Artist Mary Welch's Wayward Girls Productions stages its own wake with the exhibition "Ashes to Ashes," the final visual arts installation in The Chapel of the Good Shepherd Center.
The expression “Ashes to Ashes” tells of death, ritual and an inevitable return to original, soulless material. The exhibition “Ashes to Ashes,” at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford, is the final installation by artist Mary Welch’s Wayward Girls Productions and, appropriately, it touches on themes of mortality, humility and the cyclical nature of life and death.
Welch has brought together 20 coffins, created by different artists, in a haunting, quirky and thoughtful show installed in the Chapel, a beautiful high-ceilinged, stained-glass-windowed space.
The large room was actually a chapel when the Good Shepherd Center was a home for young women seeking shelter and a new direction in life, those “wayward girls” Welch refers to in the name of her production company.
Historic Seattle, an architectural-preservation organization, took over the Good Shepherd Center in 1975, and the Chapel has been an art venue, music hall and performance theater since 2006. It also houses six living and working spaces for musicians, writers and artists, including Welch.
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The rising success of the music side of the enterprise and the logistic limitations of the building — lack of security, limits on how the space can be physically altered — have left diminishing opportunities for theatrical performances and visual art.
So “Ashes to Ashes,” the final show in Welch’s “Chapel Trilogy,” is the last exhibition of visual art in the space for the foreseeable future. That is a loss.
Welch has obviously been deeply inspired by the space; she conceived of the trilogy as an exploration of how to give form to the building’s poignant history and present ambience. Walking into “Ashes to Ashes,” you’re met with the view of 20 coffins, made of varied materials, suspended from the ceiling.
The initial effect is commanding and potent. The show is hung beautifully, with the neat rows of coffins and dramatic lighting creating a ritualistic, reflective tone.
Another impression begins to creep in: There’s a sort of crudeness to a lot of the coffins that seems at odds with the profound subject matter of the show. Having recently experienced two deaths in the family, I was, at first, disturbed by the sort of ticky-tackiness of some of the construction and ideas.
There’s a lot of cardboard and found paper — the obituaries from the newspaper, the Yellow Pages, sketches, postcards — and other materials ranging from bamboo to bubble gum.
But I came to realize that the irreverent, temporary materials underscore how our bodies, our physical packages, are themselves temporary and insignificant. For millennia, we have sought to protect the deceased from biodegradation and formlessness; these artists are embracing impermanence and transience.
The way that some of the artists play with materials and the coffin form (a kite, a boat, a pile of leaves) adds levity to what might be a very heavy show. So do the artists’ statements, in which they’ve each written their own obituaries.
For their jointly constructed coffin, Julie Custer and Teresa Redden manufactured a big Chinese “To Go” box, complete with the words, “Thank You. Come Again.”
The music, by experimental musician Steve Peters, director of Nonsequitur (the nonprofit now charged with running the Chapel’s music program), is an integral part of the installation. Like the coffins, the music draws on themes of presence and absence.
Peters has created a palpable, meditative mood with sounds that are hard to describe — monotonous, perhaps, with no pulse or percussion, but rich in vibration and layers.
After letting associations run rampant (is it one note of organ music?), it turns out that you’re listening to almost nothing. For about an hour one night, Peters recorded ambient sounds in the empty chapel and very minimally filtered them to create “Chamber Music #5: Stained Glass,” one of his “site-specific sound installations.”
Welch speaks very highly of Peters and, in fact, most of the artists in the show are Welch’s friends or friends of friends. There’s a wakelike, celebratory quality to the exhibition and to the artist’s attitude toward the closing of this chapter of her career.
Welch is intrigued by the new possibilities ahead of her. While she will no longer work under the title Wayward Girls Productions, she will continue to live at the Good Shepherd Center and will seek “strange beauty in unusual spaces” elsewhere.
And yet, despite the apparent finality of the current exhibition, the collaboration between the visual and aural in “Ashes to Ashes” is so effective that there may be hope that visual art (perhaps by other wayward girls or boys) will rise again in this glorious space.