The Denver Post
Reflecting on Grief
Boulder team weaves a casket for mixed- media exhibit aimed at helping the community cope
The effects of the pandemic have been devastating. Collectively, the suffering on a global scale is difficult to measure. At times, the grief can feel overwhelming. For many, it’s hard to know how, or where, to process such emotions.
Off a side street in downtown Boulder at the Arbor Institute, a pair of artists are working to address that issue.
Moonbeam Marie Gardebring, a casket weaver from Longmont, and Boulder’s Ellie Douglass, an interfaith hospice chaplain, began a quest over the summer: to hand weave a casket out of willow and create a mixed- media art installation in which it, and other pieces, can help people process their grief.
“So many of us are dealing with intense grief, change and loss,” Gardebring said. “There’s something about witnessing each other in that space and sharing it that feels supportive and healing.”
Douglass agrees. She works with the dying and their families on a daily basis, and has witnessed the
impact that the pandemic has taken, and how it’s stripped so many of connection. Traditions like funerals or memorials may no longer be happening.
So Douglass wondered, “What if we were to weave a casket and dedicate it to people who are dying and sick during this time, and to the families who are grieving who cannot hold ceremony?”
With this in mind, the two began weaving the casket out of willow in mid- July. It took three weeks and about 100 hours to complete. In all, more than 58 pounds of willow comprise the casket and exhibit at the Arbor Institute, called “Interwoven: A Resting Place for Collective Grief.”
The Arbor Institute, located on 13th Street, was founded by Boulder resident and architect David Levitt in 2019. Not long after its programming began, the pandemic struck. It forced them to rethink how best to connect with the community.
“We really struggled in COVID time with what do we do that’s relevant? How can we serve unity?” Levitt said. “This became the first answer to that question.”
Sam Randall, who leads programs and communications, describes the institute as a creative nonprofit combining art and ecology with contemplative practice.
“We had a sense that so many of us are going through grief right now and in different ways,” Randall said. “It’s certainly part of our mission to help people be with that and feel supported with a sense of community around what we’re experiencing.”
It’s a collective experience guided by Gardebring, who lives with a rare, life- threatening autoimmune condition called Wegener’s granulomatosis polyangiitis. Her airway is constricted to the size of a straw. As a result, she’s unable to wear a mask due to the lack of airflow. It would be too difficult for her to breathe.
This makes her more vulnerable during the pandemic, and she has largely remained isolated, except for this exhibit. Additionally, Gardebring’s health has deteriorated to the point where she has begun to weave her own casket, in preparation for her death.
Douglass has also worked on Gardebring’s casket, and the
experience has brought them closer.
“It’s been really joyful,” said Gardebring. “There’s an understanding between us.”
The exhibit recently opened to participants, who could write their feelings about the pandemic on paper. Using origami, they’re invited to reshape the message and unburden their grief using the casket. Located in the center of the gallery, it’s a beautiful and somber reminder of the collective experience.
Earlier this month, the insti
tute also partnered with artists from the BIPOC community for an evening performance that was part of the exhibition. ( Gwendalynn Roebke, a student at CU Boulder and co- founder of BIPOC Boulder Creatives, curated the event.)
During the performance, the artists shared their expressions of grief and healing through poetry, music, dialogue and dance that centered around the casket. Ultimately, it will be buried as a symbolic, final release of the community’s grief.
Recently, Boulder residents Harleen Singh and Sushia Rahimizadeh visited the space. The two lingered around the casket, staring at the folded pieces of paper inside. With masks wrapped around their faces, the two bent down to get a closer look.
“It made us reflect on other people’s processing of grief, we couldn’t help but dive into so many expressions of it,” Rahimizadeh said.
“It made me feel less alone in this,” Singh added. “It’s nice to have that in a community.”
Douglass agreed. “I think the experience in the space is feeling that visceral level of our interconnection and our shared sorrow.” She spoke also to the broader community, adding, “I would want people to know that they’re not alone in their grief. That we’re deeply interconnected, and that art, and ritual, can remind us of that.”