Art Of Grieving
Painter, filmmaker manages loss through creativity
By Jessica Laskey
You’re probably familiar with the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But for Preston Zeller, there’s one more: painting.
When his brother Colin passed away of a fentanyl overdose in 2019 at age 35, Zeller used his love of painting to navigate his emotions. He created one painting each day for a year. The result is 365 abstract works in riots of colors, each 8 inches by 10 inches.
“It was sheer reflective personal art therapy,” Zeller says. “It was a process of rapid iteration, to express in a spontaneous way whatever I was feeling in the grief process.”
Zeller has processed the world through art for most of his life. He participated in myriad after-school art programs as a kid growing up in Roseville and Granite Bay. He’s also a prolific singer and musician, playing the piano, saxophone, guitar and clarinet.
When he reached high school, he discovered his affinity for abstract painting. He attended Chapman University in Orange County to study film production and performed as a singer-songwriter. That led to a job working for Entertainment Tonight in Cannes, France, where he studied French and international business at College International Cannes.
Back stateside, Zeller was dissatisfied with how he and other musicians were marketed. He took matters into his own hands and designed print and video campaigns for area bands. That led to agency work doing rebranding for various companies, which called upon his skill for storytelling.
“I moved away from the narrative focus of film school and into how to tell the story of anything,” Zeller says. “You learn to break down the critical elements of whatever it is into really important pieces that share why this thing, product, person is important.”
Zeller returned to painting in 2018 to fill his visceral need to “commit to it once I put the paint on, rather than having an undo button in Photoshop.” As a husband and father of three, he missed the “creative outlet for heart emotions, which allows you to express in the best way possible.”
By the time his brother died, Zeller was painting up a storm and dealing with grief. He filmed his yearlong painting project for a documentary titled “The Art of Grieving.” It premiered in June 2022.
The film chronicles Zeller’s year and the assemblage of the small artworks into a giant mosaic. It was named best documentary at three film festivals, premiered on Amazon Prime in July and comes out on Apple TV this year.
“(The making of the mosaic) was emblematic,” Zeller says. “I captured a year of all the emotions I felt in an abstract way, then I went through them again by unboxing them and reflecting to figure out the puzzle of grief. You’re physically rummaging through your own emotions.”
Last year, Zeller began to offer original artwork grief commissions as “a solution for people who don’t find value in existing mainstream typical versions, like an urn on your table.” He plans to launch a podcast to upend cultural stereotypes about men and grief.
“In the realm of grieving, it’s mostly women who talk about it,” says Zeller, now based in Phoenix. “As men, we’re taught to be stoic. I was no different, which was part of the challenge, to break out of these things I was taught by my culture and family.”
Jessica Laskey can be reached at email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.