Grief leads to prolific period for Daniel Ferlan in 'The Light Through the Mourning'

The April exhibition at Sharon Weiss Gallery features work the Columbus artist made following the death of his mother in 2019

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
"All That You Hold Dear," oil on canvas by Columbus artist Daniel Ferlan, currently on view at Sharon Weiss Gallery.

When Daniel Ferlan’s mother passed away after Thanksgiving in 2019, the Columbus artist assumed he wouldn’t touch his sketchbooks or oil paints for a while. Instead, he became more prolific than ever. 

“As soon as it happened, I started drawing like crazy,” said Ferlan, whose new exhibition, “The Light Through the Mourning,” is on view this month at Sharon Weiss Gallery in the Short North. An homage to his mom, the paintings became therapeutic for Ferlan, helping him get through a difficult, isolating time.

“This show was so personal that it scared me a little bit. Would people be able to connect with it?” said Ferlan, whose initial fears were assuaged early on as gallery visitors and longtime collectors of his work connected immediately with the paintings. (All but one sold on the exhibition’s opening night.) Loss, after all, is both intensely personal and universal — a truism that became even more painfully real throughout the pandemic.

Ferlan’s paintings are populated by characters he first draws in sketchbooks, which contain thousands of figures. From this cast of characters, certain ones are chosen for a canvas, and each figure has a particular meaning and purpose — some decipherable (birds depicting freedom), some more mysterious and personal (bunnies represent Ferlan’s fiancée). Ferlan often sees himself in the figure of a behatted boy. Others stand in for Ferlan’s subconscious thoughts and emotions.

"They're Coming Through," oil on canvas, by Daniel Ferlan

Skulls and skeletons show up throughout “The Light Through the Mourning,” though Ferlan doesn’t always see their inclusion as macabre or spooky. Often, a skull is merely a reminder of life’s temporal nature, and a gentle nudge to embrace what you have while you’re here.  

The paintings at Sharon Weiss tell a story, beginning with “They’re Coming Through,” which prominently features a storybook-like house. “When I think of home and Mom, it’s that house,” Ferlan said. “It’s where you feel safe.” 

The rest of the pieces are more akin to landscapes, with rolling hills and scenes that all take place in the spring. Flowers burst forth on a hilltop in the celebratory “You Will Always Be in My Heart,” a memorial painting. “She loved flowers. She loved spring,” Ferlan said. “I think she would have liked this one.”

"You Will Always Be in My Heart," oil on canvas, by Daniel Ferlan

In “Brought to the Clouds,” a boy climbs a tree while a hand reaches down from clouds above. “It’s a little kid trying to go up into heaven to meet his mom," Ferlan said. "When I lost her, I felt young again. You feel vulnerable again, thinking, where are you?” “All That You Hold Dear,” on the other hand, presents a different stage of the grieving process with a teary-eyed boy walking away from a skull and spirit creature in the trees — the act of moving on, despite not knowing what’s ahead.

Ferlan’s hyper-focused creative outburst has yet to let up, and a couple of the paintings, such as “Does It Have a Heart II,” point to a renewed interest in simpler scenes that focus on one idea, like a film still, but with the same visual language Ferlan has used for years. “I’ve been going back into my painterly-ness that I used to do more of in my 20s,” said Ferlan, now 48. “I got this itch to bring back my texture.” 

But that doesn’t mean Ferlan is doing away with his beloved cast of characters. “I still like my neurotic [work]. It’s the busy-ness inside my head,” he said. “I have to get it out one way or another.”