All of Her

The wrong things are kept secret, and it destroys people.

– Nan Goldin

Last Saturday, I went to see All the Beauty and the Bloodshed at my hometown movie theater.

The film traces the life of photographer Nan Goldin, who spent years campaigning to remove the Sackler family name from museum walls, given their central role as instigators of the opioid epidemic (my daughter one of its victims).

Goldin became addicted to OxyContin after being prescribed it. She survived an overdose, and later learned the Sacklers became fabulously wealthy from OxyContin sales and had been cleansing their name through museum philanthropy. She was infuriated.

Her campaign succeeded: for once, truth won, and the Sackler name came tumbling down.

Goldin knew that silence is deadly.

Today (February 11) is the ninth anniversary of Elisif’s fatal overdose. Her opioid addiction began with OxyContin, but her death is not entirely the Sackler family’s fault. In our erring, our silence, our avoidance, we all have a modicum of complicity in the ravages of the opioid epidemic: it is our epidemic.

That’s a hard truth to accept, but as Goldin’s crusade demonstrates, secrets and lies kill.

I abhor the idea of keeping secrets about Elisif. To censor her story is to hide the truth, bowing to shame and stigma, perpetuating harm.

In a new series of paintings, I’ve been thinking about my soon-to-be-grandchild and the aunt he’ll never meet. I want him to know her – all of her.

August 31 is International Overdose Awareness Day, a day to remember those who have died, and honor the grief of surviving family and friends. Before moving to Maine in 2019, I took part in events every August 31 in Baltimore, as a presenter, audience member, and program organizer. We would share stories. We would light candles. We would remember, together.

It was always beautiful.

In Lincoln County, the rural county where I now live, people are dying. I’m glad to be partnering with a growing team of organizations and individuals to plan events this August 31 honoring those we’ve lost. In sharing their stories, we’re shattering the culture of secrecy that has destroyed so many.

On that day, standing in the light of truth, breaking the silence, we will remember, together.

– Peter Bruun

Phylicia Ghee

Installation photo of Liminality: A Story of Remembrance by Phylicia Ghee

Every aspect of Phylicia Ghee’s art is considered, each choice made with purposeful attention, everything done with the care of a sacred act. There is no accident, and nothing is arbitrary.

Nowhere is this clearer than with Liminality: A Story of Remembrance, her recent exhibition at the Nicholson Project in Washington D.C.

The product of a three-month residency, the project’s press release describes the culminating installation as “an ode to the self taught herbalists, midwives and root women whose stories are shrouded in the mysteries of Phylicia’s personal family history and the history of this country.”

A succinct description of an extraordinary undertaking, one in which Phylicia entirely transforms two conventionally white-walled gallery rooms into sacred sanctuaries.

Though physically built over a three-month period, the exhibition had been years in the making.

“It started with a dream 10 years ago,” says Phylicia.

“I had always been drawn to midwifery, herbalism, and other healing modalities. I knew there were women in my lineage involved in these practices. Then I dreamed of a space where I could sit with them.”

The Nicholson Project became that space.

“It was perfect, because it already felt like a home. It had been a home. With the plaster walls, even the molding … it had this sense of history about it.”

As soon as she got the residency, things began to happen.

“Right away, pieces for the rooms began finding me,” she says. “A year before my residency began, my grandfather and I saw a Victorian chair just sitting there at a gas station. I bought it for $30, threw it in the truck and took it home.”

And so it went: an antique sofa here, a secretary cabinet there, each object emerging as if conjured from her dream of a decade before.

Once the residency began, Phylicia brought a staggering attention to detail to her process. Her checklist was enormous: from the layers of paint on the walls in nuanced colors (not just black, but black with brown – grounding like earth, warm like skin), to the finding exactly the right items to convey meaning (mining the archives at the AFRO News to find just the right articles to paper the archway), to creating the perfect audioscape for the exhibition (sorghum blowing in the wind; the sound of floors creaking; a fetal heartbeat of her niece, still in the womb).

In the depth of its consideration and embodiment, Liminality: A Story of Remembrance is more than just art. It is a monumental prayer to and a blessing from the ancestors.

