The 'Rainflower Project' helps people talk through tragedy

A man looks to the left as he sits amidst ceramic flowers.
Artist Damien Wolf started the Rainflower Project in 2019, following the death of a close friend, and says that pursuing his passion in art has helped him cope with grief.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

One afternoon earlier this month, Nathan Darval returned home from a bike ride, crying. 

He told his mother Brenda he had seen something so powerful, so meaningful, it overwhelmed him. 

Brenda followed her son’s directions through their neighborhood and found a yard filled with hundreds of yellow, white and black ceramic flowers. 

The display outside a home in Plymouth is known as the Rainflower Project. It’s dedicated to those who have lost their lives to suicide and their families, and it's meant to raise awareness and start conversations about mental health. 

“When I saw it and read about it, it was so beautiful I fell to my knees and I sobbed. I felt like my daughter led me there, and I needed to see this,” Brenda Darval said. 

Megan Darval died by suicide earlier this year, on Sept. 12.

"The Rainflower Project" by Damien Wolf
"The Rainflower Project" by Damien Wolf. Made with stoneware, hand thrown and hand carved, affixed to a hand-crafted steel stem.
Courtesy of Damien Wolf

Brenda made return trips to visit the rainflowers. Then one day, she built up the courage to take the pamphlet from Megan’s celebration of life to the front door of the house. There, she met Damien Wolf, the artist behind the project. 

“I took out of my bag Megan’s pamphlet with her beautiful pictures and her quotes on there, and I handed it to him and he opened it up and he said, ‘I know her,’” Darval recalled.  

Wolf had met Megan at a mutual friend’s housewarming party earlier in the season. 

“At that moment I knew I had to be a part of whatever this project is,” Darval said. 

That is the goal of the Rainflower Project. 

“We had an amazing conversation and connected on a level that wouldn't have happened without having something there to spark the conversation,” Wolf said. 

Wolf started the project in 2019, following the death of a close friend. But he's been grappling with similar losses for years.

His father struggled with mental illness and died by suicide after killing Wolf’s mother. 

He later lost two high school friends to suicide. 

Pursuing his passion in art has helped Wolf’s healing process. 

“As I was coping with the grief of losing my friend, I turned toward things that made me feel better. You lean toward your passions, and for me ceramic art is one of them,” he said. 

A man leans over a display of white, yellow and black ceramic flowers.
Artist Damien Wolf adjusts ceramic flowers displayed in front of his home in Plymouth, Minn. The display is part of the Rainflower Project, which is dedicated to those who have lost their lives to suicide and their families.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

What started as a few rainflowers grew to 675, representing the average number of Minnesotans who die by suicide every year. 

“It provided a bit of therapy for me, to get my hands into the clay and design the project and create it,” Wolf said. 

The display is filled with yellow, white and black ceramic rainflowers, each designed to be different from the next. 

“It was important to make them all unique and represent the uniqueness of the people affected by suicide,” said Wolf. “So as I threw them, I was conscious to make different sizes, some are taller, shorter, stouter and each one is hand carved which brings a unique shape, unique form and unique detail to every one.”

A white ceramic flower beside yellow ceramic flowers.
The Rainflower Project display is made of 675 white, yellow and black ceramic flowers, which represents the average number of Minnesotans who die by suicide every year.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Wolf used symbolism in choosing the colors.

Yellow represents light and positivity.

White stands for hope and remembrance.

And black represents darkness. 

“As you look at the exhibit, most is yellow and white with a speckling of black flowers, which is symbolic of our need to pay attention to our mental health for ourselves and also to those around us,” he said. 

And, Wolf said, people respond.

“Just to have complete strangers walk by and be willing — within 30 seconds, we’re having a deep conversation around people we lost and what they were like and how old they were, and how it’s affected them and their family,” he said. “It’s really rare, and that was the goal — to touch people and connect on an emotional level.”

Displaying the project in his front yard has given Wolf the opportunity to have deeper conversations within the community. 

“I watch people stop and get off their bikes and then they go look at it. I know it has caught people’s attention, it makes them stop and look and think — and just by the amount of time they stand there, I can tell it touches them,” Wolf said. 

Wolf wants to take the Rainflower Project to public events and venues when it's safe to do so.

He's working with park managers in Plymouth, Apple Valley and Brooklyn Park to find space to host the display and bring it to new audiences.

“It doesn't need to be millions of people,” Wolf said. “The scale of this right now is small but I have visions of expanding it, but for right now it was just something I wanted to do to connect with people.” 

A small piece of a leaf floats in a white ceramic flower.
Part of a leaf floats in rainwater collected in a ceramic flower. The Rainflower Project display is made of 675 white, yellow and black ceramic flowers, which represents the average number of Minnesotans who die by suicide every year.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Although a small project, it has made a big impact. 

“It helped me, and if it only helps one person, that's really all that matters: If one person can help somebody get better,” Brenda Darval said, tearfully. “He did a lot of work, and I have a feeling that The Rainflower Project could help a lot of people. I think The Rainflower Project is gonna go on, and we are going to keep telling Megan's story and other stories.” 

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (TALK) or visit their website at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

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