When did you first think about your life and death? It could be in your childhood, when you first noticed that life is not forever. Maybe it was when you lost someone. Or when you recognized love in your life. Some people might think of life and death more often than others, but everyone has thought of it more than once in their lifetime.
Death is one of those universal topics no one can escape from, yet it is very culturally specific. Regardless of who you are— your race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, whatever country you live in— death comes once in a lifetime for everyone.
With a few of my Japanese friends, I have been in this workshop called Ending notebook for the last 8 months. The Ending notebook is a Japanese written workbook that helps design your life, and the end of your life, while answering many questions about friends, family, emotions, health, medication, funeral, assets, and will.
I found Amanda Leigh Evans’ “When I Die” project very similar to “Ending notebook.” But it is, of course, in English, and for people living in the USA. From this interview, I hoped to find common values and differences within these two conceptually similar but culturally distinct projects, and to get some input from her experience witnessing people facing their own death as she ran the workshop.
Midori Yamanaka: What did you eat for breakfast today?
Amanda Leigh Evans: I had an egg and a piece of toast and a cup of tea.
Midori: Nice. What kind of tea do you like?
Amanda: I drink Earl Grey tea every morning. I don’t drink coffee. I drink tea.
Midori: When did you stop drinking coffee?
Amanda: I mean, I will drink coffee recreationally. I drink coffee once every six months.
Midori: Interesting. Alright, let’s get started. So I followed your project “When I Die.” It’s very interesting, because I find that this is something very universal. It’s something that everyone has to think about at some point. What made you do this project?
Amanda: Yeah, so at the time I was finishing my MFA in Art and Social Practice at Portland State University. I was thinking about bigger experiences that everyone will have at some point in their life.
I was particularly interested in death for personal reasons, people close to me had passed away at significant points in my life. I don’t make work about death anymore. The project that I made was in 2016, but I don’t really engage that topic anymore in my practice. But I am interested. Other concepts that are related to— I feel hesitant using the words “universal human experiences” because I don’t know if that’s quite it— but experiences that many people can relate to.
I also was thinking about how death is a topic that in American culture often doesn’t get addressed. There’s a lot of silence around preparation for one’s own death and isolation in that experience. I was thinking about ways to kind of playfully normalize that.
And that’s how the project came to be.
Midori: Very interesting. I noticed that all your other projects are related to ceramics and permaculture. Is there any relationship to, or inspiration you got, from this project and your other projects?
Amanda: Yeah. So the connection is that during my thesis in the MFA and Social Practice program, I was working on a project that was meeting with people one on one to design their own ceramic urns for burial.
That kind of came out of this longer-term interest I have in ceramics being both a functional and conceptual medium at the same time and a really relational medium also. Often in my work, I think about ceramic objects performing multiple functions simultaneously, and I was particularly interested in thinking about how ceramic urns could be both a sculptural object that someone would live with, that they would have in their home throughout their life, and then they would be buried in the urn when they die. And maybe during their life while they have this jar around the jar could also be used for other purposes, like fermentation, making kimchi or sauerkraut or something like that. I was really interested in how we live with death, how we live with our own mortality, and how that object could represent this ability to live with one’s own death and normalize that inevitable end.
This object could then have multiple lives in a way, like it would have this living moment while this person’s alive, and then it would become this other type of object. So that’s the connection between the “When I Die” work, which is in a document that’s an artwork, and the rest of my practice. I found that work to be very meaningful and it very much required a strong level of responsibility to the people that I was meeting with as part of that project where some of them were experiencing a terminal diagnosis.
I realized that at that time I was also doing work with young people, and I realized that that was kind of more the direction that I wanted to move into in my practice. But I think the project was significant for me in terms of the way that we build relationships with other people, and then our responsibility to those relationships.
Midori: Interesting. It is true that both a human body and ceramics all go back to the soil.
So you researched very deeply about Oregon’s law for this project. Is there anything surprising or something significant that you remember?
Amanda: The most significant thing about it was that you need two witnesses to sign your will in order for it to be valid. It was really important to me that when I made this project that people could actually functionally use this document.
