SARAH LEGAULT is a filmmaker, visual artist, illustrator, doll-maker, writer, curator, photographer and more. She is the Bird Behind the Mask, the lady in red hair and high heels, and my friend.
When I first planned having these conversations about death I knew I wanted to talk to Sarah in part because I honestly didn’t know what she might say. She’s a quiet woman. But I knew that she had been having a really rough time, health-wise, and was finally on the mend. I wondered about the characters in her art—the skeletal, bird-like figures in her drawings and comics, the creepy dolls and lonely figures in her films, and what they might be manifesting. I knew that she had recently suffered the death of her long-time canine companion and wanted to know how she was dealing with that, and if she had a ghost dog living in her house now. I had hoped that she would be open to being my first subject on this new journey, and she was. What I found out that afternoon over tea on her red velvet couch was just how much death has surrounded Sarah her entire life, and how much she thinks about the spirits of those who have left us.
Sarah, can we start with your earliest experiences with death? What are your childhood memories?
The neighbourhood we lived in, in Orangeville, there was a lot of death that happened on our block. A girl across the street from us joined a cult. She ended up hanging herself. A man down the street had a heart attack on his front porch and died. A car accident happened with our other neighbours. They were driving, and they were about to get T-boned. Their grandson was in the back, so the man turned the car around so he would be hit instead. He died. And two kids with the backyards that matched up to ours got murdered, in the public school, over a weekend. It was a young kid that actually murdered both of them. They were good friends of ours.
What did you understand about what was happening to these people?
Because I grew up in a Catholic family, we were very much into the whole idea of heaven. You knew all about death and resurrections and stuff like that.
Can you remember your first funeral ?
Yup. My grandfather. He had lung cancer and emphysema. But the first traumatic death experience was my uncle David. He went into the hospital and we thought he was going to come out quick but he passed away. That was the first funeral I went to where I could not stop hysterically crying. It was difficult to even go up to the coffin. He was such a true gentleman, the kind that don’t exist anymore. It really sunk in, the actual loss, that there is nobody to replace this person.
Do you still believe in heaven?
When you’re a kid and you get told something, you believe that’s the way it is. It wasn’t until I was a teenager and moved out on my own that I started to use my own thought process about the afterlife. Now, it’s a mixture of confusion. I don’t think it’s as basic as Heaven or Hell. I want to believe more in science, that something dies and that’s it. But I feel there is too much energy in the world for that to be a fact. And I’ve seen some weird situations, with ghosts.
Whose ghosts have you seen?
It was my uncle Eric, my mom’s brother. He died at age 43. Cancer. My grandparents live in the middle of nowhere, and after he passed away I was walking up the trail there by myself and I looked up and I thought I saw a man walking, with his leather coat. Nobody walks around there. They are completely secluded, in the forest. Also, I was spending my summer writing letters on the beach and out of the corner of my eye I kept thinking I saw him. Then one night, I went to bed and I saw his face glow in front of me. This is when I was younger, so now it seems like a dream. “It” smiled, and I felt this — and this sounds cheezy — but it felt like some kind of happiness. Normally something like that would scare me, but it was calming. Like, “I’m OK.” I didn’t tell anyone about it…
Why wouldn’t you tell anyone?
It was hard for my grandmother to talk about him. So how can I be like, “I just saw your dead son!” But then later, my grandfather brought it up. He said, “Do you remember being on the beach a few years ago? I was working on top of the hill and I looked down and saw you talking to someone.” I asked if he had seen the person, and he said yeah. That made the whole thing really confusing for me. Because you know, you’re a teenager, you like ghost stories, you want to experience creepy things like that happening. I remember getting emotional and crying when he brought it up. Because of this hopeful feeling that there is an afterlife.
“I want to believe in science, that something dies and that’s it. But I feel there is too much energy in the world for that to be a fact.”
Do you remember the first time you felt your own mortality?
