The Arts
August 8-14, 2007

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Ashes to ashes

Ashes to ashes: When is a cigar not a cigar? When it's an urn.

Ashes to Art

Graton's Art Honors Life gallery is prepared for the worst

By Gretchen Giles

On a beautiful summer morning in western Sonoma County, Maureen Lomasney sits by a window, her hands clasping a warm mug of coffee, the sunlight falling upon her softly, a rustic bowl of pistachios placed artfully before her. "I am trying," she says in measured tones, "to gently introduce the concept of dying."

The sentence is so patently absurd that she breaks into peals of laughter.

Assuredly, death is no laughing matter. And just as assuredly, it comes to us all, hard to believe as that might be. But with the baby boom generation of some 76 million Americans aiming toward life's final chapter, death may be changing.

And that's whether the funeral industry likes it or not.

Lomasney, 57, is the proprietor of an unusual business, one often at loggerheads with the extremely powerful funeral lobby. Based in Graton, she is the founder and director of Funeria, an arts agency and exhibition organizing company that deals exclusively in funeral urns as fine art. Her brick-and-mortar outlet, Art Honors Life, is poised for its grand opening on Aug. 18, coincidentally the last day of the Cremation Association of North America's (CANA) massive San Francisco conference. Exhibition space at the conference is sold-out, but unlike previous years, Lomasney won't be there.

"My rose-colored glasses have come off," she says. "This isn't a priority for big corporations, and big corporations are who provide resources to funeral homes. Their interest is not in providing art for grieving families."

A fine-arts photographer whose background is in marketing and ad agencies, Lomasney at first envisioned that inviting artists to create funerary items would appeal to funeral directors eager to introduce new products to their clients. She figured wrong. Because what she hadn't figured into her equation is that, by and large, funeral directors don't like cremation. It simply doesn't cost enough. They even invented a word to make it sound bad.

"'Cremains' is a term that I never use," she says. "It's a term invented by the funeral industry to denigrate cremation because it's cheaper. The industry doesn't like the term 'ashes,' because they think it confuses people. Cremains is a contraction of 'cremated remains' that manages to suggest that they are less than full human remains.

"The industry," she laughs shortly, "is very creepy."

Embalming became popular during the Civil War and reached an apex of interest when President Lincoln's body was witnessed by thousands of mourners. Slowly, the funeral industry grew, bolstered by chemical companies and even automobile manufacturers as increasing numbers of cabinetmakers switched their skills to casket-making, and the public became more enamored with the idea of a preserved, viewable corpse. Today, however, the CANA estimates that some 52 percent of Californians would prefer cremation, and so the pendulum slowly swings back.

Not surprisingly, artists are already there. When Lomasney put out a call for urns for her first exhibition, titled "Ashes to Art" and held at Ft. Mason in 2001, she remembers that many artists wrote to her in thanks. "They were already making [reliquaries], but didn't have any acknowledgement for their work." And next year, she will exhibit art by two artists whose work is a radical departure from the norm.

British product designer Nadine Jarvis, for example, recently won a substantial award from London's Design Museum for her work with ashes. The remains of one ordinary person can result in 250 pencils exactly, which Jarvis packages with a specially constructed box that holds the shavings once the utensils are sharpened. More thoughtful are Jarvis' bird feeders. In one, human remains are mixed with suet and wax and seed and other avian delicacies. The feeder is hung in the forest and nature takes over, the birds diminishing the feeder, slowly distributing the remains into the world.

In another, ashes are placed inside a delicate ceramic egg that is hung by a string designed to last only a few years. Secured to a tree limb, the string will one day break, the egg drop and the ashes scatter. Again, the modus focuses on the random inevitability of the distribution, a lovely mimic of the random inevitability of death.

American artist Patrick Marold is another working with larger conceptual issues. His proposal is an outdoor structure composed of boxes made from the silky strength of unfired clay. Ashes are placed inside one of the boxes, multiples of which are stacked upon each other to form a "corridor." (He intends the empty boxes to suggest communal loss.) Notes or other small objects may be inserted into the clay boxes, which will over time relinquish themselves to the elements, the ashes mixing down with the mementos and the clay in a manner undetermined and chaotic and in perfect reflection of natural forces.

"I don't know of any other artists who are creating such elegant solutions," Lomasney says. "Nadine's concepts integrate other forms of nature: wind, time, animals. She's providing people with the access to create new rituals for themselves."

And then there's Darin Montgomery's Urn-A-Matic, which will be a part of the Aug. 18 grand-opening show. It uses a vintage vacuum cleaner lined with slate-colored velvet to hold human ashes just above where the ordinary vacuum bag would go. A video screen can show home movies and, sardonically, a music loop continues repeatedly with the syrup of "Seasons of the Sun."

"For Darin, it's a philosophic stance. I wouldn't say that it's whimsical. It's a wry approach to death and how we perceive the importance of ourselves and our ashes after we're gone," Lomasney explains, agreeing that there are few mothers who would like to be interred in a vacuum cleaner.

Some artists are working with biodegradable cardboard, the kind that many plants come home from the nursery in, ready to be planted directly into the ground. But the majority of the work Lomasney exhibits is ceramic. "Many people come in not knowing what they're even walking in to," she smiles. "After a while they realize, 'Hey, all of these vessels have lids.'"

Made of clay and steel and glass, her urns are intended to be taken home and placed among the other beautiful objects one collects. They look to house jewelry or perfumes; some are so clever that it's difficult to tell where they might come un-joined at all. Some honor pets, and so are sculptural depictions of a dog, say. Michael Creed's La Vida Buena is a witty celebration of vice, a cedar and paper cigar that comes apart under its band.

An advocate of land trusts offering natural burials on their preserved land, Lomasney is as passionate about changing the state of today's funeral lobby as she is about offering art as a last destination for the human body.

"Funeral homes are in the catbird seat and they recognize that," she says passionately. "I know that it's a business, but it's also a mind shift that needs to happen. What should come about? What could make the end-of-life experience more nurturing for the masses? The industry is so entrenched that if there was a new model and more people who were in engaged in a more thoughtful and caring approach, we could see a radical shift."

The much-lauded boomers, the generation that made adolescence important, young adulthood rampant and middle age young again, are going to redefine death, too. "We are all learning that we need to be advocates for our own healthcare," she recounts. "We have seen our parents unquestioningly following doctors' orders. That experience of being an advocate for our parents and our own healthcare will transfer to our death experiences.

"But we need to work on it. Now."

Art Honors Life celebrates its grand opening with the "(Bee) Here Now" exhibit on Saturday, Aug. 18, from 6pm to 8pm. 2860 Bowen St., Graton. 707.829.1966.

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