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Butler’s workspace, with ashes, paints. A completed, framed 11-by-17-inch painting costs $900 (Photo: David Swanson)

At first glance, it could be just another painting: A landscape, seen through a maze of trees, features a gazebo by a pond. Sarah Hopkins said it depicts the North Carolina property her family once owned – the place her father would go each evening with a drink and a smoke and watch the day close.

But this painting is special: It gets its texture from the cremated remains of Hopkins’ father, who died in 2000.

“I felt this memorialized him better than anything I’ve seen before,” said Hopkins, 38, of Glenside. “For me, it was a way to heal.”

Jenkintown artist Michael Butler uses the remains of the dead to create art for the living. His company, Loved Ones Art, isn’t the first or only business to offer such a service – a quick Internet search reveals multiple artists who specialize in art made from human or pet remains. But that may be what’s most notable: The world of mourning and remembering has changed, with more people looking for unique ways to leave this world or stay behind.

“I’m focusing more on the life than the death,” said Butler, 49, who mostly works with land- and seascapes. “It’s not for everybody, and the whole topic is weird for some people, but we’re all going to go through it. We’ve all lost loved ones we miss. Is there a way to make the pain a little less stinging? That’s what I do.”

Journalist Hunter S. Thompson went out with a literal bang, having his remains packed into fireworks and sent into the air over his Colorado farm. Families can have their loved ones’ cremated remains pressed into diamonds, incorporated into bracelets and necklaces, sent into the ocean to feed a growing reef. Cremains are appearing in things like paperweights, comic-book ink and mini-statues for families to treasure for generations.

“Nobody wants to be forgotten,” said Bob Fells, general counsel for the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association, a 121-year-old trade organization based in Virginia.

Fells said about 33 percent of America’s deceased are cremated every year, roughly 790,000 people. That percentage has steadily increased from 50 years ago, when only about 4 or 5 percent of Americans chose cremation. Reasons vary: Consumers tell Fells’ organization that cremation is just more natural, following the idea of “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Some believe it more environmentally friendly, a debatable issue. Still others find cremation more cost-effective than a full-blown funeral with embalming.

Fells expects that as more of the baby boomers – the Me Generation – begin to face their mortality, unique memorializing will become more common.

“They’re going to want something of a permanent nature that says, ‘Hey, I was here. I walked the Earth. I made a difference.’ I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of people content with a little marker.”

After Hopkins’ father died, he was cremated, his ashes kept in an urn in her mother’s New England home.

Later, Hopkins met Butler through a friend. Having an art background herself, she felt a painting would be the perfect way to memorialize her father and to have a piece of him close to her.

“This is part of our family, just like the urn,” said Hopkins, who was so impressed with Butler’s painting that she now promotes his company. “This helps me remember Dad in a very different way.”

More than 25 years ago, Butler paid his way through Philadelphia’s Hussian School of Art by working as a gravedigger at a local cemetery. He remembers seeing people pass time at their loved ones’ graves, caring for the markers and the grounds. “It struck me to see how people reacted,” he said. “It was obviously important to them.” Years later, as a graphic and package designer, he designed his mother’s headstone.

Last year, Butler decided he wanted to change his professional course and pursue his fine-art dream. He remembered those gravedigging days. And he noted that times had changed: People were more transient, and not everyone lived within an easy drive of their family plots. They were busier, with children and activities and work. Even he found he was visiting his mother’s resting place only twice a year. The traditions surrounding death – with generations using the same funeral parlor, choosing interment in the same cemetery – were fading.

After a discussion with a friend who didn’t know what to do with the remains of a family member, the idea for Loved Ones Art was launched. Now his studio fills the sunroom of his home, a peaceful, bright space. On the table next to his canvas sits a mortar and pestle, used to make the cremains finer. Dollops of bright paint outline a square tray. In the center are the ashes currently in use.

Butler needs about two tablespoons of ash for each painting. (A body yields between four and eight pounds of ash.) He dips his brush in linseed oil and mixes it with the cremains before dabbing the canvas – “I treat it like another pigment,” Butler said. The texture the ashes bring to the painting could be mistaken for the uneven surface typical of oil paintings.

