- Associated Press - Sunday, March 27, 2016

WASHINGTON (AP) - Claudia Bicen seemed to be living the millennial dream. The tall, striking British American worked at a San Francisco start-up, surrounded by people eager for the next big shining thing.

But, living in that city she calls “the center of the future,” Bicen felt disconnected. She had studied anthropology and cultural narratives of mental illness. After leaving her job, she began to poke into the city’s hidden corners - specifically, into hospices. Armed with a tape recorder, a camera and a pencil, she began spending hours with some of the culture’s most invisible people: those who would soon die.

This week, the project she started two years ago came to a head: her portrait of Jenny Miller, a 71-year-old barber sick with two kinds of cancer, took its place in the National Portrait Gallery. It will hang there until early next year along with other winners of the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition at the National Portrait Gallery, a national award granted every three years to outstanding portrait artists.

Miller is one of nine hospice patients portrayed in Thoughts In Passing, Bicen’s series of pencil and cut-out portraits accompanied by audio clips. All had been told that they had 6 months or less to live. And, in different ways, all found that the nearness of death sharpened their understanding of life.

Sitting in the museum’s atrium the day before the show opened, 29-year-old Bicen said she embarked on the project believing the dying might have lessons to teach her.

“Birth and death - these two moments of life are really sacred, and everything in between is kind of the madness of life,” she said.

Approaching the hospices was intimidating. Would they think it presumptuous, this young woman with so much ahead of her, barging in on those whose lives had been curtailed?

Of the 10 hospices she contacted, “Every single one said yes. Yes, we want to bring people who are dying into the public eye; yes, we want to create a legacy for people; and yes, we like your work.”

Between March 2014 and November of last year she met between four and seven times with each person, getting to know them, talking about their lives, and recording the conversations. It took another 40 to 50 hours to do each portrait, which she drew from photos she had taken.

In the portraits, which are life-sized, the subjects’ words are written literally on their sleeves - and all over their clothing - in Bicen’s neat, even handwriting.

“You see artwork and you take a snapshot and move on. I thought, ‘how can I draw people in?’ When you’re up close to the piece you have kind of an intimate experience.”

The recordings help. The subjects’ voices can be wavering and raspy; weathered from the years and the sicknesses they are confronting. They are meant to evoke a conversation between viewer and subject.

“Even though they were dying they were almost living more deeply than they had before, ” she said. “People talk about moving into the now. Having the future stripped away really pulls you into the now. They would sit and look at the beauty of a tree. One man, Harlan, would leave his window open 24 hours a day so he could see the sunrise because it meant he had made it to another day.”

But it was not easy to become close to people with so little time left. Five died before their portraits were finished. That hit Bicen hard.

“It really woke me up to what I was doing, and I really realized I can’t sit around and say, ‘Oh, I’ll go next week.’”

Bicen never studied art formally, but her submission made an impression on Dorothy Moss, associate curator of painting and sculpture at the museum, and the director of the competition. “We were really struck by her draftsmanship and the expression on her face,” she said. “There’s something really compelling about that gaze.”

The family of Ena, a nurse who died last month at 97, contacted Bicen after her funeral. “They had the memorial and sent out the portrait and the audio. Several members of her family called me to say how much it helped them in their mourning process.”

The daughter of Harlan, the truck driver, who died at 53, said she has listened to the interview around 100 times. “She says it feels like it almost brings him alive again.”

At parties, when Bicen tells people what she does, their faces often go blank. Some say, why would you want to do that? But friends and family get it. And the subjects themselves had strong reactions to seeing the portraits. One couldn’t talk for several minutes; he just cried.

“I went into this thinking that every person was going to provide me with some kind of wisdom,” she said. “But people just die as themselves. We die as ourselves. There isn’t going to necessarily be some kind of revelation or change - this is it.”

But rather than think more about dying, she now thinks about it less. “This anxiety about my mortality, I feel like now it has gone away.” She laughed. “I mean, I’m sure it’ll come back. But hey, you know what? You have everything now, so just be with it. Tomorrow is not promised. When you hear that from people who are standing on the edge, you listen.”

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Information from: The Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com

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