Saturday, December 26, 2009

A memorial ...

I've hesitated writing about this, but I think if I can keep the people involved anonymous, this story might help other potters.
A few months ago, a friend of mine who runs a nearby cafe asked if I could incorporate human ashes into a pot. I'd heard the question before, but usually it was joking speculation by someone who knows I use a wood ash glaze, someone who recently lost a parent and perhaps had ashes on their mind. Or in their closet. What to do with Dad? Or Mom? Or Uncle Bill?
But this was a more serious question. The first anniversary of the motorcycle death of a young man was coming up and my friend wanted to give the dead boy's mother - her close friend - a gift that would mean something to her. Could I use his ashes, she asked.
Sure, I said. Of course ... as if I got this question every day. How many times have I seen that question on the Clayart listserv? How do you do it? What's a good glaze recipe? Can you wedge the ashes into clay?
I told my friend to bring me the ashes and that I would think of something to do that would be appropriate. Soon, I had a small green notecard-size envelope pinned to the wall above my glaze table, a plastic sandwich bag inside containing perhaps four tablespoons of black and gray ash, on the outside written in the mother's hand "My beautiful ...... " (The dots replace the boy's first name in this blog post.) And there it hung for a couple of weeks, while I made other pots and my mind worked quietly in the background, trying to come up with something appropriate.
A big bowl, my friend had suggested, something the mother can keep candles in, or cards, or pictures of her son.
Finally, I made a couple of wide, plate-like bowls and a small candleholder, with the boy's three initials stamped into them. But I didn't feel the bowls were big enough, so I made one more, roughly dinner plate size, and fired it just before Thanksgiving. I glazed all of them with the ash celadon that I use as a liner glaze and sometimes as an overall glaze.
But this time I sifted some of the boy's remains into the ash glaze. Hard, black and coarse bits of burned bone were left behind in the sieve and went back into the envelope. I blended the new ash with the mixed glaze, then sieved it wet. This time, more coarse ash was left behind in the sieve, the same thing that happens with wood ash.
I couldn't just toss the remains of the sieving out into the driveway, which is where much of it normally goes. So this gritty mud was scraped off into one of Dee's flower gardens outside the studio door. And that's where all the waste glaze went, contributing to next summer's day lilies.
The pots were fired, as I said, just before Thanksgiving and I brought them to my friend at the cafe. The next day, it turned out, was the first anniversary of the boy's death. My friend loved the big, wide bowl, which was white stoneware, glazed with the boy's ashes and Phil Rogers' Standard Ash glaze to produce a pale green celadon. On the back I stamped the same loving phrase of identification that his mother had written on the paper envelope.
The mother, my friend told me, also loved the bowl.
As it turns out, she told me herself on the Saturday of our kiln-opening and open house. A slender, attractive woman stood in front of me at a quiet point in the day and said hello. Then she told me her name and started to say "Thank you." When I realized who it was, I hugged her and she held on tight.
All I had done was make a small, shallow bowl and glazed it. And then I was paid cash for it. It was a job, but it was more than a job. It's difficult to explain without making it sound like I'm blowing my own horn. I'm not. Any other competent potter could have made that bowl and figured out how to use the ashes in a glaze. It happened that I was the one asked.
But the things that grieving mother said made me glad that I had said "yes" to the job.

13 comments: said...

This is such a lovely but difficult story. I think you honored this woman's loss in a wonderful way.I am sure that to be asked to do something like this is a very hard thing to deal with, but challenging and rewarding at the same time. I'm sure the pieces you made will be cared for lovingly!

createniks said...

Bravo! You gave that woman such a wonderful gift, a piece of her son that she can treasure forever.

Alex Solla said...

I think this is one of those tasks that potters are asked that no other artist or craftsman would get. I am sure containers are requested from all aspects of the craft world... but to make a glaze from someone's remains... that is something only potters get. To do it with the level of commitment and respect you demonstrated is awesome. I think it speaks highly of our profession that people still come to us, and ask us to do such things. Good job!

Hollis Engley said...

Thanks, guys.

ang said...

wow...well put hollis..

Winston said...

What a lovely idea. I've heard that you can make diamonds with human ashes, bt lately, there's also been some doubt cast on the process. A piece of pottery, owever, is not something that requires expensive scientific equipment to make and sounds so much better, if only because an artist has used his talent and his art to make something beautiful as a memorial. I wish the same thing could be done for me when I die, too.


Thanks for sharing your experience! I don't know what I would have done if I were in your place, but sure your story will help me if I ever find myself in a similar situation. By the way, interesting blog, Hollis!

mengley said...

Beautiful Dad -- reminds me of the pots you made for Nana and Dubba, and the tour of the Vineyard to scatter Dubba's ashes.

Dan Finnegan said...

Great blog, Hollis...I just sold a pot yesterday to hold the ashes of a young man connected to us here in the 'Burg. I think it's the most important service we can provide our friends and neighbors.
Great resolution to a tricky request.

cookingwithgas said...

What a beautiful story.
I was so moved by the story.
We too have made pots for love ones. The last one being for a very good customer who was killed in a car crash a week after our fire. Her husband was just in before Christmas.
We still share some laughs and some tears about his wife.

This was a gift for the mother, but also a gift for you.
Thanks for sharing.

Hollis Engley said...

Thanks, everyone. Most of the things we make are fairly intimate - cups to put the mouth to, bowls to hold the food that feeds you, that kind of thing. But this is about as intimate as I expect to get. In the end, it feels good to help this woman keep a part of her son around.

soubriquet said...

Back in about 1984, or '85, I was asked the same question, by a friend, whose mother, a lover and collector of pottery was dying of cancer. She herself had come up with the idea. She wanted a big pot, a planter for a large-ish bonsai tree. The ashes over what we used in the glaze were to be spread amongst the trees on a headland outside the old lady's house.
She came herself to talk to us, hold hands with us, and tell us why she wanted to be in a glaze, on a pot that would be with her family a long time.
And she became a friend too.

My dad's ashes are buried in a pot the shape of a large apple, that I made. I like the symbolism. My mother wants the same. She says really she'd like to be in with him when the time comes.... "But he snores!"

Kimberly said...

Hollis, This is a beautiful story. Years ago I decided that I wanted my ashes(when the time comes)to be made in to an ash glaze and put on one of my pots.I think it a fitting and appropriate use of ashes of a potter!