In his Hillcrest studio, Daniel Ortega is constructing an ossuary—otherwise known as a resting place for the bones of the dead.
“This is going to be my first time doing an ossuary, with a little window right here,” Ortega says, pointing to a two-inch dip on the lower edge of a canvas he's sculpting that, indeed, is filled with tiny bones. The bones in Ortega's ossuary are generic animal bones, but the sculpted canvas they're resting in is partly composed of the ashes of Ortega's deceased cat, Dillion.
Dillion's photograph hangs on the studio's wall in fluffy black resplendence. Although he passed away in November 2007, Ortega's current art project is intended to celebrate the beloved cat's life. As a true pet lover, Ortega understands the emotion that can accompany the death of a pet. As an artist, he hopes to provide grieving pet owners with a creative means of remembrance. While Ortega proudly notes that Dillion's is “the first PetStone in the family,” PetStone—the official title for Ortega's brand of cremation artwork—has been helping other pet owners cope for nearly a decade.
Standing over a still-wet, 18-by-20-inch canvas covered in what appears to be clay, Ortega explains how the process works: “I've sculpted my cat's ashes here, mixed with the medium that I work in, in organic powders. It takes about two or three days to dry. Then I put it on my easel over here, I gesso it and then I take paints on a palette and I start painting it.”
For those of us who somberly flush our goldfish and faint at the sight of blood, Ortega's methods may seem a bit morbid. But the artist admits that he has always been fascinated with the afterlife. For him, working with animal ashes (or “cremains”) came naturally.
A Los Angeles native, Ortega grew up with an eye for art. He experimented with every medium he could get his hands on, from junior high school all the way through college, where he attended L.A.'s Otis College of Art and Design. “But I didn't have this idea” to work with ashes, he says, until he began working at a mortuary in Glendale.
“I thought, because I was already into art—I was taking photography, architecture, everything—that it would be so cool, like the Egyptians, to use cremated ashes in an art form, you know? And other cultures use cremated ashes in different ceremonies and would build beautiful statues, not necessarily out of the ashes, but it was part of the creative end of burial. And I thought, Someday I'm going to experiment with organic material and see if I can sculpt it.”
Now retired, Ortega spent 13 years as a professional draftsman before he was able to focus completely on his art. After much trial and error, PetStone emerged in 2001 in conjunction with another endeavor, called TeraStone.“Originally,” Ortega says, “I wanted to do pottery, with the ashes in the pottery.”
Ortega did manage to form and fire several pots containing animal ashes, but the vessels proved too fragile to stay intact for long. But Ortega was still determined to create an alternative to the typical aftercare service—he wanted something inventive, attractive and, most importantly, durable.
Using his knowledge of materials, Ortega developed a mixture of organic, eco-friendly powders that he could easily wet and sculpt on canvas. As it dries, the earthy mix turns to a solid, stone-like material that is surprisingly lightweight. TeraStone, the medium that Ortega works with most frequently, contains volcanic ash that is simply replaced, in part, with animal ash to become PetStone. Thanks to a generous donation of animal ashes from an L.A. crematorium back in 2001, Ortega became familiar with the process. PetStones are now made to order from Ortega's website (www.pet stone.net), which includes a list of colors, materials, highlights and finishes to choose from.
Customers “can send me anything from a thimble spoon to a pound. It just has to go on the right size canvas so it fits. I say, if you have an average-size dog, it would take a minimum this size canvas,” says Ortega, motioning animatedly at an imaginary canvas.
Ortega is not a large man, but his enthusiastic voice booms as he talks—and he talks a lot. His attitude is contagious. Far from being dark and macabre, Ortega's work is full of color, texture and celebration. The canvases are brightly embellished with a variety of materials, including stained glass, jewels and sand. In one corner of his studio hangs a glittering TeraStone skull with compact discs for eyes. Ortega decorates the skull every year to remember his family on the Day of the Dead.
“I'm kind of a mystical junkie,” he says, as he flits from piece to piece, pointing out Chinese characters and arrows, pulling books full of ancient imagery out of a packed bookcase. Dillion's piece, titled “Breakthrough,” was inspired by a double triangle symbol used for Viking divination.
To date, Ortega insists that all of his customers—and he's had some as far away as Maine and Florida—have been totally satisfied. One woman, he says, had a perfect spot up high in her kitchen where her cat used to sleep. “I did a long, rectangular piece over the entryway from the dining room to the kitchen. And you can't tell that it's a pet cremation. Unless she actually tells you, it's just a piece of art.”
While PetStone is not for everyone, Ortega is finding an increasingly open audience. His art is now on display at the San Diego Pet Memorial Park in Mira Mesa, and he will be submitting work for an “Ashes to Art” show held in September in Graton, Calif. (www.funeria.com). PetStone will also donate 30 percent of its proceeds to a local nonprofit that benefits animals.
At 7 p.m. Saturday, May 3, Ortega will show his work with other local artists at Che Café on the UCSD campus. Though the show will focus on Ortega's TeraStone creations, Dillion just might make an appearance.