Every day, Justin Crowe pours himself a cup of coffee in the same mug. While the wide-brimmed cup’s ghostly white color and glassy glazed finish may look like any ordinary piece of ceramic ware, it is made from something more macabre. When he takes a sip, he is drinking from the bones of 200 people.
The 28-year-old artist and potter crafted the human bone mug about a month ago in his studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico as a part of an art dinnerware series called “Nourish.” Crowe started the project in the summer of 2015. He purchased 200 human bones from a bone dealer, crushed them into a fine powder, distilled the bone ash into the glaze of functional plates, cups, bowls, and then hosted an unusual dinner party—the guests eating off of repurposed human remains.
“It’s kind of an anonymous way to fold these people into everyday life and memorialize them,” Crowe says. “In my opinion, it’s way less creepy than having a jar of ashes.”
Finding bones in ceramic and pottery recipes isn’t uncommon. As early as the 1600s, porcelain fine china from China had become a high-priced, royal treasure in Europe, causing a rise in production of imitation ware. English potters experimented with a variety of techniques to get red clay to look like the beautiful translucence of porcelain, which led to the invention of “bone china.”
In 1748, Thomas Frye, owner of the Bow porcelain factory in East London, got the idea to use cow and oxen bones from the nearby cattle markets and slaughterhouses of Essex, creating the first iteration of white bone china. Bone china consists of approximately 33 to 50 percent burnt animal bone, which is mixed directly into the clay. The added ingredient makes the china much more durable, and gives it a high mechanical strength and chip resistance.
Instead of incorporating the bone ash into the clay like the English bone china potters, Crowe mixes it into the glaze of his pieces. However, he isn’t the first to come up with the idea of using human bones. Crowe has heard of potters having their ashes thrown into wood kilns after they die, their cremated remains coating pots and pieces.
“Within the pottery community, it’s always this kind of thing that’s joked about,” he says. “Then, it’s really beautiful because everyone who loves them then gets to take a piece out of the kiln and have a piece of that person in their home, and in their life.”
The inspiration behind “Nourish” stemmed from the death of his grandfather. Crowe began thinking of his own death, mortality, and memorialization conventions on a daily basis as he watched someone he loved die, he says. His grandfather had passed away in his home, which was a place that held a lot of his childhood memories.
“It was also a place that was really average, but at the same time really sacred,” he says. “I had experienced mortality in a really unexpected place which had an ultimately positive impact on my outlook.”
To create “Nourish” as a symbol of death and mortality, Crowe wanted to represent the lives of hundreds of individual people. At first, he put an ad on Craigslist in Santa Fe to purchase human ashes—asking for about two cups of ashes for $35. Within a day of posting the ad, he had received three responses, two which reacted on two extreme ends. One was from a man who was looking for interesting things to do with his best friend’s ashes, having already used some to create a diamond. The second was from a woman who threatened to have Crowe investigated. She wrote that he was going to hell and quoted the Bible.
“That was really good for me,” says Crowe. “Not just to understand what a sensitive issue, but what a polarized issue it was. People who react really negatively keep me conscious of how I’m approaching this.”
After running into barriers obtaining human ashes, he turned to bone dealers. Typically, bone dealers sell specimens to hospitals, medical students, or collectors. The dealer that Crowe worked with had a box of unsellable fragments, broken and deteriorating abandoned bones that were perfect for his project. He purchased 200 bones, each piece belonging to an individual person with an individual story, Crowe says.
Crowe then pulverized the bones into a fine powder and used it in his glaze recipe. While he hadn’t ever handled bones before, working with the human remains felt like working with any other art medium, he says. “It was really kind of average,” he says. “I looked at them very preciously. I wasn’t wasting them or disrespecting them, but at the same time they were just this pile of fragments that had this massive idea within it.”
The chemical makeup of the human bone ash causes a second type of glass to form in addition to the glaze glass, but it’s not something that can be seen on the finished product. The complete “Nourish” dinnerware is a simple, but beautiful white and tinted-blue set of plates, bowls, cups, mugs, and whiskey glasses.
About two weeks ago, Crowe gathered a group of six brave friends to dine on his repurposed human bone creations. Crowe prepared the meal himself, serving wine, asparagus, quinoa salad, and pork loin topped with blueberry sauce (after learning that pork meat is supposedly the closest to human meat). “You wouldn’t look at [the meal] and think gross, but within the context of where it was there was an unsettling feeling that’s kind of questioning this meat and questioning what you’re eating off of,” he says.
The guests knew what the dinnerware was made of, which caused the conversation to be filled with a slew of death puns and thoughts on mortality, he says. Surprisingly, the guests felt that the party and the meal felt mundane in comparison to how powerful it was to have dinnerware made of human bones. In other words, the meal felt normal.
Crowe is in the process of developing a short video that captures the bizarre dinner party, and is also focusing on expanding the art series into a cremation business, called Chronicle Cremation Designs. The company will accept a loved one’s ashes and use it to coat a variety of ceramic objects from an intricate art piece to coffee mugs. It’s an alternative service to the traditional cremation urn, he says. As far as he knows, Crowe is the first to attempt to commercialize human bone ceramics.
“I definitely want to make this a new, novel, and different way to memorialize people, integrating and folding their memories into everyday life in this beautiful way,” he says. “If you use a coffee mug every day that represents your mortality, does it normalize the idea that you’re going to die someday?”
Object of Intrigue is a weekly column in which we investigate the story behind a curious item. Is there an object you want to see covered? Email [email protected]