Monday, May 24, 2010

Illustrated Coffin: The Happy Journey Collective

art coffin

'It all went wobbly when they took my dummy away'
-Simon Wild

Call it personalization, the 'me' generation effect, secularization, or customization, but it is clear that creative license has been taken on funerals. Important decisions on services, disposition and merchandise are now made by the families and friends of the deceased, not just by clergy and funeral professionals.

art coffin casket

'finally found my wings' Tigz Rice

The iconic coffin, loaded with meaning and symbolism is no exception, and the exercise of designing a casket involves moving through some often unfamiliar mental terrain. Whether or not this coffin is for our own use, for someone we know, or just a design challenge, the artist, must face up to and process ideas about an after-life, a legacy, a mysterious journey, the loved ones left behind, and perhaps a host of other questions.

toe pincher art coffin

'Damn! i forgot my ipod...' -Lotte Andkilde

A group of illustrators has created a project to challenge themselves and other artists with just this task. The Happy Journey Collective is an ongoing project showcasing coffin artworks by illustrators and artists from around the world. It is the brainchild of illustrators Thereza Rowe, Lesley Barnes and Abi Daker. Artists are provided with a hexagonal coffin template to download, and the rest is basically up to them. Out of the pieces submitted to the Happy Journey Collective Flick group, several will be chosen periodically to be featured on the website. Although currently web based, ideas and possibilities for print publishing and an exhibition are being discussed and explored.

The results so far range from the sentimental to the glib, from memento mori reminders of mortality to fantasy, from explorations on individual experiences to community responses, and from open ended questions to concrete speculations. Already there is a great diversity in technique and themes to the submissions. Each takes a different approach to understanding death, just as we each have different experiences in grief and dealing with our own mortality.

Thereza, Lesley and Abi have graciously agreed to discuss their project with me. Here is our conversation:

art coffin memorial

'towers and trumpeteers' - Lesley Barnes

Patrick McNally: On your web site, you mention the origins of the project. I understand that it stems from a discussion about customizable eco-coffins. Could you share the story with us?

Abi Daker: Thereza tweeted a link to and I clicked on it, thinking it looked interesting. I was amazed at the site and replied to her message, saying wow. Lesley also responded, and mentioned something about submitting work, which I thought was a great idea. After a few more tweets, we started an email discussion and decided to create some artwork and start a website for it.


'in the growths of upper air' -Kate Slater

Thereza Rowe: Yes, as soon as I tweeted the link and Lesley said ‘it’d make a great zine’ the collective idea popped up in my head. I instantly started to visualize how other artists would take to the subject. Once we had it all figured out with the idea of the website, a sort of virtual gallery, we sent out two invites to artists we know to test their reaction to such a brief. And they both replied straight away saying ‘wow, you girls are nuts, it sounds amazing, I’m in!’ so we then knew we’d proceed with picking the artists and sending out the invitations. We got the same positive reaction from most of them.

Lesley: It's all thanks to Thereza's husband who saw a sign for 'colourful coffins' and asked Thereza to investigate...


'Where will your final journey take you?' -Abi Daker

Pat: Have any of you worked on a project like this before?

Thereza: I’ve taken part in several collaborative projects but had never started one from scratch before like we did with this one.

Abi: This is the first collaborative project I've been involved with from the start. I've submitted work to others in the past.

Lesley: Me too! It's been really special being involved in the conception of a project and so inspiring to see the fantastic work (and sheer thought and effort) that all the contributors have put into their coffin designs. In the future we hope to perhaps have an exhibition or publication of the collective's work


'Crash and burn, or number 07 flies you straight to heaven' -Carys Tait

Pat: I am continually amazed at the different ways that art intersects with ideas about death. What kind of dialogue or exploration are you looking for as this project progresses?

Abi: Death and life are interconnected and one of the ideas behind this project is reflecting a person's individuality through their choice of casket. When we were getting started with the project, we found some photos of funeral services in Ghana which featured bespoke and unique coffins Not only are these coffins colourful and cheerful, but they make a statement about the person who has passed away which is positive and a reminder that although their life may have ended, their life did take place and they have left things behind.

'Stone Cold' - Sam Szulc

Pat: What avenues have you used to get word out about the project, and how long do you expect to stay open for submissions?

Abi: Twitter has been very useful, as so has the flickr group, which enables people to see the entries as they are uploaded.


'Still Breathing' -Ubercraft

Pat: Are any of you interested in actually building or decorating your own coffins, urns, memorials, or those of you loved ones?

Thereza: Absolutely! I think it makes it more meaningful when you contrast it to the traditional and sterile existing coffin design. I’m interested in something which celebrates the life and existence of that human being as an individual.

arts-memorial-coffin-art coffin

'off to the next adventure' -Thereza Rowe

Abi: I think I would like a bio-degradable, illustrated casket for myself. For my family/friends, if they approached me, I'd happily create something, but I think it's a personal choice and they would have to initiate the conversation.

Lesley: I always used to think that I would have to design a huge statue for myself which would be placed atop a mountain.....but I have lowered my expectations since then and I think I would quite like a cardboard coffin which was painted with a special design.

eco-coffins-art coffin

'so it goes' -Lydia Nichols

Pat: Do you have any thoughts about working creatively to create new, more personalized or meaningful rituals to go along with the creative coffin designs?

Abi: I recently had to produce a painting specifically to play a part within a funeral service; the family requested a portrait of the deceased and it was amazing how much the mourners liked it. I would do something like that again; it was good to be able to use my ability to draw in a positive way for a sad occasion.

art coffins

'tempus fugit' -Natsuke Otani

Pat: There are a few guidelines in your brief, but quite a lot of room for creativity and rethinking has been left to participating artists. I think that your guidelines have allowed for a cohesive presentation. Did you struggle with which rules to stick to and which to leave open?

Thereza: Not really. The intention was exactly that, to leave it open to the imagination of the artist. Obviously we wanted the presentation of the project to look consistent so we decided that providing a simple shape as a starting point would help in the process.

Abi: Between the three of us we had entered a lot of open briefs so the discussions were fairly simple.

Pat: Have any of the submitted designs surprised you?

Thereza: All and each one of them actually, for their unique/individual approach…

Abi: I was pleased at how many were whimsical; I thought that was a great way to approach the project. I've seen people respond to death with humour on a number of occasions and if I saw a whimsical coffin at a ceremony it would be a comfort I think.

Lesley: Yes, I too was glad to see the humour and personality that came through in the coffin designs - they definitely contribute to the idea that a funeral should be a celebration of the person's life.


The Happy Journey Collective template

Pat: Are you tempted to keep making more designs?

Thereza: Yeah, definitely. There are so many subjects to explore and have fun with in this format.

Abi: Yes! All the time. I'm currently trying to choose between a few ideas for the next one actually.

Lesley: I love tea (sounds silly but it's actually a big part of my daily life!) and I am designing a coffin based on the idea of the coffin being like a table laid out with tea things....

Pat: Sounds great. I look forward to seeing it. So much of our conception of death is wrapped up in our experiences in daily life. The Japanese tea ritual also comes to mind. Thank you all for sharing your project and thoughts!

For more thought provoking designs, please visit the Happy Journey Collective website and flickr page. Click on the names of each artist to visit their websites. Thanks to all the artists!

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Pat, you find the coolest things! This is terrific stuff. In the artist-made urn realm, I've also found that a significant percent of not only submissions to Ashes to Art competitions, but our sales are of whimsical designs. They're being purchased by people for their own future use, or to see a sense of joy and delight reflected in ones for their children.

I love your posts!

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