Today we’d like to introduce you to Ian McCartor.
Hi Ian, so excited to have you on the platform. So before we get into questions about your work-life, maybe you can bring our readers up to speed on your story and how you got to where you are today?
My late teens and early 20s were spent working towards a registered nursing degree at our local community college up in the Antelope Valley. At the same time, I was traveling between Pasadena and Burbank pursuing art and music studies.
When I graduated, I worked full-time at a local hospital in critical care but still made time for the creative endeavors – writing and performing original songs at local showcases, practicing figurative art with my mentor, and drawing portrait commissions for private clients.
It’s fascinating to look back on how the combination of those fields led to the work being done today.
In medical nursing, it was rare to be able to spend enough time developing a proper dialogue with patients and families. Knowing that there were such rich grounds here, the artist and songwriter in me were begging that I dive deeper.
I was eventually led to the shadowy fields of hospice and palliative care, and it occurred to me – “These people facing the ends of their lives have so much to share…But is anybody listening?”
Through the years of working on this new therapy we now call “Legacy Songwriting”, we have served witness to many nearing the ends of their lives and allowed for them to share their story and the greatest gift of all: Wisdom.
This work has also been adopted by departments of bereavement and grief support, giving people a specially focused opportunity to share their pain of loss with hopes of transforming it into a symbol of connection between themselves and others that share that grief.
It has grown into a familial community, with myself as a performing artist sharing the stories and songs publicly with recorded releases and live concerts. Through song, a part of that person is immortalized.
Other than the musical applications, the world of these experiences have breathed new life into the field of visual art.
Somewhat recently, I have been requested by a number of people to compose commemorative portraits of their loved ones with the ashes of their cremated remains. This has brought an incredible depth to the pieces, so much more so than just an image created with pen or pencil. This gives a sense of purpose to the remains beyond being placed in a vase on a mantle.
Through the process of transforming the ashes into an artistic medium, it becomes a therapeutic ritual for the loved one to intimately engage with the loss, to “let go”, and allow it to become something new – both physically in art and spiritually within themselves.
We have collaborative relationships with the Hospice of the North Coast in Carlsbad San Diego, the Department of Veterans Affairs in La Jolla San Diego, Antelope Valley Supportive Care and Hospice in Lancaster California. We serve private clients nationwide via in person and video communications.
Other articles and interviews about the works can be found on my website ianmccartor.com
Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?Typical for one involved in the general industries of music and art, there were many distractions along the way. Early on, I had opportunities to pursue more traditional pathways of commercially focused work through recording deals/sponsorships/etc, but something kept pulling me away from that.
Nothing really felt right…It was like a whisper saying, “There’s more to be found. Come this way!”
In 2017, I traveled to San Diego to work a temporary medical/surgical travel nurse contract while I figured out some next steps after returning from an enlightening trip to South America.
I was surprised to be assigned a hospice patient one day. It was in that room I felt an incredible calm. The patient and the family exuded profound acceptance and peace, and I heard pure unguarded words of love and wisdom.
I had to learn more.
It was like a bell went off in my soul – I had found the source of the before-mentioned whisper!
Once I considered the combination of songwriting and hospice, it was a creative challenge to refine the idea. Initially it took a great deal of patience and persistence to introduce it as a legitimate service, as it was totally unheard of in all my professional circles.
And finally, the work itself is incredibly challenging, diving headfirst into all the surrounding themes of death and dying. But we find again and again that in the darkest depths of the sea one finds the greatest treasures…The amount of beauty and wisdom found in these experiences has changed my life and continues to do so as the work goes on.
As you know, we’re big fans of you and your work. For our readers who might not be as familiar what can you tell them about what you do?As a younger artist, I was trying to find something important or unique to say, something that would make a difference. It was a powerful gift to have stumbled upon the quiet voices of the dying and to have the tools of music and art to bring light to them. To bring it back into a world in need of perspective and inspiration has become the other side of the mission, in the form of recordings, performances, and written addresses like this one to you all reading now.
I write songs inspired by the final words of hospice patients. This gives these people an opportunity to share the gift of wisdom before they say goodbye and rest in the hope that a part of them will live on forever. It’s been an amazing process that has given new insight to my work as a songwriter and performer.
And beyond the bedside of the dying, their brave examples have led the way for the work to serve those who have lost loved ones. This has since bloomed into a unique grief therapy of creating legacy songs with the bereaved and drawing portraits with cremated remains as a medium in memorial of those passed. It has been proven quite healing in our current times, as many have suffered loss these past couple of years.
As an artist, it has given my performances and exhibitions a backbone of modern “Momento Mori”, akin to the themes of classical antiquity and stoic philosophy. There is much to learn from the wisdom of death, as it is a sobering motivator to live fully. In an age of technology and disconnection, this work has been a remedy for those longing for an intimate, human experience.
What would you say have been one of the most important lessons you’ve learned?Sitting at the bedside with people nearing the end of their lives allows for so many lessons through countless stories. Working in hospice has allowed me to witness people from many different backgrounds pass away. Poor, rich, old, young, woman, man, religious, atheist, peaceful, tormented…I suppose if I had to pick one specifically for the purposes of this article, I will find one that most resonates with me currently.
Witnessing mortality has reminded me that though there are so many things to desire in this life, there is only so much time, so much space on our plate.
I think we’re in danger of being overwhelmed by endless options in life with the current avenues of exposure we have access to. When I think about my own death, and remember the examples of those I have witnessed, a lesson I’m reminded of is essentially: “Keep things simple, serve those around you deeply, and refine daily what you most love to do as your life’s work.”
Life is so fragile, we are always on the razor’s edge. Many things are out of our control, but how we see life is something we can constantly cultivate. Gratitude and simplicity are great tools leading to service and passion.
Those most tormented on their deathbeds were those that devoted their lives to elements that were out of alignment with their deepest causes, distractions and pleasures that kept them off course.
Those most serene as they prepared to depart were those who had found what they loved in life – a passion they gave with each day they lived. They had “followed their bliss”, as old Campbell put it.
For those of you reading this article, a couple of questions to pose are these: Have you discovered your passion, and have you found a way to serve with it?
These two things are incredibly important to discover while we have the chance. Time is precious and we always wish we had more when it runs out. May we treasure it and use it well!
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