The first time Mason McBrien made a coffin, it was something of a lark. A woodworker, he had been asked to demonstrate the use of old-school hand tools by a midcoast historical society and decided to construct a coffin. To build a coffin, a woodworker must possess a fair amount of basic hand-tool skills, so he thought it would be a perfect project.

He was right. People paid rapt attention.

“I’ve done demonstrations on things like cutting dovetails, and people just glaze over,” said McBrien, who lives in Union. “But I’ve had people sit for 21/2 hours watching me make a coffin and never get up from their seat. It’s a fascinating subject.”

Jim Piper, “Entwined with Fortuity” Photo courtesy of Center for Furniture Crafsmanship

McBrien is among the makers showing off their woodworking skills in an unlikely and strikingly thoughtful exhibition at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport, “Boxes to Die For.” In the exhibition, artists from seven countries display coffins and urns for human and animal remains and cremains. It’s on view through April 10 at the center’s Messler Gallery.

Despite a name that might make one giggle at the pun, “Boxes to Die For” offers a quiet, reflective experience for people who visit the gallery, and the exhibition opens a window into how different cultures treat death. It also taps into a growing interest in green and alternative burials and other ways we say goodbye to people we love who have died and remember and celebrate their lives.

Most of these vessels look little or nothing like what we might expect. If curators removed the coffins from the gallery, people might not realize it’s an exhibition about death and dying. As gallery manager Victoria Allport noted, “death is a fertile topic for artists.”

There’s an 8-foot yellow cocoa pod from Eric Adjetey Anang of Ghana, who showed his work in Portland last year when he was an artist in residence at Maine College of Art. His grandfather was among the best-known coffin makers in Ghana and the subject of a movie. In Ghana, people often are buried in objects that exemplify their life. The cocoa pod, made from pine and shaped and painted to look like a sculptured representational form, is for a cocoa farmer.

Eric Adjetey Anang stands with his cocao bean coffin. Image courtesy of Center for Furniture Craftsmanship

Curt Theobald of Wyoming made a sculpture that includes a painted purple urn at its center surrounded by a series of green cast glass outer rings. He titled his piece, “I’m Not Worth Dying For.” It’s exotic, colorful and unexpected. Douglas Finkel of Maryland made what appears to be a globe of the world, 14 inches in diameter, of maple and walnut. It opens to a compartment that houses remains.

Mac Ray, a wood turner from Damariscotta, made a series of cherry and cherry burl urns, shaped like acorns, with a small removable top.

An installation view of “Boxes to Die For” at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport. Images courtesy of Center for Furniture Craftsmanship

Ray, who teaches at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship, appreciates the range of work in the exhibition and how un-funereal it feels. “If you go in with an open mind, the diversity is about as good as it gets,” he said.

Peter Korn, the center’s executive director, said the exhibition has elicited a different response from people going through the galleries. “One person had to leave, there was such a fresh experience of loss in their own life. We usually don’t see that level of emotional response in our shows,” he said.

John Van der Kolk, “I’ve Had a Few”

And for a change, people who visit this exhibition don’t seem to be paying too much attention to the often-unusual kinds of wood the artists used to make these objects or even the woodworking techniques the artists employed, Korn said. They’re mostly focused on the different ways people approach and come to terms with mortality.

“This show is not about technical prowess and, clearly, none of this work is about the material itself, while often a lot of the reason people are drawn to wood is they love the material and the material itself is part of what they try to express. But in this case, I don’t see it all that much,” Korn said. “The wood has become the construction material, but not necessarily as much a part of the message.”

That said, there is some unusual wood here, relative to what we see in Maine – sheoak from Australia, locust from California, koa from Hawaii.

The idea of the exhibition has been percolating for some time. It became a more tangible idea after the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship hosted a Death Cafe in the gallery a couple of years ago. At a Death Cafe, people come together to talk about the end of life over coffee and cake. It’s a national movement, and Korn was intrigued enough to agree to host the gathering. “People get together to talk about the death – their concerns, their ideas and their fears – to make it more of an ordinary, mentally approachable part of life,” he said. “That had something to do with the genesis of this show, in that having that discussion about death in a very open, rounded discussion in the gallery made a show like this make more sense to me.”

“Boxes to Die For” essentially continues that discussion, Allport said.

Alain Mailland, untitled Photo courtesy of Center for Furniture Crafsmanship

Wood artists Jennifer Anderson from San Diego and Graeme Priddle from Asheville, North Carolina, curated the show. In addition to Ghana, the international exhibitors are from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, France and Canada. The U.S. artists represent states across the country, including Hawaii.

The idea may appear to be unconventional for an art exhibition, Korn said. But it’s an approachable topic with a history that’s as old as humankind.

“It’s interesting to think about how in the process of making their piece, these individual artists are, in fact, exploring and learning things and making discoveries about who they are and how life should be lived,” Korn said. “In all human cultures, for forever and ever, we’ve thought about death through material things – statues to dead people, mausoleums, cemeteries, urns, coffins, portraits of the dead. Human beings have always been trying to approach and grapple with the idea of death with physical objects to commemorate people who have died. This exhibition is a continuation of that process.”

Curt Theobald, “I’m Not Worth Dying For” Photo courtesy of Center for Furniture Craftsmanship

McBrien, the woodworker from Union, made his demonstration coffin about 20 years ago. Since then, he’s made a half-dozen others, and all by hand. It takes him about three hours to make a coffin, he said.

“It would be faster to mechanize,” McBrien said, “but I feel there is a more personal interaction with the wood, a more spiritual interaction, working by hand. For a vessel of this purpose, it just feels right.”

And a coffin, he noted, is different from a casket. A casket is what we see most commonly in burials in America these days. A coffin is a six-sided box that is custom-built for its occupant, based on the dimensions of the deceased.

Ray has been turning wood for about 60 years and has made a few urns “to put most of my neighbors and family in.” He likes to keep them simple and beautiful, “just something that somebody is going to be happy putting their loved ones in.”

Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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Twitter: pphbkeyes

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