Again, I think that goes back to my values as a ceramic artist and wanting to make work that is functional and symbolic at the same time. If people were to use this document and then it wasn’t legally valid, then I feel like it kind of misses an opportunity there for it to become more interesting and integrated into someone’s life. So that’s why I did the research on the legal aspect of creating one’s own will. In some states, I don’t think you can legally create your own will. You need some official person right now, but in Oregon you can. And then there are just these criteria that have to be met like having it signed by another person. Ideally, it would be signed by a notary, but I think having two witnesses makes it more likely for it to be valid.
Midori: Interesting. I didn’t know that.
Amanda: And I assume the laws have changed since I researched them because that was six years ago. So…
Midori: Right. It is true that the law changes a lot. So you hosted this workshop with many people together working on this. Is there anything interesting you found doing during the workshop?
Amanda: Well, there were a lot of creative people there. I’ve hosted the workshop twice. I’ve also heard that people sometimes download this document and use it. So I don’t know what those people did, but, because there were many creative people who attended these workshops, there were some interesting answers. And the document itself is a bit unconventional. It’s different than some will templates that you can download from the internet. It does have a few practical questions to it, but it’s really kind of oriented toward how you want to live your life now before you die.
Amanda: It documents how we think about how we’re going to use the time that we have. We take that knowledge into our bodies. I think as I get older, I start to get a better sense of that. But when I made this project, I was in my mid-twenties, mid-to-late twenties. And so I think for me in general, time is something that is difficult to understand, like the concept of time, the concept of a decade, the concept of a lifetime. Even the concept of the death of my own parents. I keep thinking I have more time with them than I probably do. They’ve always been around, and so I just kind of assume they always will be around, but they won’t be. And so a lot of the document is really contending with how you can make sense of the time that you have available. And of course, nobody knows how much time they have, but I’m trying to have an embodied sense of time.
To go back to your question, I thought about the exercises and the documents that are related to one’s own concept of time. It was interesting to see the responses of the people in the workshops and how they process time through their own bodies.
And then, of course, there were some really outrageous and inventive burial options that people included. And again, I think it’s because of the fact that there were artists there who are thinking about that differently than maybe a general public could have.
But I think the document also is organized in a way where it kind of re-visions what it means to celebrate a life once a life ends. And it’s influenced by many wonderful thinkers who are revisioning what a good death looks like.
There are so many people in the US right now, or at least there were at that moment, rethinking death practices in our culture. I think with the pandemic, there are probably so many more people thinking about that now.
Midori: Right? This kind of project opens people’s eyes. If we don’t do something like this, we probably don’t even pay attention to how much time we still have until the end of our lives.
Is there anything specific that this project made? Did it make you do something differently?
Amanda: Well, I would say that since this project is really oriented around one’s own death and some of the practicalities that a will outlines— who do you give your stuff to and what kind of funeral do you want and how do you want to be buried? — the majority of the text is about trying to embody and understand the time that one has and how to live. So since then, I’ve been personally interested in making rituals and even ceramic objects that help me to try to understand my own relationship to time.
I’ve been working on this personal series of work for a few years, but I haven’t really posted about it because I don’t know when it’s going to be finished. It’s a series of objects that are timekeeping devices, and some of those timekeeping devices are thinking about the cycle of a year, the cycle of a season like an equinox or a solstice, and then also a way of measuring years of one’s life. I think that that’s been one of the biggest personal takeaways of the project for me; understanding the micro and macro aspects of time in one’s own life and how one’s life connects to this broader line of the human story. It’s caused me to think differently about the way that I spend an afternoon or a month or a season or a year and I know that that project influenced me in that way. I think also getting older has influenced me to think about that more too.
Midori: True. I hear you. I really hear you. That’s very interesting.
How about for the participants? What could have impacted those participants or what did you see through them? How did they react?
Amanda: Yeah, well, I noticed that asking people to reflect on how much time they might have left was a very emotional experience for some people. It doesn’t surprise me because it is a big thing to reckon with, but I was surprised by how many people hadn’t thought about that or spent time thinking about that because I was so deep in that mental space of reflecting on death for several years. It was so normal to me to be thinking about one’s own mortality that I had maybe forgotten about how unusual it is for someone to be reflecting on the time that they have left. So I think this project plus the ceramic project I was doing about death really made me recognize the responsibility that an artist has in facilitating a sensitive project and the importance of doing that well and thinking through in advance all of the reactions that people might have to the project. And what an artist’s responsibility is to the project after it ends. And that,, in part, is one of the reasons why, although death is a huge topic and I thought you could make a lifetime of work about this, I realize I don’t think I want to make a lifetime of work about this.