I moved out of my parents’ house when I was 17. Within a year, I started getting really sick. They thought I was having anxiety attacks. Then I started getting lung infections. I went to the hospital a lot. They would do blood tests and tell me to fix my iron. Then they thought I had hypoglycemia. But I was still getting lung infections. When I moved to London I just stopped seeing doctors. I went quite a while thinking that I must have social anxiety. Then …what year was it? … 2008. I was at work and passed out right in my chair. If you think I’m pale now, you should have seen me back then. Everything kind of went downhill after that. Every time I’d go to work, I’d pass out. I’d throw up. They’d send me home. I was shaking all the time. They put me on anti-anxiety medications and that made me way worse. When you’re trusting doctors to find out what’s wrong with you, and they are not doing it, that’s scary. I got pneumonia after that. Every two months. Then one day I was at the grocery store and picked up a 40lb bag of dog food and then couldn’t move. Next thing I know I find out I have a bi-lateral fracture on my spine. At that point, I didn’t trust my body anymore. I was 27.
Did you think you were dying?
I felt that I had a time limit on my life, that there was no way I’d make it to my 30s. It was terrifying. It’s difficult, because from the outside you look healthy. Nobody knows I’ve got a fractured back, and COPD in my lungs and organs, and thyroid problems, and not able to absorb nutrients. You’re not only trying to fight being sick, you’re trying to save face and act like nothing is wrong. The worse was when they started testing me for some pretty heavy conditions. They wanted to test me for MS, which my cousin has. And cystic fibrosis. And they had no fixes. Just see how much worse it was going to get. At one point, I went to the doctor’s office for a random check, and she read the report out loud and they said they found a small brain aneurism. Someone I knew had passed away three years previous of this. I was like, “Are you kidding me?” At that point, I really felt like a ticking time tomb. I remember walking down the street thinking every time I got a headache I was going to drop dead.
How did this fear affect your daily life?
I thought, if I died tomorrow, no one’s ever going to know who I was. I’ll be the girl who did ballpoint pen drawings and when the people who know me die, everything is gone. So I started to create a bucket list, like in the movies. I wanted to work on things that were more significant. Not a lot of people can leave an artistic legacy, but it doesn’t mean you can’t try! [laughs] So I quit my job, and I became a starving artist. A friend decided to open an art doll gallery. I helped manage and curate it and we became the only art doll gallery in the world and we were doing international shows. I got into stop-motion animation, for a project I was asked to do in Germany. Couldn’t afford to go to the opening but scrounged up every penny I had and went anyway. I thought it might be my only chance to see Europe. Then when I came back, I got selected for a festival and won an award. [Best Animated Short, 2014 Toronto Independent Film Festival]. I also got my follow-up about the aneurysm. They told me it was gone. I’ll never know if it healed itself or was a misdiagnosis.
“I felt that I had a time limit on my life, that there was no way I’d make it to my 30s.”
What were thinking about the worse care scenario? Did you make a will? Did you talk to your friends about your wishes?
I did not make a will. But it’s when I started thinking about where my body is going to go when I’m dead. I started to think of all these silly ideas. Like, just preserve my skeleton and give it to a good friend of mine. But then what happens when he passes away? Who is going to take care of me then? [laughs] That’s when I came up with the idea of water. What are the places I go to when I feel sad, or need to relax or think? It’s always bodies of water. When it’s raining I like to go outside and let the rain wash everything away. I love the ocean. So, even though I was terrified of the idea of cremation before….being cremated and then just tossed in The Atlantic, rain puddles, Lake Huron, that’s the only thing I can think of that makes sense….
Why was cremation scary?
Destroying the body. But then I figured my body has been such a let down why would it matter if we burned it at that point? [laughs]
Traditionally, Catholics exactly didn’t go for cremation, either…
Right. You have to preserve the body for the afterlife. But the idea of being ashes… you can just float anywhere. You can fly. If you’re just buried in the ground, you’re just there. And they might move you eventually to build some apartment building anyway.
How do you think your illnesses manifest in your art?
