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Memorializing the departed: Recent Shepherd grad ready to take her art in a new direction

January 17, 2020
Tabitha Johnston - Chronicle Staff , Shepherdstown Chronicle

SHEPHERDSTOWN -- For many recent college graduates, taking the road less traveled can be a little daunting. But, after eight years of working on her bachelor's of fine arts degree in painting, Cassidy Raye Ponton is ready to move onto studying at another educational institution -- mortuary science school.

While most Shepherd art graduates pursue predictable career paths, such as becoming art teachers, artists and gallery curators, Ponton's jobs at a funeral home and crematorium inspired her to take her art -- and her life -- in a different direction.

According to Ponton, when she first started working at the crematorium, she noticed that, although most of the ashes would be able to be given to the families of the departed person, some of the ashes from each cremation would scatter into the "nooks and crannies" of the room used for the cremations. Ponton realized that, rather than sweeping the ashes up and throwing them away, she could use the ashes to create something beautiful.

Article Photos

Cassidy Raye Ponton, right, shows some pieces of her artwork to buyers at Shepherd University's Sixth Annual Art Market in December. Tabitha Johnston

"A lot of people are leaning towards cremations. I think my fascination with repurposing remains came from working in a crematorium. I just saw a lot of room for creativity in memorializing peoples' loved ones," Ponton said, as she showed a painting, which featured the leftover ashes from hundreds of cremations, which she collected at her former job.

According to Ponton, she would love to create similar paintings for families whose loved ones have been cremated. Although she has not yet been accepted into a mortuary science school, she said she looks forward to one day running a funeral home and offering a similar service to her clientele.

"If someone gave me the ashes of their loved one, I could immortalize it in a piece like this or in glass. I've always been fascinated with death," Ponton said, mentioning she has also immortalized a friend's ashes in pieces of glass jewelry. "It's not for everybody. She people are like, 'no, thank you,' but I hope it makes people think about their mortality -- how they'd like to be immortalized."

For Ponton's mentor at Shepherd, art professor Sonya Evanisko, seeing her student create this art was a surprise to her, as no classes are taught on the subject at Shepherd. Ponton took a course on the subject at a private art studio in Frederick, Md.

"I have mixed thoughts about [the art]," Evanisko said. "Obviously, some people spread the ashes to give back to the earth, some people put the ashes on the mantlepiece and some people could also put [the ashes] in a painting.

"Our art program embraces very diverse stylistic ways of making art," Evanisko said. "We don't always agree with the art choices they make, but we enable them to embrace their artistic ideas."

While Ponton will never forget the artistic knowledge she gathered while at Shepherd, she is confident that having a career as a mortician, with the cremation art as a part-time job, is the right route for her life.

"I'm not interested in pursuing art as a career -- it's something I want to keep as precious to me," Ponton said. "I don't want to let it get corrupted or taken advantage of by the art industry."



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