Ashes to ashes, dust to art

From the Oregonian, August 17 2008

Oregon State Hospital cremated patient remains

Oregon State Hospital cremated patient remains

“Eva York died in a bathtub in 1896 at the Oregon Asylum for the Insane. After an inquest, which absolved the hospital staff of any blame, no one claimed her corpse, so she was buried in the asylum cemetery and forgotten.

Eighteen years later Eva’s remains were exhumed, cremated, placed in a copper urn and forgotten all over again. Today the corroding canister containing her ashes sits on a plain pine shelf in what’s called the “Cremains Room” at the 122-year-old Salem institution, now known as the Oregon State Hospital.

Eva York is one of about 5,000 patients whose cremains are neatly stacked in that stark, lonely room like cans of paint in a well-stocked hardware store. Her story one of the rare stories that can be told, thanks to the inquest into her death makes her a perfect symbol for what’s wrong with the way Oregonians treat some of the most frail among us.”

Those are the opening lines in The Oregonian’s 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning series of editorials. The image of those corroding canisters became a metaphor for a deeply disturbing negligence in Oregon history. Now those same canisters have undergone another metamorphoses — into haunting objects of art.

San Francisco-based artist David Maisel has created a stunning series of photographs of the canisters, to be published by Chronicle Books this fall as “Library of Dust.” The Portland Art Museum has scheduled an exhibition from the book from Sept. 1 to Dec. 6.

Here’s a couple more of the images, and there’s an interesting blog on the project here.

OUR COMMENT – Securing a suitable memorial for the Oregon State Hospital’s patient remains was the sole advocacy campaign of the Mental Health Association of Portland in 2005. We discovered these 3000+ copper cannisters during an unguided tour in 2001, and while strategizing with other advocates how to apply pressure to the hospital to cause clinical change, we decided to tell the story of these remains – largely by stewarding media stories such as were printed in the Oregonian and the New York Times. One of the few happy results of our campaign are the photographs of David Maisel.