The whole reason I got into art when I was younger was because I was sick all the time. I had bleeding ulcers at nine-years old. (Now that I know I have celiac disease I understand why I always felt most sick at restaurants, or at school — because I was eating sandwiches filled with gluten.) One teacher knew about my problems and she knew I liked to draw, so her tactic to calm me down was to give me some paper and some markers and say ignore the lesson, just draw. It was my way to zone out. I could hide and focus on something other than pain, I could put it somewhere else.
When I look at your drawings I see a lot of sickly women. Is this you?
I always draw naked people. Naked women especially. I’ve never really understood why. But something I noticed, I did a comic book called Vincent P. Usher. And his sidekick was a bird. Which was really my dog Salem. They would look at each other the same way a dog and person look at each other, rely on each other. So I always have birds and people in my work but it’s like the bird is my dog. A lot of it has to do less with me than with my best friend.
I want to talk to you about Salem. Is that OK? I know her death was harder for you than most people.
Oh yes. I’m still not over it. I will probably cry talking about it. … I got her when I was 18. This dog didn’t leave my side since then. It’s like having a two-year-old for 14 years.
When did she get sick?
She was getting old in 2013, having trouble with stairs, falling down. I realized that her mortality was coming to an end.
Did you feel that you knew what to do?
I was in denial for a long time. Then one morning she really was having a hard time breathing. And as soon as she looked in pain, I knew. I looked at her and I literally said to that dog, “Let’s go outside for the last time.” She followed me down the stairs, went outside, then followed me back in and collapsed on the floor. So I lay there with my arms around her. My sister took pictures of us. It looks like I’m holding a dead dog in my hands, but she wasn’t dead yet. Then the vet came and she said there’s no way she’ll live, she probably has stomach cancer. I held her while the doctor put the needle in and she died in my arms. Her hair started to fall out into my hands. Then I was home alone with my dead dog on the floor. And I had an art opening that day and I’m at the gallery with all these artists who’ve travelled and I’m a mess. Afterwards, I rounded up 13 of my friends, and some strangers, and they came to my house with shovels and guitars and we had a funeral in the backyard for her and buried her there. It was an epic funeral.
Have you seen Salem since?
I wish! I talk all the time about how badly I want a ghost dog. I really do I think the lifeforce must go somewhere. We have airwaves and radio transmissions we can’t see. And if we only know what 7% of the brain does, how do we know what exists in other realms? I’m not sure.
“I thought, if I died tomorrow, no one’s ever going to know who I was. So I quit my job, and I became a starving artist.”
You know, people who aren’t like us, might look at your art, or your home, and think you have a fascination with death. Do you think you do? And does that effect how you experience actual death?
I think I’ve just been around death a lot, from when I was younger. From the kids that got murdered to people we know dying of accidents or cancer. I haven’t even mentioned my mom had a really horrendous experience when I was 16. We were supposed to go sign me up for summer school but we got in a big fight so she left without me and got hit by a car. It was really bad. The girl hit my mom from behind, she went over the hood, through the windshield, then flew. The driver thought she had killed my mother and went into a nervous breakdown, so she didn’t call for help. My friends were walking along and found my mother in a ditch. They came to my house and got me. I ran there and tried to keep her conscious. She was covered in blood from head to toe. Her scalp was hanging over her forehead. When the ambulance showed up, they got my mom in the stretcher and we raced to the hospital. I was in my bare feet. I wasn’t crying because I was in shock. Totally thought my last moments with my mom were going to be a screaming match. I broke down when the nurse came in and put my mom’s wedding ring in my father’s hand. Everyone thought she was going to die. She was in intensive care for a while but she somehow survived.
Do you think you’ve cheated death?
I felt that if I didn’t find the proper doctor to diagnose my condition, I thought that’s where I was headed. I think I cheated death that day that my mom got in the accident. That we got into the fight on purpose to prevent me from being with her on that road because I wouldn’t have survived. Normally, my mom being stubborn, she would have dragged me along but for some reason she left without me. So, I think about that a lot. She does too.
I’m glad you’re still here.
It’s funny. I’m 33 now, and I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been in my life. I’ve even upgraded my translucent make-up to pale. [laughs]