Saturday, June 12, 2010

Shine On Brightly: A Conversation with Adrienne Crowther

cremation jewelry keepsake

The round glass protects your memento of choice -
hair, cremated remains, fabric, or anything less than 1/8" in thickness.

Shine On Brightly is a source for unique, personalized memorial art. A wide variety of memorial art is available, including cremation urns in various materials and styles, memorial jewelry, memorial paintings, handmade books, memorial glass objects, memorial poetry, and textile art.

The company was founded in April 2008 by Adrienne Crowther, former Executive Director of the Asheville, North Carolina Area Arts Council. She comes to this work from a lifelong passion for art, and with the belief that every life deserves to be honored and celebrated. Ms. Crowther recently lost her husband of 29 years unexpectedly.

“When I promote a handmade book from our collection, I can tell you that I used one of them as a guest register/message journal at our memorial service, and that it will be cherished forever by my family… the bracelet that I wear in honor of my husband was designed and created by a Shine On Brightly artist. I believe in these products, and they have helped me through a difficult time.”

Both commissioned and non-commissioned pieces are available. Orders can be placed online at , or by phone (toll free 866-884-4469). Ms. Crowther has graciously agreed to share a conversation with The Daily Undertaker.

memorial art cremation

by artist JAMES YAUN
Ashes are spun into the piece,
producing a subtle, delicate effect.

Pat McNally: There are some beautiful pieces on display on your website. One piece in particular that I really liked is a pendant that can hold hair as a memorial. I have been asked for locks of hair on several occasions by families. I think that this is a beautiful way to keep and display something like this. Could you tell us a bit about this piece?

Adrienne Crowther: I really love these pieces also. In fact, before my husband passed away, my elder daughter cut his hair because he had asked her for a haircut before he slipped into a coma and she never had a chance to do it. So she cut his hair while he was in the coma, and for Christmas, I had one of these pendants made with his hair for her, and a ring with his hair for my other daughter.

The artist is Angela Bubash, and she teaches and exhibits at some of the finest craft schools, such as Penland School of Craft and Arrowmont. In her artist statement, she says that she “honors the tradition of her craft while referencing historical and contemporary art and design.” She had also expressed an affinity for creating work for honoring a life.

memorial arts cremation
Adrienne Crowther

What a wonderful gift your daughter gave to her father. I’m sure that those pendants are especially precious to you all because of that memory. There is such a value to us in caring for our loved ones in their last days. I think that as a culture we have lost some of our humanity in moving away from caring for our own during sickness and at death. Certainly, it is often something too overwhelming for many to do on their own, but if we can be involved in some way it makes an enormous difference in our experience. I think too, that even when our loved ones are in a coma, as your husband was, or have already died, the kindnesses and care that we give to them are somehow known and appreciated. Even if they are not, it makes a world of difference to us.

I completely agree. My husband’s sister passed away in April (yes, it’s been an unbelievable year!). She had been a childhood friend since age 10. When her condition became dire, her children asked me to fly up to be with them. It was such an honor to be there. During her last days, I massaged her arms and legs with some herbal cream that she liked. It gave me an opportunity to be with her in a very special way. Even though she wasn’t really able to speak much, I talked to her a lot during that time, and I knew that she was comforted by our presence. Then, after she passed, her children, boyfriend, and I sat with her in her bedroom and shared stories, tears, and tons of love. It was quite beautiful. We were able to do that with my husband also. Both were hospice-assisted deaths. I’m a huge fan of hospice. I think they teach us how to experience the beauty in dying, which really is the ultimate event in life besides birth.

memorial arts

Based on photographs of special places, Butler’s paintings are
personalized by blending cremated ash into the pigments as he paints.

Currently, you offer quite a variety of different kinds of memorial art; in addition to urns, you offer jewelry, textiles, memorial painting, and memorial glass work. In your open call for artists what kind of works are you looking for?

I’m always looking for well-crafted pieces that are aesthetically tasteful. I also need to know that the artist is comfortable with producing these pieces more than once. Many artists don’t like to repeat a design. I fully understand that option, however, it doesn’t work for this purpose. I ask the artist for a statement about doing this type of work. Honestly, that statement carries a lot of weight if the quality is already good. I look for artists who are fulfilled and/or inspired by making art for the purpose of honoring a loved one. Many of the Shine On Brightly artists have experienced loss of some kind, or have been commissioned by friends or family to create a piece for someone who has passed. Usually, that has a profound effect on the artist, and they understand the importance of making art for this purpose.