Left to right, installation photos of Liminality: A Story of Remembrance by Phylicia Ghee & Alanna Reeves

And not just for Phylicia.

Having learned of the exhibition, a Black midwife from Mississippi, Tanya Smith-Johnson, flew to D.C. to see it on its final day. She told Phylicia she’d be back the next day with a colleague, so Phylicia agreed to open the gallery for another day. The next morning, she opened the door and not one but 5 Black midwives entered the space, stopping, rapt, before the wall of portraits of their spiritual forebears. Following her visit with Tanya the previous day, Ebony Marcelle, a local midwife, brought 12 more Black midwives to see the exhibition.

Time collapsed for Phylicia, as if the spirits of those on her gallery walls were made manifest in the bodies of these midwives.

Just before they were ready to leave, Ebony moved to the basin where Phylicia had performed a weekly rosewater ritual and she prayed while washing the hands of a new midwife with the rose water. One by one each of the midwives offered prayers and cleansing for this new midwife at the washtable. After offering her prayers, Phylicia gave a rose to each visitor on her way out – these women who seemed to have been called by, or to, this ancestral space.

“I’d been trying to figure out how to end something so sacred, and return it to my heartspace.”

With this final magical moment, she knew the ancestors had delivered it.

Photo of Phylicia Ghee by Beverly Price

Phylicia Ghee is an interdisciplinary visual artist, photographer and curator based in Baltimore. Learn more about Liminality: A Story of Remembrance and the community that made this work possible here.


Iridescence by Peter Bruun, pastel & ink on paper, 15″ x 11″, 2019

On the anniversary of his daughter’s death from an accidental overdose, a drawing with writing by Peter about that day.

She fell and we fell: you and me collapsed in our room at the Lake Point Inn, bawling, I still smell that floor, carpet mingled in musk and grind, you and me there, our bodies inside out. We touched. We wanted our fingertips to fix each other, to heal. We touched. For we did not know what else to do. Our baby.

Once I dreamed of a bleeding cornfield, red and black. Everyone is dead. “Everyone is dead! Everyone is dead!” I keep crying, unbelieving. The cornfield is within a painting hung on the wall across the way in the foyer of my father’s home from childhood. It distracts me, the yellow ochre stalks oozing red and black. It takes my mind from the dying of all whom I love, and I step toward it in fascination, moving in close to the pooling reds and widening blacks.

After a while, from some deep place of wisdom, you suggested it would be good to move our bodies; to go ahead and cross-country ski, as we had been getting dressed to do when we got the call. It felt impossible, but somehow our bodies obeyed.

I look at the reds, I look at the blacks, and those blacks are not black, for in those blacks, shimmering with iridescence, are the most beautiful colors I have ever seen. I woke up. 

Sun washing across snow-covered Deep Creek Lake on this perfect crystalline day, the worst day of my life, my daughter dead. She was dead. She was dead, and we made our bodies move. And as we moved, one painful motion at a time, I looked up. There, dancing in the air, in the sparkling light, were the most beautiful colors I had ever seen, shimmering in the white with the iridescence of a dream.

Elisif Janis Bruun, March 20, 1989 – February 11, 2014

February 2023

Announcing Bruun Studios Inc.

With the mission of using art and story to create spaces where everyone is seen, heard, and valued, cultivating individual self-esteem and building stronger communities, Bruun Studios Inc. is now a nonprofit organization. We look forward to sharing more about this venture in coming weeks.

Announcing 716 Candles

With an eye to his previous work in Maryland with the New Day Campaign, Peter is now working with Healthy Lincoln County (HLC) to present four events on International Overdose Awareness Day (August 31). The events will pay tribute to the 716 Mainers who died of fatal overdoses in 2022, and honor those who live on in loss and pain. Learn how to become involved here.

Art Talk at Colby College

On Monday, March 13, 5:00-6:30 P.M., in a presentation sponsored by Colby College, Peter will share original drawings and present a talk on his recent online exhibition, Bibliography, at Greene Block & Studios, a collaborative art space in Waterville. The event is open to the public. Visit here for details.