Arts & Culture

Ashes to ashes to glass: Lacey glass artist helps bereaved keep loved ones close with memorial beads

If someone you love dies and is cremated, deciding what to do with their ashes is often a hard decision. Scattering? Burying? Storing them in a church columbarium? Lately, though, Lacey artist Christine Hansen has been offering a more unusual idea: memorial glass beads, which melt a small amount of ashes into swirling, jewel-colored glass for a remembrance that’s both intimate and beautiful.

“I think for a lot of people it’s having a tangible connection with someone you don’t see any more,” Hansen says about her memorial beads. “It’s comforting to have.”

A mixed-media artist who’s been fascinated by glass since she was a child, Hansen only began making beads 10 years ago after she read a book on jewelry bead-making.

“I realized that I didn’t need a hot shop to melt glass,” she says of the discovery. Hansen took a class at Tacoma’s Bead Factory and fell in love with the art form. Saving up, she bought a torch, glass and the microwave-sized kiln you need to slowly cool molten beads. Her husband built her a workstation, converting their Lacey garage to a studio. By 2010, she’d co-authored a book on glass charms. Her jewelry work, paired with that of a metal artist, recently showed at Facéré gallery in Seattle and will move to Portland’s Museum of Contemporary Craft next month.

But a few years ago, a friend asked her to make something quite different — and much deeper. Chris Nooney knew Hansen through the Seattle greyhound adoption center where Nooney volunteered and where Hansen had adopted her two dogs. Nooney had noticed other artists elsewhere making memorial beads, so when her dog Rhea died, she suggested Hansen give it a try — and sent her a bag of Rhea’s ashes to practice with.

“Ashes are a sacred thing, so that was enormous,” remembers Hansen, who researched the process online and began to experiment.

The process of making beads is much smaller scale than glass blowing. After dipping a thin stick called a mandrel in fire-resistant solution, Hansen holds a glass rod in the flame of a small, usually propane, torch. As the glass melts, she wraps it around the mandrel, creating a shape and adding elements such as silver foil or wire — or powdery gray ash — before cooling the bead in an annealing kiln.

The big challenge with incorporating ash is that it melts at a lower temperature than glass and can bubble, creating a rough surface or even shattering the glass. The solution is working with a lower heat, which, luckily, was something Hansen had already learned how to do, having started on natural gas rather than propane.

“I also learned a few tricks, like working further out in the flame, where it’s cooler,” she says. “It was easier than I thought it would be.”

Technically, that is. What was and is difficult is the emotional aspect of working at 2,000 degrees with the remains of beloved humans or animals.

The process begins when a client first contacts her.

“The first thing I ask is, do they want to be able to see the ashes?” explains Hansen.

On her sample board, sparkling in the Lacey sunlight, some beads are transparent, with the ashes (all Rhea’s) floating like nebulas or stardust whorls in the sapphire and emerald glass. Others are opaque: The ashes are there, but all you see are pools of jewel-toned color, swirled through with curlicues of gold or silver. It’s a startlingly abstract beauty, paired with an intimate, physical presence.

Color is chosen by the client, inspired by the deceased person’s favorite color or the color of a pet’s eyes or harness.

“One client’s daughter passed while attending the University of Michigan, which was her lifelong dream,” says Hansen, who made memorial heart-shaped beads for the girl’s family. “So all her hearts were in those colors.”

Next, Hansen asks the client to send about a teaspoon of ash — four beads’ worth, in case of error. This, in some cases, can take months or even years, while clients move through the grieving process.

“I try and be as sensitive as I can and follow the client’s lead,” Hansen says. “We’ve all lost people and animals that we love, and everybody goes through grieving in a different way. The most important thing is to respect that.”

Finally, Hansen begins making the beads. Each one takes about an hour, and she always begins with a practice bead in the same colors, to make sure she doesn’t make mistakes with the actual remains. As she handles the ashes — pale gray, stored in small Ziploc bags — she’s respectful, but professional.

“On the one hand you have sacred stuff. On the other, at the flame I have to detach and treat it like any other material,” she says.

And while she admits it “sounds woo-woo,” Hansen also says that she feels “energy” from the ashes as she handles them.

“With some, I’m in tears; others seem more mischievous,” she says. “It’s really intense. Doing memorial beads is draining, because I take it so seriously. So I’ve had to detach.”

Hansen also works with clients to make sure they’re completely happy. For some, this takes months.

“I was really picky - I wanted the bead to match my daughter’s eyes,” says Jenny Piscitelli, an Oregon mother who found Hansen on the artisan shopping site Etsy.com and ordered a bead made with her daughter’s ashes last spring. “She’d send a bead, I’d send it back. I was really impressed by (Hansen) because she was adamant that she wouldn’t be happy until I was happy.”

Now, says Piscitelli, she’s “totally happy. Now I get to wear a piece of (my daughter) every day on my neck.”

And if mistakes happen?

“I make another one and send everything back to the client, including the leftover ashes,” Hansen says. “Sometimes the bead sticks to the mandrel. Then you have a lovely memorial plant stake.”

Over the few years she’s been making memorial beads, Hansen has gotten more and more clients, despite the fact that it’s not a business you can market with any sensitivity. People find her through Facebook and Etsy.com, by word of mouth, through certificates she donates and on her new website, christinehansen.com.

“It’s really caught on among the greyhound community,” says Chris Nooney, who now has many beads made with the ashes of two former pets and wears them on necklaces and bracelets. “It’s been a real success. (The beads) are all so beautiful, and it’s a real special feeling for each one.”

And though she still makes regular jewelry beads, and in fact limits the memorial beads because they are more emotionally draining, Hansen says the bigger, deeper impact of helping people through grief is infinitely more rewarding than just making art.

“One family I made beads for (came to me because) their estranged brother had committed suicide,” she says. “The only physical thing out of his life that they had left were the beads. That’s really powerful. I find that often I’m a conduit for healing and closure. That’s huge, to be able to do that.”

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