
A path home
For about a year, Powell couldn't approach his father's death through art. When he finally did, the first images were dark and hopeless. One of those pictures was stolen, but another shows the artist's frustration that his life was "crashing apart" while others went on with life as usual.
"I'm not sure when the transition was, exactly, going from hopelessness to hope. I think it was gradual, and I think creating artwork about it kind of forced me to view it in a different way. I was finally going to say something out loud, and what did I want that message to be?" he said.
One of his large-scale drawings, done in charcoal, captures his father's attitude.
"We could support him, but it was his battle, and he faced it with what I viewed as humility and dignity," said Powell.
Another drawing includes a window.
"He would ask me to take him to the window, so he could see," Powell said of his father in his final days. "It was February, so it was snowy, and he was enamored with the beauty of it all."
Symbols in the dream-like black and white drawings include white stones, trees and stars. The trail of small white stones remind Powell of how fairy tale characters Hansel and Gretel found their way home. Trees, lifting their branches toward the sky, symbolize a launching place for souls.
"The shape of the star cluster represents a phenomenon in the universe that scientists believe to be the birthplace of stars," said Powell.
The art has given Powell a chance to see that others have also struggled with loss.
"It's been really fulfilling to meet people through my artwork. They'll see it, and have had somebody who passed away, and we'll talk about it. It's a group therapy session, I guess," he said. "There is sadness in the drawings, but it's not angry desperation. I think that connects and resonates with other people."