Since Butler began promoting his business this summer, he has completed about a dozen works. He charges $900 for a completed, framed 11-by-17-inch painting. Once he talks with the family and looks through photos, the painting takes about a week, and three more for it to dry.

Butler’s current commission is for Meg Schultz, a Massachusetts woman who lost her husband, Steve, suddenly last year. The work-in-progress is affixed to his easel so the artist can layer on the paint as he interprets a photograph of a beach scene taken by the deceased.

“I think it was important to him, so I make it important to me,” Butler said of the image. “I do feel a connection to the people. I don’t see how you couldn’t.”

Schultz, 50, said her husband loved photography and he loved Cape Cod, where they’d settled permanently shortly before his death. Unsure what to do with his ashes, she found Butler’s business during an Internet search. She called the artist and immediately felt comfortable with him, appreciating that he’d visited the Cape and understood how special it is.

While she notes that art from cremains may be a bit “outside the box” for her, she’s excited to see the finished product and has had the support of friends who know about the project.

“What you do after the death of a loved one is always a very personal thing and everybody does things differently. Some people have funerals. That wasn’t what my husband wanted,” said Schultz, of East Sandwich. “I really wanted the work of art. It’s going to be one of those things where people may not even know what it is. There will always be part of him here in this house.”

Natalie Pompilio
Philadelphia Inquirer

Photograph of Inga Saffron by Ryan Donnell

Inga Saffron isn’t just a critic — she’s a reporter and, often, an advocate in her weekly “Changing Skyline” column. Those roles muddy the journalistic waters at times, but in a city with a planning agency that’s asleep at the wheel and a tangled, ineffective zoning code, her words carry great weight. She not only applauds forward-thinking projects, like an aggressive remodeling of the Kimmel Center to draw more traffic, but pursues a vision of what Philadelphia could become. When Saffron wrote a five-part series on development along the Delaware River, she didn’t simply check off all the obvious blunders and squandered opportunities there — she saw lessons in how Louisville and North Jersey transformed their waterfronts, and took aim at a seemingly immovable object, Interstate 95, calling it a noose around the neck of Penn’s Landing. It’s not just architecture and aesthetics she’s writing about, but how the “built world,” as she calls it, affects us all in very real ways. Absent are the haughty academic pretensions some critics rely on. She knows those wouldn’t play here; they don’t for her, either. Instead, it’s her passion for cities — for this city — that drives her, making what could be a dull subject seem vital, demanding higher standards, and sending a message to every developer whose vision ends at the bottom line and every architect who plays it safe: Build at your own peril…

Her power, though, lies not so much in her willingness to eviscerate ugly buildings as in what she believes is at stake: the future of the city. “Philadelphia can’t be satisfied anymore to just build new,” she wrote in the Symphony House critique. “The city needs to build well, with taste, integrity, creativity, and, whenever possible, real aesthetic ambition”…Saffron doesn’t simply consider design and aesthetics when she evaluates a building. The first criterion is urban value — what does this tower or condo or retail space do for the neighborhood? Does it create life by inviting foot traffic and interaction with passersby, or is it sterile? Then there’s formal value, a structure’s beauty and craftsmanship. Her final consideration is a cultural one, and her toughest call. What does this edifice say about our times and our values? To consider how the 975-foot Comcast Center compares to similar buildings, Saffron studied the New York Times offices in Manhattan. “It was like, pow!” she says of that 856-foot skyscraper’s impact on the ground. “It was full of energy. I realized that Comcast’s setback [from the street] sort of saps the energy…”

That might sound like architecture-snob shop talk, but Saffron’s criteria reveal an attempt to balance artistic concerns with practical ones, without getting swept away in highfalutin design-speak. That’s partly out of necessity, since Saffron herself isn’t fluent in the sort of language you’d hear at an American Institute of Architects lecture. She doesn’t have a college degree in architecture or urban planning, or anything else, actually — after high school in Long Island led her to New York University, she studied in France for a year, then left for Dublin without graduating. In Ireland, Saffron found her calling in journalism, writing about the arts for local papers and stringing for Newsweek for two years before returning to the States to find work at a major newspaper…

