CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Sculptor Abigail Tulis put on the finishing touches on a homemade casket in which she buried her grandmother in a funeral sendoff that emphasized saving money and artistically enriching the death rite of a loved one.
Her work converted a plain pine plywood box into a depiction of the life of the woman who encouraged her in the arts and shepherded her to many locations in Europe where Tulis sketched and painted.
The Chattanooga native, 26, runs art and media projects from a studio in New York but returned to her family residence in Soddy-Daisy to give hospice care to her grandmother, Marianne Tulis.
“I used designs that were informed by ancient Roman sarcophagi and medieval funerary monuments,” the artist says.
“On the lid I painted a version of Granma in a sort of gesture and composition of a medieval funerary monument, and I put an arch around her head, laying there, and her feet are crossed slightly, a little awkwardly. The proportions are off, but it’s OK because on a lot of funerary monuments the head-to-body ratio is a little bit different, and under her feet is a Wall Street Journal, which represents her wealth.” In ancient times artists depicted the owner’s dog at the feet surrounded by depictions of personal treasures.
The lid also shows the Staubli family coat of arms on a shield, “because Granma said always to be a warrior, not a worrier,” Tulis says.
On one side are two angels holding up a stylized portrait of the deceased. On the other, a gaggle of Romanesque figures — one of them weeping — surrounding a partly open doorway.
“The pine box was ideal. I was able to use the full surface. With a traditional casket there are lots of divets and molding, and handles. There would have been a whole lot more to work around.”
The senior Tulis, 95, daughter of a Swiss federal congressman from Zurich, died Aug. 2. She is buried next to her late husband, Robert, a TVA engineer, in the national cemetery in Chattanooga.
Family members say they were shocked by the monotony of standard casket design and their lofty prices. Abigail’s father, who airs a talk show at NoogaRadio 92.7 FM, built the casket with $71.49 worth of pine plywood from the Hixson Lowe’s. Running a drill and table saw was his brother, Thomas, an Atlanta painter and photographer.
“Affordable funeral options for common and poor people don’t exist,” David Tulis said. “There doesn’t exist a bottom of the market in which a burial box is between $100 and $400. There’s no way we could afford a F$1,200 minimum-price casket offered us. And besides, my mother was a thrifty soul and insisted we not waste any money on putting her into the ground. So we did our own thing and invested ourselves in the process.
“I bet there’s a good living to be had by some enterprising poor person in Chattanooga who wants to start such a business — hand-made caskets under F$400, made by a local person, delivered in five days — good profit margin — that kind of thing.”
Homeschooled by parents David and Jeannette Tulis, Abigail apprenticed two years with local artist Cessna Decosimo and at 18 moved to Manhattan to study classical art.