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Death Becomes Her 

When Harrison Center gallery coordinator Emily Vanest met Indianapolis artist Elyce Elder 25 years ago at Taylor University, she was more than a little spooked.

Then, the two women were students at the Christian college in Upland and working together on a production of "The King and I." Vanest, a traditional looking college co-ed, was terrified of Elder, a pierced punker with ever-changing hair color. She remained rattled, too, until the day she saw Elder sweetly chatting about her blue mohawk with a child.

click to enlarge KENNETH RHEM
  • Kenneth Rhem

When the boy complimented her on the hue, Vanest remembers watching Elder get down near him and kindly ask, "'what color would you like it to be tomorrow?"

His pick? Aqua. Elder complied the next day.

Since, these two women have both settled in Indianapolis and through a couple of twists of fate become colleagues, friends and neighbors.

 "She's warm. She's connected. She really sees people for their individuality," says Vanest.

Elder's appearance has changed over 25 years. Now her hair is bobbed at chin length with fringe bangs and she tucks her reddish locks behind her ears. But her ability to draw attention with her offbeat -- some might say "spooky" -- lifestyle remains intact.

When guests arrive at Elder's front door, they are greeted with a black feather wreath. A sign in its middle warns, "CLOSED on account of FUNERAL." Once inside the circa 1900s Fountain Square home, guests find just that. Antique photos of lifeless children, dressed in their funeral finery, hang on her walls and small, embalmed animals float in jars of alcohol in the kitchen. There's also a growing collection of teeth. Its additions come when children in the neighborhood or at her church lose theirs and donate, usually with great enthusiasm.

"Death is kind of amazing," she says in her child-like voice. "I just love all of the traditions throughout the years concerning funerals and mourning the dead and loving your loved ones."

click to enlarge KENNETH RHEM
  • Kenneth Rhem

This day, Elyce is wearing a simple green dress and black lace-up ankle boots. Behind wire-rimmed glasses, her blue eyes twinkle as she points out pieces of her prized collections: funeral slippers, antique embalming tools, a human skull on loan from Harrison Center artist Kipp Normand.

Normand's skull, which he got from an elementary school teacher who thought it creepy, wound up in Elyce's hands a couple of years ago when his studio ceiling caved in. For repairs, Normand had to move.

Elyce was thrilled, he said.

"I had to make sure she understood it was strictly on loan, although she's had it for two years now," he says. "One of these days I'll get it back from her."

Elyce and Normand have been friends for a decade. He knows that Elyce's collection might make some people uneasy. But Normand collects some of the same things and respects the way Elyce treats her pieces.

"I think she is very impassioned about her idea of these artifacts as examples of the way people deal with this very difficult situation," he says. "She's got a beautifully kept collection."

Plus, knowing what Elyce likes makes it easy to buy her Christmas gifts.

"I give her anything funerary," he says. "It's fun to try to find something really obscure."

On the walls, collages of framed photos of the dead, including lots of children, stand out against purple paint, titles like "Bloody Business" and "Dracula" line bookshelves along with Elyce's collection of teeth. And in the kitchen is a mummified cat's head.

"We found him in the alley," Elyce remembers affectionately. "His face is so great and he doesn't smell."

KENNETH RHEM
  • Kenneth Rhem

She's also just starting to learn about hairwork, the process of making mementoes out of locks of human hair.  But she's already turned one snippit into a tree-like shape, kind of a weeping willow, and framed it. It's hanging in the dining room.

Upstairs, where Elyce's artist's studio is tucked away, are more of her creepy creations - a knitted straitjacket that looks a lot like a nice pullover sweater at first glance. (She says she likes the idea of a comfortable straitjacket.) Next to her bed is a burial shroud she made for herself out of moree fabric formed into an intricate pattern of tiny rosettes.

Death becomes her

Both pieces were part of a 2011 art show, "Death Becomes Her," at the Harrison Center.

Elyce enlisted the help of a neighbor as she prepared for the two-woman art show she shared with Gabrielle Duggan, another contemporary artist.

"I called up a friend down the street and said, 'can you come over? I need to make this burial shroud for myself and I need you to pin me in,'" she says, adding that the woman isn't shocked by her requests anymore and didn't ask many questions. "And she was very kind. And I made these little rosettes from this moree fabric that I like. It was really, really fun."

Elyce is a regular at the Harrison Center. She attends church at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, which is connected to the Harrison, plays washboard regularly in worship  with two of the Harrison's most popular artists, Kyle Ragsdale and Kipp Normand (together forming the now-defunct band Ebenezer and The Hymnasters), and shows her artwork there.

click to enlarge KENNETH RHEM
  • Kenneth Rhem

Some new pieces will be on exhibit at the center Dec. 6 for its annual color-themed group show. Called "Grey Gardens" this year, the new show will exhibit works themed around the 1975 documentary of the same name about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' reclusive socialite relatives.