How do you go about selecting products and types of products to represent?

I try to maintain a good amount of variety in the collection. I aim to have an inventory of pieces to match a wide array of aesthetics. You’ll notice that the collection includes traditional looking pottery as well as whimsical pieces. Shine On Brightly’s tagline is the Art of Reverence, so as long as it’s a well-made piece, I look for designs/pieces that are not like the average urn that one might find elsewhere. I like pieces that make me feel something.

memorial cremation urn art

Colored Glass Urn by artist ROBERT LEVIN

Memorial quilts are an idea I have only ever seen offered on your site. It seems like a wonderfully comforting way to memorialize someone. Has there been a lot of interest in this offering?

There’s been interest in the quilts but I’d really like to be able to market these as a great way to process grief. It takes a commitment from the person who commissions one of these pieces, to provide just the right information and/or materials for a memorial textile quilt. The client works very closely with the artist to establish the spirit of the person being honored. That can include color, texture, shapes, and objects. For example, if a person had a very bold personality, then the artist would probably work with intense colors (based on the preferences of the person being honored) and definite shapes. A quiet person might be represented with muted tones and softer shapes.

Also, the artist will incorporate objects that were meaningful or symbolic to that person. She can incorporate a wedding ring or favorite brooch, a piece of fabric from a favorite article of clothing, or photos that are copied onto fabric. These elements really add that unique, personal quality to the piece.

memorial quilt art

Memorial Quilt by textile artist Norma Bradley

When I meet with families who have chosen cremation, I explain to them that there is an almost endless variety of urns available. What are your thoughts on ways that families can sort through all of these options to find what is right for them?

I find that many of my clients tell me that they chose a certain piece because it really reminded them of the person who has passed. For example, the Garden of Delight urns often remind people of their loved ones who were gardeners. Sometimes certain colors remind them of their loved one. Most of my clients tell me that they searched all over the internet and saw a lot of the same products that were impersonal and mass-produced. My goal is to spread the word so well that all funeral directors know of Shine On Brightly as a resource for people who want something unique and beautiful, yet affordable.

As far as advice to families, I guess I would say that being specific in an online search is helpful. Instead of googling “cremation urns,” they might want to try “artist-made cremation urns” or “unique cremation urns.” I also would advise families to be as clear as possible to their funeral director about what they would like to have available to them. Sometimes people in this situation aren’t really sure, or aren’t in a frame of mind to articulate that. In that case, I think it’s up to good funeral directors to be educated about what’s available so that they can serve their families well.

What can transform the selection of an urn from just a retail event, into a meaningful and positive experience?

When I work with a potential client, I try to get information about the person who has passed. Then I can make suggestions about options that may be unknown to him/her. One of the most powerful processes is when I match a customer with an artist. I receive calls from clients who like the style of a particular artist, but would like to commission something especially for that loved one. I then put the artist in touch with the customer and they work on the design together. That involves several phone conversations, during which the artist asks questions about the person who has passed to get a feel for the spirit of that person. The artist then submits sketches to the client, and they exchange ideas and feedback until the ideal piece is designed. I’ve witnessed this process several times, and every time, the outcome has involved a pleasantly unexpected, cathartic, grief-process for the client. The artist and client often end up bonding and becoming friends after this process.

memorial urn art cremate
Ms. Crowther's Husband and daughters prior to her husband's death

Participation can be one of the most memorable and constructive parts of end of life rituals. Many who choose cremation do not have the opportunity to participate in things like carrying the casket or sprinkling earth on the grave. Would you encourage participatory acts such as involving the family in placing the cremated remains into the urn? Are there other ways that rituals and participation can become more a part of the cremation experience?

I feel very strongly that everyone knows their comfort level with such things. For example, some people choose to witness the actual cremation. If that’s ok , then by all means, I encourage that. I do feel that the commission process that I referenced in the last question is a wonderful opportunity to participate in part of the experience.

My husband was a sailor and career tugboat captain. My daughter designed and built a 4’ sailboat with wood from his tugboat. She even hand-sewed a papyrus sail, which made it functional. She built a small box that she filled with some of his ashes . The box sat on the stern of the boat. We gathered his family together on a dock on a river that he loved throughout his life. My brother-in-law paddled the boat upstream, lit it on fire, and set it down-river. The boat passed us along the way, ablaze in glory, like a Viking funeral. The most amazing part of this was that the boat sailed down the very center of the stream, as if he was at the helm. It was fantastic, and touched everyone there. I know that it was a very important part of my daughter’s healing process to do that.