Midori: Okay. Well, very interesting.
I’ve been working on this very similar project with my friends for the last 6 months or so. Some of them want their ashes and bones scattered. They just want the ashes to be floating in the air. Or they just, you know, disappear somewhere. But a lot of states don’t let that happen by law. And in Japan, it’s kind of gray, they don’t say we can, but they don’t say we can’t either. So it’s kind of like you could, but maybe not really legally…
Is there anything like that? Something not really regulated or organized by law?
Amanda: Yeah, actually Harrell [Fletcher] was part of the workshop and he was talking about a green burial, which requires just the body being buried in the ground without a casket, without embalming. Washington State has a green burial cemetery. I also think there might be one in North Carolina… I know there’s one in Washington and basically bodies get composted.
Midori: Right. Right.
Amanda: I think that’s really interesting, and I wasn’t able to go very deep into that because of the ceramic project being oriented around cremation. But I think that maybe shifted my own views on how I would want to die, because I think about ceramics, the carbon impact of firing, the ceramic objects that I make and how much fuel it takes to make a ceramic object. And cremation is a very similar process. It’s kind of billed as being more environmentally sustainable than embalming, but it also has its issues. So I’m really interested in green burial solutions. The idea that one’s body could become nourishment for a tree, for example, feels more in line with my own interests. Nature and cycles of participating in natural cycles. And so that one particularly stood out to me. And then there were some very inventive ideas about where people’s ashes would be scattered. Someone had something about ashes being scattered among orca whales, which, yeah, a question about the legality of that, I’m not sure.
I know in the US there are strong restrictions for that. I’ve also heard many stories of people doing it anyway without suffering a loss. I’m curious about that, like the laws that we have for scattering of ashes, what the actual effect of that is and how people decide to follow that legally or decide to transgress that in order to honor their loved one. I don’t really know much about that, but I am curious about those laws too, and what they allow for and how some people choose to move around them.
Midori: Yes. Yes. One of my friends’ ashes were separated in a couple different places. Some parts are buried in his family grave in Japan, and other parts are buried in the States with his own grave. And some of his ashes were scattered from the sky by his students because he was a pilot and that was his will. That’s what he wanted.
I also heard that people scatter ashes at Disneyland, at the Haunted Mansion. Of course that is illegal. When it happens, Disneyland people need to rush with a special vacuum to collect the ashes that were scattered in the air.
Midori: Yeah, my friends who used to work in Disneyland told me that story.
Amanda: That’s fascinating. I feel like there could be a whole project about that, how and where people scatter ashes and the ways that other people contend with the scattered ashes.
Midori: Yes. There are different travel experiences for ashes.
Midori Yamanaka (she/her) is a social practice artist and educator born and raised in Japan, currently living and working in Portland, Oregon. Her practice explores ways to harness creativity based on common values in diverse societies and their respective cultures. She has been working on many international projects as a creative and cultural hub, including Virtual Playdate (2022), World Friendship Online (2020), Asia Winter Game in Sapporo (2017), Esin Creative Workshop in Sapporo (2015), and many others. She holds a BFA in Graphic Design from Art Center College of Design, and currently is studying and practicing Art and Social Practice at Portland State University. https://www.midoriyamanaka.com
Amanda Leigh Evans (she/her) is an artist, craftsperson, educator, and cultivator seeking a deeper understanding of our social and ecological interdependence. She makes ceramic objects, gardens, books, websites, videos, sculptures, and long-term collaborative systems. Evans holds an MFA in Art and Social Practice from Portland State University and a Post-Bac in Ceramics from Cal State Long Beach. She was raised in the Inland Empire and in rural Nevada County, CA, and lives and works in the Pacific Northwest. Currently, Evans is a Visiting Assistant Professor teaching ceramics and social practice at Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA. https://amandaleighevans.com/
The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.
Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.
Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.
Sponsored by the Portland State University Art and Social Practice MFA Program