Elyce's pieces pique the curiosity of the center's patrons, says Pam Allee, Arts Coordinator at the Harrison.

"I think sometimes they are a little bit confused, but also drawn in," says Allee. "It makes you want to look at it. She has gone in so many different directions, you are always excited to know what on earth is she going to do next."

In one collaboration with Normand, Elyce dressed in period clothes and sat on a thrown-like installation blowing bubbles for an IDADA First Friday event.

"She was blowing soap bubbles and people were walking up and trying to engage her and she was in her own little world," remembers Allee. "Another time we had her typing on a vintage type writer in the gym and people would walk up and observe her. So many different things and mediums."

Gardening is another.

Elyce's deadly theme grows behind her home, too -- in a poison garden.

"It's neat. It's so cool," she says. "There's something about the study of science and chemistry; people used to be able to murder people with poisons!"

Poison ivy, to which Elyce is allergic, thrives along the side of the house. In the back yard is a jungle of plants that might do everything from cause hallucinations to give a powerful stomachache, or kill, if ingested. Don't touch the hemlock, she warns, not without protective gear. The giant wormwood bush? It's just there for aesthetics until someone figures out a way to turn it into the psychoactive drug absinthe, she jokes.

KENNETH RHEM
  • Kenneth Rhem

Her favorite, though, is feminine Belladonna, also called deadly nightshade. The dark berries, the toxic part of the plant, are incredibly beautiful, she says. She smashes one between her fingers, demonstrating the color and its stickiness.

"Everything is labeled," she explains, adding a warning. "If it has a dot on it, that's a poison plant. Just don't even touch it."

Likewise, don't misread Elyce's quirky collections and interests as trite.

Taking the end seriously

The study of death has been important to her since she was a child in Boston, when she found writer and artist Edward Gorey's morbidly humorous illustrated books in the local library. And Elyce specialized in grief, loss, death and dying when she worked on her Master's Degree.

Gorey, who died in 2000, became famous by drawing creepy, adult-oriented scenes. But a young Elyce found the books in the children's books section and became a lifelong fan - so much so that she toured his Yarmouth Port, Mass. home for her birthday a few years ago.

"I loved being there. He had a house a lot like mine," she says. "I got there and walked in the front door. It was such a beautiful experience. I was crying I was so happy."

She has also worked as a grief counselor in the cancer unit of Riley Hospital for Children and at nine funeral homes.

At the funeral homes, Elyce talked to children before funerals to prepare them for what they were about to experience. Later, she visited them at home to check on their emotional progress.

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 "I've had my hand in a lot of different angles," she says. "It sucks when a person you love dies. (But) there is something wonderful about the words 'at rest.' It's like you get to stop now. You don't have to keep living because living is very hard. (In a way) I very much envy these little ones that are on the walls because they are at rest and that's so awesome. So great. And we're still here and we're mourning and toiling or whatever."

So, does this preoccupation with death mean that Elyce is anticipating her own?

She says she is "maybe a little bit" looking forward to dying. At 44, she has a will and a burial plan.

"I willed things to people like, really, down to peacock feathers - all kinds of stuff," she says.

Elyce has donated her body to the IU School of Medicine for scientific research. That entitles her to a free burial plot at Crown Hill Cemetery, an idea that so delights her that she went there with a friend, got some photographs in her final resting place and added the picture to her living room décor.

But, she says, she isn't trying to get to the end sooner than nature would have it.

"There's a lot of joy out here, too," she says. "There's a lot of fun stuff to do."

Dressing up and staying in

One such thing is Elyce's annual Halloween party. The by-invitation event regularly leaves standing-room-only in her home. Costumes are a must.

"If you show up and don't have a costume, I have a whole closet full of costumes and I will put one on you," she says. "One of the lamps always gets knocked over and broken, so it's fun."

Vanest's seven children, who are between the ages of three and 16, talk about the soiree all year long. They love to visit Elyce.

"It's kind of a Pandora's box," says Vanest. "She enjoys all the things that they enjoy too - things that are kind of off limits. For any of our kids, whenever something dies, they want to call Elyce."

Adults are fascinated, too, maybe because most don't quite understand.

"When (people) hear about what she is interested in, they want to think she is this dark person, and she is so light," explains Allee. "She is so full of joy. No matter what she is talking about, she is just happy. I've just enjoyed getting to know her, watching how her brain works."

KENNETH RHEM
  • Kenneth Rhem
See additional photos of Elder's home, artwork, collection of death-focused artifacts and art, and poison garden on Sky Blue Window's Facebook page.
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About The Author

Cathy Kightlinger

Cathy Kightlinger

Bio:
The first 20 years of Cathy Kightlinger’s career were spent as a newspaper reporter and columnist, so she is new to freelance writing. In her most recent role as The Indianapolis Star’s social columnist, Cathy wrote about fascinating people and parties, big and small. Fabulous shoes and contemporary art make her... more

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