We also brought some of his ashes to France, where we went skiing last winter. My husband loved to ski, and he loved Europe. I had wanted to scatter his ashes in a perfect spot. I knew the spot as soon as I saw it. My daughters were there, as well as his sister and her children, and a close family friend. Again, this was a powerful event for all of us.

What a powerful and inspiring story. I wish that every one was empowered to the point that they were able to do something like that. Certainly creating something like the sailboat, and creating the ritual of setting it aflame must have helped you all to acknowledge and move forward in your grief. For those who are not on the creating end of things, what is the value that art can add to the experience of grief and remembering?

Art is handmade by people, as opposed to mass-produced by machines. For that reason alone, there is a certain element of energy, life, and love that goes into the making of it. Also, art is a process, so there’s an organic quality to it. As I mentioned earlier, when a client works with an artist on a piece, it becomes a hugely cathartic experience for both of them. It requires reflection about the essence of the person – what were the personality traits of that person? What made that person unique? How would this person be represented? When we allow ourselves to have this process, we’re really spending time and energy with the memory of this person, and it gives the opportunity to be with that spirit and to heal from the loss.

memorial art ritual funeral

Hand-made books constructed from hand-marbled papers and silk fabrics. Used to commemorate life’s important events, to document guests and messages at a memorial gathering, or to gather stories, photos, and memorabilia.

Your family experienced a profound loss. How has this changed the way you look at the role and value of memorial art?

I really understand the emotional impact that loss has on everyone in a family. I never thought I would experience such a profound loss at the age of 53. I want to preserve and honor my husband’s memory forever. We have an altar in our living room that is filled with tributes to him. There are lots of photos. There’s a handmade book that one of the Shine On Brightly artists made for us. It has his name and dates on the cover, along with a quote that he always loved from the book “The Wind in the Willows.” As I mentioned, we’ve had jewelry made with his hair, and my daughter is carving a wooden urn that was designed by the three of us (my other daughter and I).

When I talk with my customers, and I feel that it’s appropriate to tell my story, I immediately gain their trust. I’m not just selling products, but I feel passionate about the importance of honoring someone with something meaningful, unique, handmade, and beautiful. This really has become a vocation for me.

I love the idea of using a quote from ‘Wind in the Willows’. I am reminded of how important the contributions of artists are in our lives. Weaving these artistic threads through into our death and memorialization can be a big part of meaningful ‘personalization’. Do you have any advice for people going through an experience of loss?

Even though I was completely heartbroken and distraught after my husband’s passing, I realized pretty early on that I’m still alive, and living everyday of my life to the fullest is no joke or cliché. I feel so fortunate to have had him in my life for over 30 years, and I try to carry him forth in my heart at all times. My friends have been, and continue to be, a tremendous source of support and love. So I would suggest that, when people feel vulnerable and hopeless after a loss like this, to try to be as open to that love and support as possible. It really helped me and my daughters, and I’ll be forever grateful to them for that. Also, I immediately sought out grief counseling resources at hospice, and have really benefited from both one-on-one counseling and group situations. Any support is helpful.

art book memorial ritual

Ceramic urn by artist STEVEN FORBES-DESOULE

It is so important for us to open ourselves up to the help and support that is offered. It’s easy to say ‘Thanks, I’m OK’ when you’re not. One of the most valuable parts of a funeral or memorial service is that expression and offering of help and care by friends and family. We need that when we grieve and we need people to continue to look in on us in the weeks and months after a death. If we try too hard to be ‘strong’ though, the offers of help run out when we can need them the most.

Many people find a comfort in keeping the cremated remains of their loved ones at home with them; especially in a beautiful container. When a family keeps cremated remains at home, eventually they must be transferred to the next generation – if there is one, and that relative may not wish to be the caretaker. Do you think that families plan for this eventuality? What are your thoughts on this kind of succession planning?

I think this is a very important issue. It’s something that needs forethought, as much as succession planning for any other possession. If no one is open to assuming that position, then I would suggest that the ashes are eventually scattered in a special place, or placed somewhere like a columbarium niche or burial spot.

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences with my readers. You’ve given us a lot to think about.

These are issues that I think about all the time, and I greatly appreciate the opportunity to articulate them in this setting. Thank you!

memorial arts

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1 comment:

Killer said...

What an insightful interview! Too often death is viewed as an end. Adrienne appears to have the ability to reshape that line of thinking into a more joyful way of coping. Helping us to understand that memorializing someone can keep their memories alive long after their passing. Bravo Adrienne!

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