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Roseland, Pullman

At Pullman Gallery’s ‘Coffin Talks’ Exhibit, South Side Artists Open Up About Death And Grief

PullmanArts' Coffin Talks: A Happy Little Show About Death and Grieving opens Friday and runs through next month at the Block House Gallery.

A screenshot from artist Aquarius Ester's film "Waves of Grief, one of two films she's showing on Friday.
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PULLMAN — A new community art show hopes to make it easier for Chicagoans to discuss loss, death and grieiving.

Opening night for the show, Coffin Talks: A Happy Little Show About Death and Grieving, runs 6-10 p.m. Friday at the Block House Gallery, 11137 S. Langley Avenue. Organized by volunteers from the PullmanArts collective, the show is bringing together artists who’ve expressed death and grieving in different ways. There will be food and drinks. 

Ellen Kaulig, who organized the art show with help from fellow PullmanArts volunteer Frankye Payne, said participating artists weren’t limited in their expressions of death and grieving.

“Death and grieving are topics that everyone has such different opinions on and such different ways of approaching,” Kaulig said. “Telling people what way to approach death or grieving really isn’t honoring individuality or how people process that part of life, which nobody ever wants to talk about and nobody really deals with.”

Coffin Talks features work from five artists and creators: Carla Bruni, Andy Bullen, Linda Beierle Bullen, Phil Thompson and Aquarius Ester. 

The idea for the show came from Kaulig and Payne, who were inspired by Bruni’s miniature ceramic bug coffins, which will be featured in Friday’s show.

Bruni said Kaulig and Payne were interested in doing a show with themes similar to the ones she explored in her work. 

Payne said the show was also partly inspired by the collective grief society managed throughout the past few years and how people can “process those things that are often overlooked.”

Bruni, a preservationist who works for the Chicago Bungalow Association and lectures at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, started learning ceramics during the pandemic. An artist friend had given Bruni clay when she felt isolated in the early days of the pandemic in 2020.

Around the same time, Bruni found herself drawn to bugs and the importance of their lives. She’d also been studying Buddhism, which helped her rethink outlooks on life and death, she said.

“The bug thing kind of came, it just sort of like came up,” she said. “It was like all these people were dying, and we had no way to grieve. I had several people I knew — five people died during the pandemic that I knew, and there was no way to have any ceremony for them. And it was awful.

“You just start thinking about how all life is precious, and [creating the bug coffins] was a thing I could do at home.”

Painted with a variety of colors and designs, Bruni’s ceramic coffins aim to honor bugs who’ve died while highlighting the ways bugs are overlooked in society.

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A native of Roseland, Ester will perform at 8 p.m. and present two short films, one called “Waves of Grief,” and another from 2017 called “Ambivert” she made while having a panic attack Downtown. Ester filmed the experience on a Go-Pro and edited the footage to depict her experience with fibromyalgia and chronic pain. She also deals with bipolar disorder, PTSD and OCD, she said.

Much of Ester’s art serves as a means of expressing herself while being a strong part of her mental health recovery, she said.

When Ester was approached to participate in Coffin Talks, her father had recently died, she said. Working on the show was healing for her, she said. 

“All of my work really is just a representation of what mental chaos feels like for me and how I use art to kind of process through that,” Ester said. “A lot of the lessons that I’ve learned in life have happened publicly. I would have a lot of really big anxiety attacks or blackouts and psychosis, and I’ll go through a lot of this stuff publicly. 

“I use my work to kind of help me process that and to help show folks that it’s not not an embarrassing thing. This is something that happens to a lot of folks … .”

Spouses Andy Bullen and Linda Beierle Bullen have lived in Pullman more than 25 years.

In addition to creating digital databases for the state and being a Pullman historian, Andy Bullen writes alternate historical fiction. At the event, he will present his alternate historical fiction, which humorously ponders the social and political ramifications of vampires having always existed alongside humans, with photos, excerpts and props to support his work. 

Linda Beierle Bullen is a fiber artist who makes quilts that are influenced by other cultures and their ideas around death and grief. Two of her pieces will be featured in Friday’s show. 

Thompson will present five pen-and-ink memento mori drawings that depict skeletons going about everyday life in modern times. 

The Coffin Talks gallery will be open until Sept. 10. Any videos played on Friday will be made available online at a later date, Kaulig said

Kaulig also hopes anyone who attends the art show can get something from the work they see.

“Aquarius is really trying to help people heal,” Kaulig said. “Andy is trying to entertain people. So even amongst the participants, what they hope that people get out of the show and their work is different. And there’s something kind of beautiful in that.

“I really hope that people walk away with it with a fresh perspective, personally, whatever that fresh perspective is. That’s up to them. But hopefully, this is something that makes people go, ‘Huh, I never thought of it that way.'” 

Block House is open Thursdays from 4-6 p.m. and Saturdays from 12-2 p.m. There will also be free movie screenings each day the gallery is open that tackle death and grief. Follow the gallery here for more information.

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