Al Boucher had been mulling over a possible theme for the pottery collection he had volunteered to show at Muddy Waters Clay Center, but it was at the funeral of his uncle, who died from COVID-19 last fall, when the idea to create urns really took hold.
Elmer Boucher, who was the last to farm the family homestead, founded in the late 1800s, had not been sick before contracting the coronavirus, Boucher said.
His uncle died “too early,” he was in his 80s, according to Al Boucher.
“It was a shock," he said.
"Since COVID had dominated so much of our lives, I decided to do cremation urns,” Boucher said. “And, then, when I went to my uncle’s funeral on the prairie, in north central North Dakota, that inspired me to do a collection of urns -- there’s no doubt about it. And so I started throwing every day, making them every day, firing them -- some didn’t work, some did. I had some failures and some successes, and I built on that as it went.”
Before he started work on this collection, Boucher hadn’t been in the pottery studio since late 2019, primarily due to concerns over COVID.
On the day his “Covid-19 Urns” exhibit opened, Jan. 6, at the Muddy Waters Clay Center, the national coronavirus death toll reached about 360,000, he said. Each of the 60 urns in his collection represented 6,000 people who had died, as of that date, he noted.
“It was kind of a strange coincidence," he said.
The display of 31 larger and 29 smaller handcrafted stoneware urns reflects Boucher’s skill and artistry in shaping clay into functional pieces that can serve as lasting, beautiful vessels to contain the ashes of a loved one.
A portion of the exhibit he calls the Northern Lights Series is characterized by a glazing technique that imbues a green luster at the base, to reflect the prairie grass, and further up, different shades of red, a little blue and some white.
Another subset of the collection consists of urns that, when fired, created an unusual glaze on clay dug from a lot on a low elevation on Reeves Drive.
Some of the urns have gold fired into the glaze after the initial glaze firing, Boucher said.
Those and other unique features add an unexpected elegance to the work that must be seen to be appreciated.
The exhibit is open from 3 to 7:30 p.m. Thursdays and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays in January. Meet-and-greet events are planned for 2 to 5 p.m. Jan. 30 and 1 to 5 p.m. Jan. 31. COVID-19 protocols will be observed; masks are required to be worn. Muddy Waters Clay Center is at 2014 13th Ave. N.
Responding to pandemic
For this collection, Boucher, who started working on it last fall, used techniques he’d employed in pottery-making in the past.
"But I hadn’t used them altogether like that,” he said. “The forms are different. Most of the forms are things I’d never done before.”
Some of the smaller keepsake urns are topped with lids that resemble the onion-shaped domes prevalent in Russian Orthodox church architecture.
Those forms stem from his interest in Russian studies, which, along with political science, he pursued in the 1970s as a student at UND. He earned a bachelor's degree as well as a master's degree in ceramics from Mankato (Minn.) State University before pursuing a law degree at UND.
Boucher, who serves as a municipal judge in Grand Forks, Emerado, Larimore and Northwood, is also a widely recognized ceramicist. He has taught ceramics classes for community education and college students since 1974.
A founding member of Muddy Waters Clay Center, he was named Artist of the Year, by the North Valley Arts Council in 2010, and more recently was an invited ceramic artist in both Cone Pack’s “A Place at The Table” in 2018 and this year’s virtual ceramic art exhibit and auction at the Plains Art Museum in Fargo.
“Pottery is an important part of my life,” said Boucher, noting that he wanted this collection to be different. “I did want to make a statement about COVID, and how we as a society dealt with it."
Boucher said each individual urn doesn’t make a statement as can be made in the collective exhibit. Each one is functional.
“And, in society, there’s a need -- and there’s been a greater need -- for urns because of COVID. The amount of deaths is enormous -- early deaths. I think that there are new statistics out that show the death rate has been much higher because of COVID," he said.
“It’s not that people should be cremated, I’m not saying that, or shouldn’t be cremated, I’m not saying that. I needed to express something about it, and so that’s what I did," he said.
Many of the urns in this collection are embellished with wheat stalks, with gold metallic glaze, which represents the family’s ties to wheat country in the land between Rolette and Dunseith, N.D., Boucher said.
“My uncle was a farmer, and wheat was an important part of his crops, and I remember helping sometimes with harvest,” he said.
Form and function
Part of the purpose for the urn is simply practical, he said. Each pound of human weight requires one cubic inch of interior volume. The exhibit is accompanied by a list of the numbered urns, and the number corresponds to a description, price and interior capacity of each of the larger urns.
The various sizes of urns reflect the fact that “COVID has taken people of all kinds of sizes and shapes and forms,” he said.
The smaller urns can be used to hold a portion of the ashes of a loved one and allow the family to easily transport those cremains.
The urns can be used for multiple other purposes, besides holding cremains, Boucher said.
“The urns can be functional. But those urns, they can also hold cookies,” he said, with a chuckle. “They don’t have to be used to hold cremains ... If I hadn’t said ‘Covid urns,’ they’d just be a nice collection of covered jars. But, because I call them ‘urns,’ they take on a different meaning.
He hopes people will view the urns in a different light, he said.
“In fact, my wife picked out one already and she wants me to bring it home -- not because she intends to be cremated, she just likes the urn and wants it around the house.
“And my wife usually gets the pots she says she wants -- she always has since I first met her in college when I first started throwing pots, she’d say, ‘I like that one,’ and I’d give it to her -- so our house is full of things like that.”