Ashes to artwork: Port Townsend potter turns hand to funerary urns [**Gallery**]
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In her home office, Megan Smith reaches to the top of her display shelves for one of the urns she made after she decided to elaborate on traditionally-shaped vases. The smaller urns on the second shelf down are for pet ashes. -- Photo by Jennifer Jackson/for Peninsula Daily News
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Jennifer Jackson/for Peninsula Daily News
Getting ready for her annual solstice sale of earthenware, Megan Smith works in her pottery studio, which she created by converting the garage of the house she built in Hamilton Heights. Smith also designed and built an open shed off the garage for her kilns.
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Jennifer Jackson/for Peninsula Daily News
Some of the urns, including this pet urn, have a hollow lid with an opening to hold a memento.
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Jennifer Jackson/for Peninsula Daily News
The round black canister, back left, and the tall black vase with scroll handles, a combination of cylindrical and bowl shapes, back right, were intermediary steps to making lidded funerary urns like the two in front.
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Jennifer Jackson/for Peninsula Daily News
The round black canister, back left, and the tall black vase with scroll handles, a combination of cylindrical and bowl shapes, back right, were intermediary steps to making lidded funerary urns like the two in front.

By Jennifer Jackson
For Peninsula Daily News

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PORT TOWNSEND — Where will you spend eternity?

Megan Smith has an option that might shake family skeletons — or what remains of them— out of the closet.

“When I talk about what I make, people sheepishly admit that they still have ashes in the closet in a plastic bag,” Smith said.

Smith is a potter who makes hand-crafted clay funerary urns in her garage-turned-studio on the outskirts of Port Townsend. She started marketing her urns online in March and is looking for ways to connect with customers who want an artistic alternative to the staid black ginger jar.

“My designs are elaborate and celebratory,” Smith said. “I want to help celebrate someone's life.”

Funerary art is a different direction for Smith, who thought it was a strange idea when a friend pointed out a use for the tall, scroll-handled vases that were emerging from her potter's wheel.

Then, a friend who had bought her earthenware pieces came up to her at the farmers market and asked if she could make an urn big enough to hold his and his wife's ashes, and she began to see it in a new light.

“It began to feel like wonderful thing to create for people,” Smith said. “It became something that can help and support someone through the grieving process.”

It was about six years ago that Smith started experimenting with shapes of vases, taking round containers and alternating them with cylindrical shapes, then embellishing the result with strips of clay.

At the time, she had just been chosen to build her own house in the Hamilton Heights neighborhood through an affordable housing program, KCCHA, Kitsap County Consolidated Housing Authority.

Starting in the fall of 2006, Smith and seven others chosen for the program were given the basics of house framing and use of power tools, then, under the guidance of a site supervisor, went to work, constructing two houses at a time.

Smith loved it, despite that winter being cold and snowy.

“I loved learning how to do it,” Smith said. “I've always been a maker of things, whether it was sewing, building or crafts.”

Smith grew up in Boise, Idaho, and is largely self-taught as a potter, although she does have an art background.

She majored in art at Colorado College in Colorado Springs and later added a graduate degree in art therapy and child and family therapy from Antioch College. But it was only after moving to Portland that she started going to a community center's open studio to watch people make pottery and ask questions.

Encouraged by friends who liked the pottery she started making, Smith organized a house sale where she sold all her mugs and bowls.

“My style has always been earthier tones and a funky, hand-made look,” she said.

She moved to Port Townsend in 1998, and she set up an mentorship with artist Lorna Smith, working in her pottery studio for about a year, Smith said.

“She helped her figure out how to sell my work at the Fremont Market in Seattle,” Megan Smith said.

She then worked out of an uptown garage — appropriately on Clay Street — and was also renting a place to live when she heard about the KCCHA program. The confidence of learning to build a house carried over into her work, she said, and she started going beyond traditional-shaped vases.

“I began to push my limits and the limits of the clay,” she said. “I wanted to see how far I could go with design.”

In March, Smith made another leap of faith — to take a break from counseling work with the county's juvenile services department and focus on her art career.

She has set up her website, www.ArtofUrns.com. Researching the funerary art market, she learned that people do one of four things with ashes: scatter all of them, divide them among family members, keep all of them in an urn or bury the urn and keep some of the ashes.

“More and more people are being cremated, but our culture doesn't have a protocol of what to do with the ashes,” Smith said. “It does give people the freedom to come up with their own ideas for ritual that provides closure and helps them accept a loss.”

Smith already has sold two urns and has gotten a query from a man who wanted to know if she could make one big enough to hold his ashes and those of his five dogs.

Smith also was commissioned to make a pet urn by a Port Townsend couple who wanted to take the ashes to sea in their sailboat, scattering the dog's ashes at favorite spots. Smith made the urn with a hole in the bottom so that it could screwed onto a shelf, and put the dog's name on the flange.

She also makes what are known as keepsake urns, small matching containers for relatives who want to divide the ashes or for people who want to keep some of the ashes and scatter the rest.

“When people ask funeral directors, 'Now what do I do with the ashes?' their advice is to wait a year,” Smith said. “Then on the one-year anniversary, you can reconsider what you want to do and what the person would like. I think it's a good idea.”

An alternative to putting Mom on the mantle: place her ashes in one of Smith's urns, which are waterproof, and place it in the garden.

Smith is also planning to experiment with biodegradable urns made from clay scraps and straw for people who want a green burial.

She takes commissions for urns, which gives customers a chance to add their input to the design.

“That's where a little of my art therapy comes in,” Smith said. “It gives people some degree of control at a time when they don't have any control of the situation.”

Smith is displaying her urns at the pop-up art gallery that appeared June 2 in the Kellogg Building on Water Street for the monthly gallery walk.

Organized by Marilyn Kurka, the pop-up gallery offered space to 14 artists, including Caroline Robertson, who makes wearable masks. One is a suffocation mask — a mask on a pillow with two handles, which comes with a disclaimer — the artist is not responsible for any charges that result from its use.

Also featured are sculptures by Scott Jaster of Williwa, who made the large bicycle sculptures on display and also the orange and yellow figures hanging from the ceiling made from bicycle reflector strips.

Smith said artist Max Grover has invited her to exhibit her funerary art at his gallery next fall in conjunction with the Day of the Dead. She also is holding her annual Solstice Pottery Sale, where she sells her other lines of pottery, including dishware and garden planters, at her studio, 2237 Shasta Place, Port Townsend, on June 20-22 from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. and June 23 from noon to 6 p.m.

Smith teaches an eight-class pottery course at the studio.

For information, visit www.ArtofUrns.com or email artofurns@gmail.com.

Other artists at the pop-up gallery are Irene McMasters, Aragorn Deane, Jessica Randall, Judy Courtwright, Clif Wiley, Katrina Cass, Tamara Constaser, Laura Snodgrass, Debra Oldman, Marilyn Kurka and Beverly Michaelsen.

The gallery, at 929 Water St., will be open until the space, formerly an outdoor clothing and equipment store, is rented, Kurka said.

Last modified: June 10. 2012 5:47PM
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