Health & Medicine

Artist uses church bells, Nirvana song to bring awareness about suicide

Steven Sewell, a UK professor and local artist, uses the bells at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church to play a Nirvana song as part of  an art project.
Steven Sewell, a UK professor and local artist, uses the bells at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church to play a Nirvana song as part of an art project. Herald-Leader

The bells at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church have been ringing notes of a song every afternoon this week that may not be familiar to many churchgoers.

Steven Sewell, a local artist and University of Kentucky professor in the School of Art and Visual Studies, has been playing the last line of the Nirvana song Smells Like Teen Spirit, in remembrance of Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of the group who committed suicide on April 5, 1994.

The tribute is part of offSITE, a series of mini art installations around Lexington, and is Sewell's effort to raise awareness of suicide.

"So often when we encounter art we do so individually, but hopefully good art creates a desire for conversation," said Brian Cole, rector at Good Shepherd.

Cole hopes that conversations will begin, especially for some Christians who consider suicide the "unpardonable sin."

"If someone has cancer or was in a car accident we sort of rally around them, but if someone commits suicide, the conversation kind of stops," Cole said.

Much of Sewell's art deals with famous figures who committed suicide, but his theme choice comes from his life experiences.

Growing up in Chattanooga, Tenn., there were three suicides in Sewell's family: his father, his sister and the uncle of one of his grandparents.

"They occurred a lot when I was younger at important times, so I was not really able to talk about it. I didn't know how to talk about it," Sewell said.

When Sewell was only 7, his 34-year-old father committed suicide. An amateur artist who specialized in paintings of clowns, his father suffered from acute self-consciousness and depression.

"I don't think I understood," Sewell said.

Years after his father's death, Sewell was very close to the uncle of a grandparent. The elderly man, a WWII veteran who lived with Sewell's family, was diagnosed with cancer. When the cancer got worse, the 91-year-old committed suicide.

"I think he committed suicide because I think he thought he was becoming a burden on us," Sewell said.

Sewell's sister, who suffered from schizophrenia, was 27 when she committed suicide.

Sewell said he stopped attending church after his father's death. But the sounds of church bells and Cobain's music inspired him to create an audio art installation at Good Shepherd.

"I thought there was some kind of relationship with me going to the bells and people going to his music," Sewell said.

Sewell recorded the sound of the church bells at Good Shepherd, imported the sound electronically and transposed the sound to the notes of the last line of the Nirvana song.

Sewell and Cole both remember the moment they learned of Cobain's suicide.

"I was with my girlfriend at the time," Sewell said. "We were watching MTV and the lights were off when the news flash came on. It felt like another family member."

Cole, who was about the same age as Cobain at the time, was in seminary when he heard the news.

Both men recall the public display of anguish, conflict and anger from Cobain's wife, Courtney Love, as she read his suicide letter.

"Kurt Cobain, for a lot of kids in his own way, had kind of been a religious figure, that figure of someone that spoke for them," Cole said, adding that he worries that in times of hurt and pain people will stray from the church.

"People may feel God has been absent from them, or the community may look at them and judge them. It just adds to that stigma that the church has a lot to answer for," Cole said.

If you go

A discussion about suicide will take place at 7 p.m. July 11 in the sanctuary at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, 533 E. Main St. Participants will include artist Steven Sewell, Rector Brian Cole and Mary Bolin, licensed psychologist. For more information contact Brian Cole at (859) 252-1744.