How Abstract Art Helped a Mesa Man Process Grief After His Brother’s Death

Preston Zeller painting (Photo courtesy of Preston Zeller)

By Jessica Swarner

March 24, 2023

The project ended in a 202-square-foot mosaic of paintings hung on a wall with 4,500 LED lights backlighting the work. 

Preston Zeller said he barely spoke as a kid—to the point where his parents thought something was wrong with him. 

But in actuality, Zeller said, “I just had a brother who spoke for both of us. So he was a very, very chatty person for sure.” 

Zeller also said his brother was goofy—just like Zeller’s three kids.

Preston Zeller and his brother Colin (Photo courtesy of Preston Zeller)

“There are things that kids do that remind me of my brother,” he said. “So you go, ‘Man, Uncle Colin would’ve loved to be around you guys.'”

Zeller’s brother Colin began taking prescription pain medicine for back pain in high school mostly due to sports injuries. After high school, he worked as a mechanic in the US Army. 

A few years after leaving the Army, Colin died unexpectedly at age 35 after overdosing on fentanyl in 2019. 

“Nobody’s really trained in how to deal with grief,” Zeller told The Copper Courier. “You just are submersed into it very quickly.” 

Zeller, a lifelong artist, was accustomed to expressing emotions through creativity. At first he considered embarking on a 100-day painting challenge, but he said that “didn’t seem good enough.” While living in Vancouver, Washington, he decided to commit to painting a piece of abstract art every day for a year as he filmed a documentary—called “The Art of Grieving”—about the process. 

The project took him over a year, but Zeller finished his last piece in December 2020, with some time off in between as he moved his family of five to Texas. 

He placed all of the art pieces into a 202-square-foot mosaic hung on a wall in his home with 4,500 LED lights backlighting the work. 

Preston Zeller’s mosaic (Photo courtesy of Preston Zeller)

After moving again—this time to Mesa—the paintings are now off the wall in boxes, but Zeller said he hopes to have them hanging up again soon—potentially in the Phoenix Art Museum or Wonderspaces Arizona.  

Zeller said he finds it meaningful to view the art and reflect on that part of his life. He said the consistency of the process helped him “have greater clarity on how to translate the things that I do feel.”

Zeller said he has been struck by people’s positive response to his documentary, which has won three film festival awards. Viewers have told him the film was cathartic for them in their own grief. 

“That’s more gratifying than selling any singular painting or the commercial value that people might want to get out of any creative endeavor,” he said. 

Art from Preston Zeller’s documentary “The Art of Grieving” (Image courtesy of Preston Zeller)

Now that the project is done, Zeller said he has to remind himself to slow down and intentionally reflect on his brother, which is what the painting forced him to do over the time it took him to complete it. 

“I’m a lot more self-aware and knowing too that [grief] doesn’t just go away ever,” Zeller said. “And I thought that at first. I thought you could just kind of move past this thing, and I think a lot of people do, and that’s the pitfall of it.” 

Zeller continues to help others process their grief by offering custom abstract paintings. Zeller spends time with clients learning about their loved one who passed away, and he creates an artwork for them based on their story, sometimes using ashes if the person has been cremated. He said he includes a lot of depth and layers so people can see new meaning in it over time.

“That’s something that will change with you throughout your life because it’s not, again, a portrait, it’s not something very literal,” he said. 

Watch “The Art of Grieving” for free on Tubi. View Zeller’s art on his website or Instagram.

Author

  • Jessica Swarner

    Jessica Swarner is the community editor for The Copper Courier. She is an ASU alumna and previously worked at KTAR News 92.3 FM in Phoenix.

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