Art In The Afterlife

Courtesy "Boxes of Death"

"Boxes of Death," now in its fourth year, pairs 50 artists with mini-coffins to customize. The show hits four cities in 2013, ending in September in Laguna Beach, Calif.

"Boxes of Death" sounds cryptic and more than a little sinister, but it's actually an annual group art exhibit of miniature coffins transformed by artists, athletes and outlaws. The show was started by Seattle design collective Electric Coffin, whose founder, Patrick De Armas, was inspired by the work of West African coffin-maker Kane Quaye.

"[Quaye] saw the coffin as a vessel and felt it should reflect who the person was," says De Armas. "So for a farmer, he made a carrot coffin, and for a handyman, he made a screwdriver. I took those ideals and wondered how multiple artists would interpret the notion of a coffin."

And so "Boxes of Death" -- which makes a stop at Portland, Ore.'s Studio Nemo space tonight -- was born.

This year marks the fourth installment of the project, and the number of artists invited to participate has more than doubled since it began in a tiny basement gallery in Seattle. These days, Electric Coffin's workshop sets aside a week every year for assembling dozens of mini-coffins to dole out to painters, collage-makers and more.

"Some people might find it weird to think we have schematics and jigs to make mini-coffins, but [it's] normal for us," jokes De Armas. Once the coffins are nailed shut, they're distributed across the country to the artists who'll modify and personalize them.

The group art show has grown into a sponsored, four-stop traveling exhibit curated by Southern California gallery Artists Republic 4 Tomorrow (AR4T). AR4T founder Torrey Cook has become the guardian of the coffins and likens the selection process to putting a puzzle together. "'Boxes of Death' allowed me to reach out to my favorite tattoo artists, chopper builders, legendary skateboarders and snowboarders, fine artists [and] assemblage masters, who are all insanely talented people," she shares.

In addition to being accomplished in their respective fields, the 50 artists in the show all share a love of danger. Iconic skaters Steve Caballero, Jason Jesse and Steve Olson, snowboarding legend Jamie Lynn, surfing "lifers" and two-wheeled daredevils push the limits of safety in their pursuits of carving a new path.

"Just being involved with those activities takes a certain person who understands that riding that fine line of crazy and chaotic can lead to great rewards or death," says De Armas.

Death may be the pervasive theme of this exhibit, but the pieces are full of humor and different ideas about mortality. Fine artist Jennifer Cotterill explained her coffin by saying, "I tried to steer away from the negative death connotations. It could be easy to venture into total-bummer territory with this theme. There's a flip side to everything, even death."

At the show's opening in Seattle last month, people packed the gallery to check out the 50 little coffins. De Armas couldn't be happier with the end result: "Stepping into a room full of 'death' and being able to compare all the different artistic styles, methods and approaches is really powerful."

"Boxes of Death IV" will travel next to California, showing in San Francisco in August and finishing up in Laguna Beach in September. For more details about the show and the artists, visit Check the gallery, below, to see some of the coffins on display and hear what the artists have to say about the project.

'Boxes Of Death'

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