DIY Memento Mori: Creating Art Shrines for Beloved Familiars
Altar, Shrine, Memento Mori. They may be as simple as a tiny matchbox or a Sacred Circle — or as elaborate as the Taj Mahal or the Great Pyramid. Altars and shrines have been created in nearly every culture and place where humans have lived. On a very personal level, they may be about solitude, reflection, and memory, but they may also be whimsical or even gaudy. They can also serve as a memento mori. The trappings of mourning and loss are the external representations and expressions of interior dialogues, offering a tangible form to our thoughts and memories.
Why Do It?
The act of creating a little handmade altar or art shrine may offer a way to work through feelings about the loss of a beloved pet, familiar, and friend. As you create, your feelings become entangled with your efforts, giving way to very powerful expressions. It is a very intentional way of casting your sorrow out into the universe.
Where Do I Start?
Like grieving, creating a shrine is a completely individual process. The materials you choose will reflect your own feelings and the personality of your pet. You might start by writing down words, phrases, or nicknames that come to mind when you think about your friend. Gather favorite toys or objects. Note the little quirks you associate with them. You might create your own unique artwork or research images that speak to you.
My Art Shrine for a Lost One
“Shrine” comes from many old languages, including Latin, Old English, and Old French, and generally refers to a box which holds something precious. With this in mind, I will create a small art shrine for one of my own beloved friends. I will consider the box itself, the objects it contains, and the story it tells. Your own art shrine will be a personal reflection as well and should take any form you choose. I find the tripartite approach of “box, contents, story” to be a helpful place to start.
Part One: The Box
I have an affinity for old clock cases, so there are always a half dozen crouching in the odd spaces of my studio. They feel like a natural place for me to start. If these interest you as well, try searching Etsy or auction sites for vintage mantel clock parts.
Part Two: The Contents
I collect detritus of all kinds: odd bits of woodwork, bone, metal, paper ephemera, jewelry findings, old hardware and glassware, etc., for my assemblage projects. Some of these will be incorporated into this art shrine along with some original artwork I created just after his passing.
I prefer connecting pieces without glue but if there’s no other way to do it, I can recommend Tombow Mono Metal Liquid Glue. For this project, I also employed Liquitex Modeling Paste, some watercolor pencils, and acrylic paints.
I think the voice in the back of my head was jabbering about patina while I was working on this so I went for colors that remind me of old verdigris.
I found this vintage necklace with three drops which reminded me of tears. I knew it would have a place in this piece.
I am using an ornate old silver box as a reliquary. If you want to use this type of box, try searching Etsy for vintage silver jewelry caskets. I find them to be rather beautiful little resting places. If you are using them for ashes, also consider the bag that holds the ashes. You might want something velvety and lush, or something happy and playful. It can reflect the personality of its new owner.
Part Three: The Story
My completed art shrine is entitled “Constant Heart” and is in memory of the most steadfastly loving heart I have ever known. Among other things, it incorporates a piece of original artwork placed behind a clouded mirror, cradled by bound hands. In the center is an image of his eye from one of my favorite photographs. I caught him looking up at me with pure happiness and later realized that my image was reflected in his eyes. The image is enshrined here as a paean to Georgian miniature images known as “lover’s eyes.” I left some of the clockwork parts in place because they can be wound and released to create a sound like a quickly beating heart. At the bottom I left room for a silver casket.
If you don’t feel the need to create an art shrine of your own, take a look at the artists and makers we’ve compiled in our previous pet memorials piece.
All images via Sami Nyx