ASHES TO ASHES Reviewed by Sally Anderson

DSL welcomes guest blogger/reviewer Sally Anderson, who lives within two vigorous stone throws of the Chapel at Good Shepherd Center.  Here she reviews the remains – it is up only until this coming Saturday, Nov. 15, through 9 pm – of 21 biodegradable coffins hanging from the chapel’s high ceiling.

“Ashes to Ashes”

Chapel, 4th Floor, Good Shepherd Center (climb or find elevator), Wallingford USA
Open noon to 9 pm through Sat 11/15
Wayward Girls Productions (“Lift up your skirts and fly”™)

Artists include (but not limited to):

Maisoui Barham
Alex Branch
Johnny Chalapatas
Catherine Cross
Ben Darby
Jeff Hansel
Christiana Hedlund
Robert Howells
Wendy Lawrence
Matthiu Mendieta
Joshua P. Waddell
Mary Welch
Good Shepherd caretaker Mark Willson

“Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.”

– From “The Circus of Animals,” W.B. Yeats

There are some ladder-gones, and some ladder-beginnings, in this varied take on “the first comfort after death,” to borrow a sentiment from Paul, who joined me a couple of nights ago with “Nancy Appleseed” – Nancy Merrill – perhaps Seattle’s greatest proponent of the planting of trees… for an evening romp among biodegradable caskets.

21 friends and acquaintances accepted curator/resident Mary Welch’s invitation to create coffins for the (suitably) fleeting exhibit titled “Ashes to Ashes” that ends this weekend – Saturday at roughly 9pm – at the Chapel in Wallingford’s Good Shepherd Center.

The exhibit commemorates other endings as well: it’s the last in Welch’s Chapel Trilogy (preceded by “Closet” and “Seven Chairs: Interpreting the Chakras”), the last exhibit under the name Wayward Girls, and also signals the end of visual art exhibits in this intimate space, as the Chapel is better suited acoustically and architecturally as a venue for music, which will continue under the label Wayward Music.

Criteria for showing: the coffins had to be easily biodegradable, weigh 30 pounds or less, and “not stink” for at least 3 weeks. The artists had to both “justify” their materials and be able to themselves fit within, “whether curled up, laid flat, squished out, or the knees stretched out,” per Mary.

All of which left room for the use of beeswax, bamboo, burlap, and bubblegum; newspaper, grouse feet, rice paper, feathers, metal repousse, 16 loaves of Franz whole-grain white bread, silk, antlers, porcupine quills, ink, aluminum foil, leaves, stuffed toys, sugar, and postcards… and words. Lots of words. Some are incorporated into, or inside, the coffins. One submission appears to be a hanging series of newspapers; closer observation reveals, through a tiny cut-out square, that the newspapers are in fact hollowed-out in their centers in the shape of a body.

Each is paired with a paragraph or so of the artist’s imagined obituary. Mary’s humor tends toward the dry side, her caption reflecting her disdain for euphemisms about death:

Maisoui Barham’s, whose interpretation stands out as one of the most organic and complex, begins “They fed me – Now I feed them.” Materials include bones, feathers, fur, and “lightning-struck wood,” to name a few of many.

Johnny Chalapatas also wove elements of nature, using bamboo, burlap, jute, and seeks from friends’ gardens, stating that “Energy doesn’t end; It just leaves its container.” The soft, thready fuzz and whispy fibers of his piece create an oddly crisp shadow that is alone reason enough to visit the exhibit.

The coffins float ethereally from fishing line hung from the high arched Chapel ceiling. This lends a (fittingly) subtle extra dimension of fragility, and rewards with a remarkable play of shadows throughout, on the simple wooden floor and on the waxen flower petals, folded papers, spiky metals, and other fine details atop the coffins. In a happy accident of juxtaposition, the severe shape of the “Chinese Take-Out” coffin (“Thank You / Come Again”) seemingly throws a shadow with arms and feet, which turns out to be cast by its neighbor, “Bread Woman.”

The exhibit overall has a reverential air, from the gracefully muted lighting to the “sound experiment” by Steve Peters (CDs available at the pearly gate) which emanates continuously from a mysterious source.

While several of the coffins reflect the somber mystery of death, the group marvelously avoids a sense of morbidity. A couple are notably lighthearted. The obituary accompanying Matthiu Mendieta’s “cigarette” coffin reads, in part, “Always ready for the next drink and defiantly always on the go. Creative with a very dark sense of humor. May he rest in peace.”

The legend for Catherine Cross’ “Phoenix A-Z” reads: “Instructions for Disposal: 1. Insert dead artist. 2. Keep flat until after burning. 3. Burn / Cremate and Collect / Save ashes (carbon offset investment prepaid to US Department of Education). 4. Mix ash with at least ten yards of rich, well aged compost containing at least thirty percent horse manure. 5. Depending on seasonal and regional availability, Fill manure spreader or heavy duty chalk field liner with the ash and compost mixture. 6.  In a large gently sloping meadow facing the sea and bordered by woods, write the words “I Love You” in a smooth thick cursive font as large as the site allows. Add more compost as needed.”

On Wednesday, the exhibit was visited by a group of seniors. Curator Mary, who also does duty as gatekeeper, couldn’t predict their reactions. The next sound she heard was waves of raucous laughter.

Go see and listen. Ends Saturday night.

    

(Below: Good Shepherd on the night, Nov. 11, 2008, Sally Anderson visited its chapel for this review)

3 thoughts on “ASHES TO ASHES Reviewed by Sally Anderson”

  1. What a beautifully written story about a very interesting (and
    quite quirky)exhibit! Thank you for this wonderful experience; I enjoyed every minute of it!

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