“Many people ‘find religion’ after such an experience. I had the opposite reaction. People are always coming to me in the hope that my near-death experience will confirm whatever theological doctrine they profess. But my experience actually brought me to a place where I no longer need answers to all the big questions. I’m content to let the mystery be.” — Dan Rhema, I Close My Eyes to See
It’s been a few years since I first became acquainted with the art of Dan Rhema through his ebook, I Close My Eyes to See: The Dan Rhema Story as Told to Kevin Wilson.
I continue to be fascinated by his art and story. Whenever I feel that I’m being pretentious about aspiring to create, I can look back at his story and feel revitalized. To me, his art opens channels to the creative spirit that lives in each of us, that compels us towards making our marks, and communing with the divine through that even shifting thing we call art.
When I was in my teens, I had epilepsy, and was literally thrown to the ground and given visions that I still struggle to decipher. My experience drew me to stories and art. And while I didn’t suffer nearly the extent of transformation that Rhema did, I find many truths in his work.
Dan Rhema suffered a life altering illness and near death experience. In 1991, he was living with his wife, Susan, and 3 daughters in Mexico, directing an international training center. An epidemic of Dengue fever spread through the town and he and Susan and two of their young daughters became infected. Dan contracted 3 different strains of it, which deteriorated into meningitis and encephalitis.
He says, “I traveled out of my body and began journeying down a long dark tunnel. As I progressed down the tunnel, I remember thinking that I did not want to die without my wife and children being with me. My progress down the tunnel ended and I began the long struggle back to consciousness, one level at a time.”
His illnesses ravaged his memory, which became “like swiss cheese,” with holes and detours. Things he remembered were out of context and disjointed. He felt like his head was on fire. He felt like he was floating and had to grip the headboard of his bed to rest.
Before the fever he was very minimalist in his possessions, afterwards he was compelled to collect objects all the time. At a family reunion, he discovered he could remember things if he put them in a story.
He began to keep a dream journal. Although before the fever he never did art work, he began to create assemblages that took on a life of their own. He began to paint with his fingers like a child.
These compulsions made him fear he was going crazy, but through them he began to be able to reconnect aspects of his life and mind and soul. He had created 15 sculptures, unsure of them, afraid they were a sign of insanity. Then Susan found an article on outsider and visionary art and it helped him accept the truth of his own creative nature, and his own mysterious existence.
He re-created himself.
I Close My Eyes to See is a beautiful telling of how he did so. The text is minimalist and the story unfolds through the art. The photographs of it by Steven Clark are crisp and vivid. This was the first art book I’d read on the computer. The sculptures are muted and have a floating quality; the paintings are bright and imbued with intense energy. I think the lighting of the screen gives the work a glow and presence that wouldn’t be there otherwise. I like being able to enlarge the image and see the details and textures.
The narration through the art is moving and deeply engaging. This is what recovery looks like. It’s miraculous and frightening and amazingly rich with beauty.
The art tells the story not so much of survival but of rebirth. There are deep spiritual overtones. Dan says. “I continue to live with one foot in this world and the other foot in another world.”
I am especially grateful to read this book as we go rushing into the holiday season and are inundated with mixed messages about rebirth and gift giving. Our lives can change drastically at any given moment. The facades we build and cling to are the real illusions. Going deeper into the mystery is the real gift.
This book is a real gift, unique and hard-won, that floats between reality and unreality; that celebrates the mystery of the future and the divinity of the present.
I encourage you to look at Rhema’s website, where you can find links to buy the book, as well as get a look at his children’s books and other ventures.
I’ll close this post with a quote I found on his site:
“That we come to this Earth to live is untrue: we come but to sleep, to dream.” – Anonymous Aztec poet