In a perfect newsroom, Saffron would be either an architecture reporter or a critic, not both, and some say the latter role is a bit beyond her reach…Design legend Denise Scott Brown of Venturi Scott Brown agrees that Saffron isn’t equipped to discuss “high architecture,” or to compare the rebuilding of New Orleans with that of London after the Great Fire of 1666, as Scott Brown has done. But that’s not necessarily what this city needs. “The critics with formal training have other problems,” says Scott Brown, who insists that Saffron’s lack of academic jargon doesn’t make her less effective. “The French talk about education as formation. But it can also be deformation. She has brought up some important issues in Philadelphia…”

“Architecture is unavoidable,” [Saffron] says. “If there’s a painting on a wall that offends you, you don’t have to go back and see it. But our built world is something we share…The building is part of our lives. It’s how we define ourselves as a city.”

Richard Rys
Philadelphia Magazine

Last month, Radiohead released its new album, In Rainbows, as a download and asked people to pay whatever they wanted for it. A few weeks later hip-hop artist Saul Williams did more or less the same thing with The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust, the album he produced without a record company. Visitors to the Web site ( can pay either $5 or nothing.

Go and have a listen – both albums are good. While you’re online you can read the recipes in James Bridle’s new cookbook without paying for that, either.

Bridle, who lives in London, is a former publishing professional with degrees in computer science and cognitive science and, as he puts it, “severe geek tendencies.” Since September 2006 he has kept the blog, where he writes about the way digital technologies are affecting the traditional printed word. The blog bears the waggish tag line, “The book is dead. Long live the book.”

Nonetheless, Bridle wrote a book, a “real” one called Cooking With Booze that was put out by UK publisher Snowbooks in October. He announced its publication on his blog and assured readers that he’d stuck to his principles and “got all booktwo on it as well.” In other words, he retained his electronic rights to the work and made its entire contents available online for free even as the book sits on store shelves wearing a price tag.

“Putting it online for free means people who wouldn’t have seen it any other way have a better chance of finding it via Google and other search engines,” Bridle explained in an e-mail. “It also means they can try out the recipes, and will hopefully be pretty well-disposed towards it, and end up buying it for themselves or others. In short, it’s great publicity.”

Creative Commons is what makes the book legally sharable. The Massachusetts-based organization offers a variety of liberal copyrights that are based in part on the show-your-work logic of open-source software.

Different types of Creative Commons licenses have different parameters. Bridle chose the Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike license for his book, which permits readers to copy and distribute and even “remix” it as long as they do so for noncommercial purposes, acknowledge Bridle as the original author, and “share alike” by distributing any altered versions of the book under a similar license.

“This means I can retain some of my rights but allow others to share and build upon the work, which allows for more interesting uses of it than traditional, restrictive copyright,” Bridle says. He made the online version of the book using open-source software, most of which was free.

Recipes by their nature are amalgamations, with each new user tweaking them to suit his own tastes and then passing them along to friends. Bridle says that making them free, and free to play around with, seemed fitting. Still, wasn’t that hard to explain to the old-media folks who’d spent money publishing the book?

Not in this case, Bridle says; he used to work as an editor at Snowbooks and had initiated discussions there about using such an approach as a promotional tool. He also had the examples of Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross, both commercially successful novelists who have put whole novels online for free under similar copyrights.

As for Radiohead, Bridle thinks the band’s new album is “very canny. I think an ‘honesty box’ scheme will probably persuade a lot more people to pay rather than download it for free illegally.

“But what’s more interesting is the way they’re cutting out their record company to a large extent: As creative artists, being able to work freely and reach fans directly is pretty much the best situation you can get, and this innovative approach allows them to do so.”

Katie Haegele
Philadelphia Inquirer

*From For Free, by Joni Mitchell