Pet Project

Kathy Taylor is not a nut-box. She's an artist who mixes the ashes of your dead pet into paint, and then uses the concoction to create a portrait of the late Bowser (or Spot or Boots or whomever) for all to admire. Taylor, who can also make a clay vessel or wooden block out of Fifi's remains, calls her service Ashes to Art and swears that a sofa painting made from Fluffy is the next big thing. I believe her, even if I don't want an ashtray made out of my dead cat's ashes.

New Times: So you make art out of dead animals.

Kathy Taylor: Well, out of their ashes. It's an idea that came out of my own experience with cancer. I decided that if I didn't survive the cancer, I would want one of my artist friends to take my ashes and put them into paint and create a memory for my family.

NT: Why pets rather than people?

Taylor: I do both! In fact, I've done more people than animals, but people are usually not comfortable talking about the other.

NT: I'm guessing it's easier to market the pet angle.

Taylor: A little bit. It's just not as controversial, and people are more accepting of it, somehow. This process helps people heal; it helps them transform their grief. Whether it's a pet or a family member, a lot of images and symbols come through for the family if they allow me to do what I want to do.

NT: Where do you advertise a service like this?

Taylor: I have a brochure that gets handed out by some local funeral directors and bereavement counselors. Word of mouth doesn't hurt, once people get past any queasiness they have about the service. I also work with a pet crematorium.

NT: I read that you begin each art piece by "drawing upon an intuitive energy to guide you through the Ashes to Art process." Huh?

Taylor: What happens is that once I start mixing the ashes into the paint, images begin to emerge. I allow those images to direct me in the creative process. They kind of guide me through. When I see something and it begins to speak, then I use that to guide me through the creation of the painting.

NT: You don't mean you hear meows and barks from beyond the grave.

Taylor: No. I mean I hear images. I'm an artist, and things talk to artists -- textures, colors, like that.

NT: What happens if you run out of ashes while you're painting?

Taylor: Well, I don't. It just doesn't happen. The client either has me use some of the ashes or all of them. Sometimes there's some left, even. But usually I get a whole canister full. This last piece I just finished was a seven-foot-by-three-foot painting, and the client wanted all of his dog's ashes in there. I usually get the ashes on in the first coat or two.

NT: I've heard that cremated remains sometimes have chunks in them.

Taylor: Uh-huh. I put it all in the painting. It's all in there. I mean, if I get huge pieces, I don't use those. But it's all sterile, it's all pure. There's no smell or anything.

NT: What do you do with leftover ashes?

Taylor: If I'm making a clay vessel, I can't usually work all the cremation ashes in because the chemistry of the clay will be all messed up. So I just return them, and then the customer can put the leftover ashes into the urn I've made.

NT: Do you get a feeling for the pet and how his life was while you're painting him?

Taylor: Yeah, and I usually have a little consultation with the family of the animal, to get an idea of what his life was like. I sometimes have them write a little story about their pet.

NT: And the finished piece is symbolic of the dead pet in some way?

Taylor: I don't do a realistic rendition of the pet. It's a painting of the images that come through to me from the animal. I'm able to do that because symbols and colors bypass the logical mind. They speak directly to your heart and soul.

NT: What happens when someone asks for a traditional portrait of Fluffy?

Taylor: I wouldn't do it; I'd refer them to someone else. Although I don't know anyone else who paints with deceased pet ashes. Not everybody wants to do this work.

NT: I can imagine. So, tell me the truth: Are you sort of channeling dead beagles and Siamese cats?

Taylor: I've had messages come through for families. Things that affected them later on. I've had some very interesting experiences, like for one family I did a suite of pieces, and the person whose ashes I was painting with smoked a pipe. So there was a lot of pipe imagery in the paintings. When his wife got the painting home, she started to smell her late husband's pipe smoke in her house. Another time, a dog I painted sent a warning to his former family through my painting. Dogs can get messages through to their families that way.

NT: Wait. What?

Taylor: While I was working on that painting, I kept coming back to this image; it just kept reappearing. I tried to not paint it, but it kept coming back. It was a warning from the dog to his former master.

NT: A warning about what? Bad investments?

Taylor: No. It was about the loss of a family member. The dog was warning the family about this impending death, and they ignored the message and it came true.

NT: So you receive divine intervention from dead pets.

Taylor: Yes. Animals are our divine messengers. When I'm working, I'm more in a trancelike state. That's true with most artists when they're creating. They call it "being in the Zone," and it's a higher state of consciousness. I might feel like I want to use pink, but I won't know why.

NT: So Fido is helping you select colors. But animals are colorblind!

Taylor: I know. But colors have other properties. Some specific colors have healing properties. It's scientifically proven. All of this is.

NT: Has a dead pet ever forced you to paint something you didn't want to?

Taylor: Yeah, like that one painting where the person died. But I always ask for protection before I start a piece.

NT: You mean you call your insurance agent?

Taylor: No. I mean divine protection. God. When you're in that kind of receptive state, you want to be protected.

NT: One of our cats died last month. (Pointing.) As you can see, we're using her box of ashes for a doorstop. What are some other things you could make dead pets into?

Taylor: Well, I make memorial blocks. They're wooden blocks that I drill holes into and I put the ashes in there. I can add photos of the animal or do a painting on the block. I could make a ceramic food bowl for the surviving pet, but no one has ever asked for one.

NT: I wonder if a painting of Rover or a soup tureen made from his ashes wouldn't just be a depressing reminder that he's gone.

Taylor: I think when you're ready to transform your grief, which can take a year or five years, when you're ready to re-create your pet's ashes into a celebration of your pet's life, it's a good thing. You may never get there, though. You might not want to transform your grief. Ashes are just a metaphor for life. That's what this process I do is about: transformation and rebirth.

NT: Do you think we make too much of our pets?

Taylor: No. There's a woman I know who runs a pet loss and grief program that's nationally known. Losing a pet can be just like losing a family member. Grief is grief; loss is loss. And when you're done with that, I'd like to come in and celebrate the pet's life.

NT: So, if I gave you the ashes from my dead Dalmatian, could you turn him into a copy of that awful painting of the dogs playing poker?

Taylor: No, I make it quite clear that I do symbolic images, and if you want a realistic rendition of your pet, you've got the wrong person. And remember: If you allow me to paint what comes through from your pet, you may get a personal message.

NT: Do you also paint with road kill?

Taylor: No. I feel bad when I see pets by the side of the road, but I usually am working for a family who've lost a pet.

NT: Do people think you're insane?

Taylor: Yes. Oh, yeah. But I'm used to that -- I'm an artist. Still, I get all kinds of comments from people who think it's gruesome or just awful that I do this. You know what's truly awful? People who have pets and they tie them up outside with just a bowl of water. I feel like I'm doing a service, and really special work. As long as I feel that way, that's all that matters.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela