Ceramic artist Eliza Thomas has a unique practice of creating commemorative urns and offering them to those grieving a loss. Hearing of this work, I was intrigued, and tried to track her down. When we finally meet at Caffe Borrone in Menlo Park, we are just a short walk from Stanford University. Next door neighbors to Kepler’s Books, Borrone’s is also not far from longtime haven of progressive education, the Peninsula School, where Thomas has taught Nursery-8th grade art for 35 years.
Deep human connection is a thread that you’ll find expressed in one way or another in the work of the Menlo Park based ceramicist. With regard to her urn making, it is most certainly evident. It also seems to form the backbone of a body of artistic and educational work in a career that spans more than four decades. This penchant for community is underscored when during our talk, several people from the school community–past and present–seem to materialize from her school stories and stop by to warmly greet us at our table.
It seems clear that the Peninsula School is a place where people form deep–and long lasting–bonds. By now, Thomas has been teaching children of children she once had in her studio classroom. The school is set up in such a way that she has the chance to get to know kids for as long as 11 years if they continue through from Nursery to 8th grade. This affords her time to learn about them as artists and people and to help them develop as both.
Eliza Thomas, “the ceramicist,” also works in her own home studio where she produces pieces she sells. Her portfolio contains both sculptural works and functional everyday household ceramic ware. Beyond the utilitarian pieces, she has also created an extensive series of fine art sculpture. I take a peek at photos of some recent ceramic works, noting the skeleton motifs. The cycle of life turns up in many different ways in her work.
This Menlo Park-based artist also does what she calls a lot of healing art with friends and family. This has included creating symbolic protective medicine shields for people who are going through something challenging.
During this process, she tells me, she takes people on a guided imagery story to an underground world. In the vision, they are confronted with a little bit of danger and receive a gift–something that strengthens them. This becomes the sacred object that is created to become spiritual protection.
Given the sacred nature of human life and how an urn is used, Thomas’s urn works transcend artistic boundaries. Each urn has been a collaboration. To get started, Thomas needs to know: who is this person? The urn tells that story as well as it can. It marks their life like a tombstone or similar memorial. She inscribes the dates of birth and death on the bottom of the piece along with a saying.
The urns might come out of a commercial studio, but this is not a business.
For her, making the urns is a spiritual practice. For the griever, it is received as a gesture of support. It is a way to assist someone she has known who is facing a great loss. Perhaps it is even giving them a place to contain that grief.
“I don’t charge for it,” she emphasizes. “I want it to have more value than that. People will ask me though, and they think they are doing a commission.”
How to sum up a life is indeed a complex and, for some, a fraught endeavor. She meets to learn about the person she is commemorating. Iconography is anything under the sun; it need not be strictly sacred. Thomas may not have known the person personally. This means that her point of reference for that person has in some cases been another person, adding yet another layer to the interpretation and making it a richer collaboration. We all have our own mediated view of others; this speaks to that truth. We all have core aspects others will never see in us.
In the end, the individuality of people shines forth. Rastafarian motifs adorned the urn for one friend; a love for poodles and Siamese cats translated to clay stand ins for another friend’s mother.
As a rule, Thomas says she does not know what might emerge before she is there working with the clay. “I would be in trouble if I had to commit at the beginning,” she says.
There is no blueprint–or at least not one on paper. She reveals all once it is time to unveil the finished work. The piece is then born into a continuity that breaches the divide between the past, the living and the future.
“One summer I did five urns,” she says.
The first one she made was for her grandmother. In fact, it was her grandmother who had commissioned it, and she had to approve it before she died.
“I went through a few before the one she liked. It was Asian and simplistic. I have it and her ashes,” says the artist.
Her urns, I find out, are in line with the artist’s longtime interest in sacred and ritual objects. The work comes from a much deeper cultural context, one whose roots perhaps fall outside the American mainstream yet are paradoxically also uber American.
Thomas relates how from 1985–1989 while she was doing anthropological fieldwork in the Southwest, she created several vessels that were integral to a sacred ritual and based on a vision that Hopi elder, Grandfather David, had received. Eliza took part in making vessels that looked like the containers that he had dreamed about. In the dream, a journey took place that involved bringing water from Bolinas, California, to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Thomas accompanied the vessels at different times during their four-year pilgrimage. On their journey, native families joined with different supporters and participants until eventually the vessels were carried with the sacred water down on foot to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and mixed into the Colorado River. To do so, the vessels were ferried there in a number of conveyances and vehicles. Some were funky and beat-up with pets and children inside, but still made their way between the two regions.
The ritual was meant to fulfill a magic blending together of the waters off Bolinas with the waters of the Colorado River. It would be medicine for healing the rift among the rainbow peoples of the planet–a benefit of world harmony among differing peoples and races.
“The containers had a red clay body that was polished and burnished. There was no glaze, in line with traditional Hopi style,” she says. The vessels were also adorned with a rainbow bird. This was a non-traditional part that Thomas had added to approximate what had appeared in the vision.
Thomas seems to be equally enchanted with the human quality of holding a unique identity as she is with that which is common and universal in our humanity. While she came to arts education after pursuing training as a ceramic artist, she also studied anthropology.
Fast forward to today. Says the artist, “Recently, I have been thinking of the Seven Generations. The Seven Generations are about right now,” she says. “Speaking to my grandmother, I learned about my great grandparents. I’m passing along a little piece that comes from something and goes to something. It’s a universal spectrum, and we are blips on it–little, but significant blips. I am bringing in the energy of ancestors.”
Speaking with Eliza Thomas about her series of urns has left me more aware of time and history. Our digital age might be described as one where vastly different traditions live side-by-side. Many cultural practices coexist in our times. They are ordinary to those familiar with them yet extraordinary in a way for anyone used to interacting with others in a different sacred tradition. We humans diverge greatly over how to best honor the dead.
This hour of learning how one artist honors one single life at a time reminds me of how an individual life is simultaneously linked to ‘big history.’ It is a vast story and it is still going on. It is good to be reminded of the larger and the longitudinal communities to which we belong.
What began as my seeking out a story about a small, contained space leaves me with the impression of how the small can turn expansive. Something about these urns reminds me of the words of Walt Whitman, “I am large. I contain ‘multitudes.’ Meanwhile, it seems that some of us around now in this generation of the human race are soberly looking forward to our common destiny. Forming more bonds that “mix the waters” seems as important as ever. For all our differences, it goes without saying that we are all taking part in the grander scheme of this common legacy.