“Thank you guys for coming,” says Justin Crowe. “There are over 200 people mixed into a glaze and then covering functional pottery, which is the functional pottery that you guys are going to eat off of today.”
The six mortals at this supper are gathered around the dining room table of a modern adobe mansion off Artist Road. It's the home of Garth Clark and Mark Del Vecchio, owners of the online ceramics magazine CFile, and Crowe is their house sitter-cum-artist-in-residence. "This is part of a project to infuse a sense of mortality into these average moments of life," Crowe continues. "Drinking your morning coffee all of a sudden is this totally different experience when you're confronting this abstracted symbol of death."
All is quiet as we examine the tableware before us: a cutting board with a loaf of bread atop it, small bread plates, bowls filled with salad and cups brimming with red wine. The works are glazed in subtly shifting shades of seafoam green, a family of hues that evokes wispy atmosphere, and they are delightful to view and hold. It's hard to imagine that these smooth objects, which are cheerfully titled Nourish, are plastered with human remains.
Crowe bought fragments of bones online, mostly from old anatomy skeletons, and reduced them to ashes in the kiln of his studio partner, Rachel Donner. He replaced a common ingredient in ceramics glaze with the powdery material, et voilà—pottery straight out of Soylent Green.
"That's the project, and have fun," Crowe says, drifting off into the kitchen. There's nothing to do but seize our utensils and dive in. I gently spear a tomato that tops my salad, trying not to scrape the bottom of the bowl. I'd already learned of Crowe's project on a visit to his studio on Lena Street. There were yellowed bones and a little bowl of ash sitting on a tabletop and a few unglazed ceramics on a nearby shelf. Crowe dipped his fingers in the ash and gave it a stir, explaining how he pulverized the bones. He fired them in Donner's kiln overnight, and in the morning they were brittle enough to crush into a powder. The process made the whole floor of the building smell like a rotting corpse for days, and Crowe worried about complaints from other tenants. Donner sat nearby as Crowe told the story, casually interjecting as she painted ceramics.
"Maybe it's because I've been talking to artist-y kinds of people," says Donner, who sits to my left at the dinner. "But they're like, 'Oh, cool. That's really cool.'" Sandra Wang and Crockett Bodelson, who make art under the moniker SCUBA, also seem unfazed by the project's premise as they munch on bread to my right. "I feel like people already have a lot of spiritual feelings about arts and crafts," says Wang. "Processing death through this craft form seems pretty reverent to me."
Filmmakers Morgan Capps and Ash Haywood circle the table with cameras, capturing snippets of conversation and close-ups of the dishes. The commercial success of the project hinges not on the opinions of the dinner guests, but on a much larger audience that will witness this ceremony through an online video. Crowe just launched a business, Chronicle Cremation Designs, that will sell ceramics imbued with the ashes of customers' loved ones.
"It seems like it's philosophically tied to Buddhism," says Bodelson, examining his cup. "It's reincarnation; Buddha goes into everything; people go into everything. Now that's an actual reality."
Writer Marie Claire Bryant, who sits across from me next to photographer Christian Michael Filardo, furrows her brow. "I wonder if some people might feel it's inappropriate because you're trapping a dead person in this stuff," she says. With that, the conversation takes a darker turn. We discuss Jamestown, Jonestown and the Salem witch trials. Donner, who descends from the Donner family of the infamous pioneer expedition, admits to tasting a pinch of the ashes with Crowe. The meal starts to feel like an eerie pagan ritual as Crowe delivers the main course of pork tenderloin.
This is the risk of using any type of human residue in your work: The medium often eclipses the message. With 2007's "For the Love of God," Damien Hirst bedazzled a human skull with 8,601 diamonds, and was skewered by critics for using his art as a brazen marketing tool. In 1987, Andres Serrano photographed a plastic crucifix in a vat of his own urine and produced "Piss Christ," an icon of the enduring political debate about funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. These works are inextricable from their sensational stories, and it clouds our ability to interpret them in more than one way. Is Crowe guilty of crude gimmickry?
After dinner, he and I sit across from each other at the table while the rest of the guests smoke on the patio. Capps and Haywood chase after a fly with their cameras, hoping it will land on a corpse-infused cup. "It's funny; I didn't really think of the dinner as a performance, but it totally was," Crowe says. "I liked the conversation, because that's the point of the project: to talk about this thing so much that it no longer becomes scary or swept under the rug." That's certainly been the effect of the project on him, though he recently witnessed a friend suffer a stroke and considered abandoning the piece altogether. "I haven't had any tragic deaths in my life. I've had deaths, but it was an old person who got old," says Crowe. "That moment was as close as I've gotten to feeling like I was looking at death. I thought, 'I'm putting this out there, and people who've had that experience, this is how they're going to feel.'"
And yet, when I fit one of his impeccably crafted cups into my palm, Crowe's project feels peaceful and innocuous, and the tenderness at the heart of the artist's endeavor really does undercut one of our society's biggest taboos.
In any case, Crowe doesn't want to be universally admired. "I'm of the opinion that if everyone likes your art, it hasn't really succeeded as art," he says. "It hasn't progressed anything or started a conversation. There has to be some kind of dialogue. That dialogue is usually, 'Is it good or bad? Is it effective or not effective? Did I like it or not like it?'"