THONOTOSASSA -- Raven Collins puts her heart and other people’s souls into her art.
The 37-year-old Thonotosassa artist has been sketching for more than 15 years, specializing in detailed hand-drawn portraits. Nowadays, most of her commissioned work incorporates an unusual ingredient: Cremated remains -- ashes -- brushed right into the portrait.
It’s a fast-growing trend in the art world, though Collins says she is the only one she’s aware of who uses ashes in sketch drawings. Others mix remains in the paint of abstract works and some sculptors put cremated remains in jewelry or glass. One artist in Canada compresses cremated remains and puts it into pencils. “Like lead,” Collins says.
She didn’t want to copy anybody when she got the idea a few years ago. Rather, she let it percolate for a while before deciding to create her Portraits From Ashes studio and use cremated remains in her drawings.
“I try to think outside the box,” she says.
She says memorial portraits with ashes now make up nearly 90 percent of her business. She gets some referrals from funeral homes, but mostly her advertising is word of mouth and over the Internet. People also send ashes and pictures of their deceased pets as well for commissioned artwork. Memorial art work can range from $200 to $300 each, she says, depending on size and whether color is used.
Her labor of love is part of a growing trend in the business of death. As cremations increase in the funeral industry, the options of what to do with the ashes are increasing as well. Some people put ashes in fancy urns and keep them on the mantle. Others spill them in the ocean or spread them in a peaceful glen somewhere. More and more are opting for incorporating some of the ashes in commissioned artwork.
Jan Scheff, executive director of the Independent Funeral Directors of Florida, says funeral directors always look for options for clients who choose cremation. Jewelry and glass sculptures have been around for a while but memorial portraits are something new.
“I think it is relatively recent,” she says.
More cremations are done in Florida than nearly every other state and the more memorial options offered to surviving relatives the better. Scheff says survivors who opt for cremation often don’t have funeral services, so they look for different ways to remember their loved ones.
“We’ve seen some really good artists with glassware,” Scheff says. “Of course, jewelry came first.
“Definitely, people now are really trying to find meaningful ways to memorialize their loved ones,” she says, “maybe even more so than having traditional kinds of viewings and funeral services and interments in cemeteries.
“People are choosing cremation,” she says, “and they’re looking for ways to make it special.”
The trend of placing cremation ashes in artwork began to take hold less than a decade ago, according to Art in Ashes, a website dedicated to the medium. Funeral arrangements for centuries have followed strict rules dictated by funeral directors, the website says, and using ashes of loved ones in a piece of jewelry or mixed in paint for picture just didn’t seem dignified.
But now that options are expanding, the artistic community is responding, the website says.
“The idea has attracted the curiosity of observers across the United States,” the website says, “and appears poised to follow in the footsteps of cremation jewelry, motorcycle urns and even specialty caskets, all of which are new ideas that have proven so popular in the last decade that even traditional funeral homes are now routinely offering them.”
Collins’ inspiration to create art from ashes came at a cost: the tragic deaths of two nephews, Gavin, 3, and Sebastian Rosado, a month shy of 2, who perished in a Tampa house fire five years ago.
When bereaved people call to commission a piece of memorial art, Collins is able to talk to them about grief. Often she talks with clients for hours about what they want in a portrait and about the grieving process.
“I tell them that I’ve been through it,” she says.
Typically, she gets a small packet of ashes in the mail and then puts it into a mortar and uses a pestle to grind it into a fine powder before adding the liquid. Just a small bit of ash is needed, a tablespoon or less. She uses a Q-Tip to gently apply the paste onto a finished portrait.
“For me,” she says, “it’s a lot like surgery.”
In her work, the ashes are visible. They could be brushed into the hair or on a lapel. Sometimes, the remains are sprinkled in a corner or along a border, looking like sand.
While regular portraits of beloved family members who have died are important, she says, memorial portraits with ashes must be done right.
“People cherish them,” she says. She has gotten commissions from all sorts of people.
“I’ve had Christians, non-Christians, normal people and people,” she says, “who are a little absurd.”
Other artists have begun dabbling in cremation memorial media.
Beverly Albrets of Naples works in glass and a few years ago began incorporating cremated remains in her art. Since then, that part of her business has blossomed.
In her art, cremated remains placed inside glass sculptures and can be seen mixed in with swirling colors.
The ashes, she says, “look like galaxies.” The sculptures take various forms, but mostly are orbs of smooth and textured glass, with swirls of colors serving as a backdrop for the ashes.
“I’ve tried a few things,” she says. “I’m a free-form kind of glass artist. I like the fluidness of glass and I didn’t want to do a vase. I wanted it to be an art piece, not something you could stick a flower in.”