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In keeping with the spirit of life

Maria Munroe's beautiful but unorthodox sculptures may shock some, but there's a reason why people want them in their homes.

August 03, 2006|Bettijane Levine | Times Staff Writer

JUST inside the front door of Maria Munroe's house in Venice sits an abstract sterling silver sculpture of a star. It is a luminous, off-kilter, asteroidal shape, with a satiny shimmer that invites caress. Sealed inside are the cremated remains of Jeffrey Blumberg, a New York silver expert who died in 1996.

OK, the concept may be a bit hard to grasp. Munroe uses cremains in sculptures she designs as memorials that surviving loved ones can live with in their homes.

Every tabletop, floor space and corner of Munroe's home is filled with works, large and small, from her ongoing exploration of funerary art, along with pieces from her recent show at Frank Pictures Gallery in Santa Monica. Many of these, including the Blumberg star, were lent by Munroe's clients for the exhibit, and are awaiting their return.

Some are vessels that contain the ashes of the deceased. Others -- lead crystal and ceramic pieces -- had some ashes mixed in as the piece was being made (which is legal), so that the cremains become an integral part of the material. Other items include meditation beads, crystal orbs and glass bricks. Her works range from $3,000 to $30,000.

Munroe, who is wearing a crystal disc pendant that contains some of her Aunt Conchita's ashes, is one of very few artists who devote their entire output to working with cremains, says gallery owner Laurie Frank, who met the artist and first saw the sculptures about five years ago.

"The mind-blowing part for me," says Frank, "was realizing that the glass sculptures were actually made with human ash as part of the glass-blowing process -- and that they also act as containers for the ash -- so the deceased person is in the urn and also of it."

Munroe's art is part of a larger movement that reflects changing spiritual and practical attitudes about death and its rituals in the U.S.

As traditional burial space becomes less available and more expensive, more people turn to cremation as an alternative. Most religions accept cremation. "Seven years ago, no state had a 50% cremation rate," says Jack Springer, executive director of the Cremation Assn. of North America, which tracks cremation statistics. "Today, cremation rates are over 60% in Arizona, Nevada and Hawaii -- places where people tend to retire." California reached 51% in 2004, he says. And the country as a whole reached almost 31% that year.

From a spiritual perspective, the idea of staying close to a loved one's cremains -- keeping ashes at home in specially designed vessels, or wearing them in special "keepsake" jewelry -- is gaining favor. A number of artistic alternatives to traditional urns and boxes are offered on websites for the mass market (see related story). Munroe's work, however, is not mass or commercial. She creates only two or three major sculptures a year, she says.

THE artist's 3,200-square-foot home with its book-lined dining room is filled from the Saltillo tile floors to the high ceilings with paintings and drawings collected by Munroe and her husband, private art dealer Aldis Browne.

Munroe, 59, is tall and vibrant with green eyes, even features, and an almost palpable sense of fun. When she talks of meeting her husband 30 years ago, and their romantic world travels, she sounds much like a teenager describing a crush. She wears no visible makeup, and her gray hair is drawn straight back off her face, as if to emphasize her openness.

She says she did a good deal of research on those travels, scouring museums and libraries to learn how various cultures have dealt with death through the centuries. She's not quite sure why the subject has fascinated her.

"At first, I worked around it, because it is such a big, powerful, frightening topic, and so little is known." Then she began to create art that was inhabited by ashes of the many animals she had lived with and loved as pets.

On the hearth of her living room fireplace is a handsome copper tub, filled with white sand. Nestled on the sand is a copper oval, inside of which are the ashes of her beloved guinea pig, Porchetta, whom she refers to as her muse. It's kinetic, she says; the tub's bottom is a rounded rather than flat. Touch it anywhere, and the tub will gently rock -- a motion her guinea pig apparently loved.

It wasn't until after the death of her father in 1990 that she tackled the work she believes she was meant to do. "Any person, at some point in his or her life, has to ask themselves: What's next? I wanted to address that question from an artist's perspective," she says. "But I didn't feel I could even attempt to work on a piece that involved a person unless I had experienced deep grief myself."

Her father, a career military man, was cremated and buried at sea. She was able to get three thick locks of his white hair, and designed a glass sculpture for each lock -- for her mother, her brother and herself.

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