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The Bond of Art Beyond the Grave

Emily’s 27th Birthday

Emily Groth and art teacher Mr. Siska with Emily's Hope heart in background

I always thought my child was an artistic genius, of course. As a toddler, she presented me with unique creations made of rocks and sticks. As she grew, she never stopped drawing, painting, and making all kinds of arts and crafts. But it’s one thing for a parent to think their child is special; it’s another thing altogether to have that creative genius confirmed by an expert.

That confirmation came for Emily when she entered high school and began taking art classes from Mr. Gary Siska, who had decades of teaching art under his belt. While I was worried about her “D” in Spanish, what stood out from my first high school parent/teacher meeting was Mr. Siska telling me he saw incredible talent in my daughter. He positively beamed when he spoke of Emily’s artwork.

Mr. Siska was a potter, and Emily loved working with clay and on the wheel. She made this teapot for me and a host of bowls and other vessels.

But it was her painting that blossomed under the tutelage of Mr. Siska. She created some of her most detailed pieces in his class from the ages of 16 to 18. He framed some of them for her. During her senior year, she went on to win several contests with her paintings, including the first South Dakota State AA Art Contest for her mixed media piece, Clairvoyance. Mr. Siska accompanied her on the event center floor as she accepted the award, and Clairvoyance was shown on the jumbotron. I took this photo of the two of them together at that event, and it struck me how proud Mr. Siska looked in that moment.

The school paper featured an article about the contest, and here is Mr. Siska’s quote:

“As an art student, she’s extremely creative and talented. She tends to look at life a little differently, and you never know what you’ll see from her art. Her ideas are always original, and her pieces have a strong visual impact. As an art teacher, you only see that kind of student a few times in your career.”

Gary Siska, The Scroll, May 18, 2015
Mr. Siska's gift to Emily
Mr. Siska’s gift to Emily

Mr. Siska was one of two teachers who came to Emily’s graduation party. He presented her with this surreal picture he created, which now holds significant meaning for me because of its symbolism. On the back, he quoted Proverbs and wished her peace, success, and fulfillment. Sadly, Emily’s substance use disorder robbed her of all those things.

On the back, Mr. Siska wrote "The Path of life leads upward for the wise. Emily, May the path you choose to follow lead to peace, success and fulfillment for your life. Best wished upon your high school graduation."
What he wrote on the back

Following her death, I stopped by Emily’s high school and donated all her supplies to the art room that Mr. Siska oversaw. The look in his eyes told me that her death was also a major loss for him and all the potential he once saw in her. Then he did something that completely blew me away. He went to a drawer and pulled out a painting in an impressionistic style of a rowboat surrounded by lily pads. “She threw this one away,” he told me. “She wasn’t happy with it. But after she left the room, I took it out of the trash and saved it.” That was three years prior. The fact that Mr. Siska was sentimental enough to hold on to a work that Emily had deemed unacceptable made me swell with pride but also overwhelmed me with sadness. He truly believed she would be a great, well-known artist someday, and even her discards were worth holding onto.

Lily Pads, by Emily Groth
Lily Pads, by Emily Groth

Nearly a year following her death, I was invited to speak at her high school to tell her story and warn the students about the dangers of fentanyl. Two things struck me following my talk. The principal told the entire student body that she had talked to me a few months before Emily died and had inquired how she was doing. When I indicated I was really worried about Emily, she reassured me that Emily was going to be just fine—that she was bright, talented, and had a family who cared and loved her. The principal told the student body, “I was wrong. Fentanyl has changed everything, and there are no more second chances when it comes to drug use.” If that weren’t emotional enough, she then called Mr. Siska to the stage. He said a few words about having Emily as a student and then presented me with yet another painting she had thrown away. While it was really interesting, the left eye on the subject wasn’t the correct proportion. I’m sure this technicality is why she tossed it. But that wasn’t the issue. It was the sweet sentiment of Mr. Siska and his unwavering belief and support for my daughter that touched my soul.

As I approach this difficult anniversary of Emily’s birthday—she would have been 27—I find myself spending a little more time at the mausoleum where her ashes are interred. This week, after I switched out the flowers in the bud vase at her niche, I made my usual round in the mausoleum. I know the mothers of the young women interred around her, and I always pay my respects. Then there is Cole Thompson, who died of fentanyl poisoning just a few weeks before Emily, and I usually stop by his niche. For some reason, this time, I also paused at the niche of a young man who fell while working on a building under construction. I noticed a unique-looking urn under his. It was low to the ground, and as I got down and peered closer, I saw his name: Gary David Siska, August 29, 1953 – June 16, 2023. I was completely floored. I had no idea that Mr. Siska had died. Yet, here he was, a few feet away from Emily, in an urn that he had clearly crafted himself at his potter’s wheel. A paintbrush was also behind the glass.

Of course, I can’t say for sure what happens after we die, but I thought of Mr. Siska and Emily reuniting. I thought of that symbolic picture he created for her high school graduation and felt a sense of assurance that somehow they were making masterpieces together now, something well beyond my own comprehension. I also felt a sense of comfort, the same way I did after Mr. Siska presented me with the works of art Emily had thrown away. He was nearby, just feet from my daughter. I felt a pang of guilt that I didn’t have a chance to tell him how much his heartfelt gestures meant to me again before he died. But I reminded myself that I did tell him at the time, and I always talk to audiences about how proud he was of her and the fact that he had fetched her pieces out of the trash and believed in her talent. A good teacher has an impact on some of their students for a lifetime. They can also have an impact on their families. Thank you, Mr. Siska, for recognizing the talent in my daughter and for honoring it after she was gone.

Happy 27th Birthday to my sweet Emily. I miss you always and forever.

Faith, Hope & Courage,


One response

  1. Greg Kratofil Avatar
    Greg Kratofil

    Emily and Mr. Siska, pray for us. Peace

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