Michael Butler isn't your traditional artist. As a matter of fact, he has a style all his own that many find intriguing, while others find a tad bit morbid. He brings oil paintings to life by incorporating the cremated ashes of loved ones into the actual paint, therefore blending special life into a what could be considered an ordinary picture.
With the philosophy of "art lives forever," Butler has started up a business catering to those who mourn the loss of a loved one. Through Loved Ones Art, he offers personalized textured paintings using a small portion of cremated ashes donated by the family or friends of someone who died.
Michael Butler, 49, who lives in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, with his wife, Jeanne, and son, Ian, took some time from his busy schedule to chat with LoveToKnow Death and Dying about his passion, his business and how to two are intertwined.
An Artist at Heart
Where did you study? What types of art do you create and what type of media do you use?
"I was always drawing and doodling as a child, and creating art has forever fascinated me. As a junior in high school, I met an important mentor of mine - a Christian Brother named Brother Fred Stelmach. Brother Fred taught me how to look at art and appreciate what I was seeing. He also gave me the confidence that allowed me to choose "art" as my career.
"Upon high school graduation, I found employment as a gravedigger and saved enough money to attend Philadelphia's Hussian School of Art. After four years of intense art training, I entered the workforce as a Graphic Designer. I've always been a painter, and after 25 years of creating visual communications, I decided to change coarse from computer generated art back to fine art. As a watercolorist and oil painter, it is a joy to devote my full time to painting."
About Cremation Art
What is cremation art?"By my definition, cremation art is a genre wherein an individual's ashen remains become a part of the art. This artwork is a permanent memorial of a person's life that reflects who that person was and how they are remembered. I choose to collaborate with my clients to create an image that - to them - crystallizes a lifetime into a painted image that resonates the memory of their loved one. The process is personal and the selection of the subject matter can, in some cases, be simple while in other cases it is excruciating. What image would you choose to memorialize your life for eternity?"
How did you get involved in this type of art?
As a young man, I worked as a gravedigger and during my time in the cemetery, I observed people visiting their loved ones' graves. The solemnity struck me. As an artist, the idea of memorializing the deceased stayed with me. When I was able to see the cremated remains of a friend's family member, I was reminded of the dry pigments used to make artists' oil paints. That was when Loved Ones' Art began."
Is this medium widely accepted among artists?
"Oil paint is an ancient and still very popular medium for creating art. In terms of using cremated remains as part of the creative process, I believe I am the only artist creating memorial art whose inspiration is specifically drawn from client supplied imagery."
Creating a Special Work of Art
How does an individual go about having a piece made with their loved one's ashes?
"They can first visit my website to familiarize themselves with me and the process. They should then select an image that they want me to use as the basis or inspiration for the painting. I consider myself a painter of landscape, seascape and still life in the Pennsylvania Impressionists' style so the image can be a photo of a favorite location or an arrangement of important objects. It's best to send the image(s) to me so that we can discuss them and the individual that they represent.
"When details of the commission are completed payment and a parcel containing two tablespoons of cremated remains are dispatched following the instructions on the website. My paintings are completed within a week or two and dry time takes upward of another three weeks. At the end of the dry cycle, I carefully prepare the painting for shipment to my client. Each Loved Ones' ashes are issued a unique identity and any unused ash is returned to the client along with the painting."
How exactly do you incorporate a person's ashes into a painting?
"I treat the ash as a dry pigment on my palette and - during the painting process - mix it with my paints and linseed oil as I develop the painting. The ash doesn't effect the color but it does add a slight textural quality to the surface of the painting."
A Celebration of Life
Why would an individual want a work of art creates with cremated ashes?
"When one chooses cremation for a loved one they are left with a container of "ash" or cremains, typically about four to eight pounds. There are any number of ways people memorialize a deceased loved one using the cremains. Most common is to store them in an urn or to scatter them at a location that had some importance to the individual. Loved Ones Art celebrates life and is an additional - and compelling - way to keep the memory of a deceased loved one close to you in a personal and unique way. You are part of the creative process because the art is based upon your input - both verbal and visual. You supply the imagery that is the basis for the painting and your loved one is, literally, part of the art - so they are always with you."
Why types of pieces have you created?
"Many families photograph the location where they gather to disperse some of their loved ones' ashes and a common request I receive is for a painting of that location. These locations vary greatly - they are always a familiar and favorite scene of the family and/or decedent. I've painted family vacation spots, homes, backyards, beaches, lakes and mountain trails. Some paintings have included arrangements of gardening tools, militaria, and any number of important pieces that, over a lifetime, have come to define a person's life."
For More Information
Tell me about your website.
"Loved Ones Art is usually the first introduction between a client and I. The site is designed to offer some detail of who I am and what I do. Death and remembrance can be a difficult issue for some people - I try to be straightforward in presenting the information at lovedonesart.com. Examples of my work are also presented so that individuals can see firsthand that a beautiful and unique treasure can be created to memorialize their loved ones LIFE - not their death. Personal contact is encouraged through e-mail, phone or snail mail."
What does an individual need for you to create a work of art for them?
"First, we need to introduce each other and have some conversation about the person being memorialized. I want to know as much about them as you want to tell me. It allows me a deeper connection to the person as I am painting. I welcome a visit to my studio so that we can meet in person. Secondly, I need the photo from which I am basing the painting - additionally, any other visual reference that you feel is important for me to have while I paint is welcome. This includes pictures of the individual, drawings or mementos. Thirdly, as previously mentioned, two tablespoons of your loved ones cremains."
Please share anything else about yourself or your work that you would want LoveToKnow readers to know.
"How you handle the death of a loved one is very personal. The pain of missing someone can be overwhelming. However, over time that pain can begin to subside. I would like to believe that Loved Ones Art can help ease the pain of loss."