Preserving a memory in beauty

December 15, 2008

By Makenzie Greenblatt

Glass urns earn national recognition for local artist

Mike Holberg and his assistant Wilbur Kelly heat pieces of blown glass for the cap of an urn in a furnace at Viscosity Glass on Rainier Boulevard South in Seattle.  Photo by Greg Farrar

Mike Holberg and his assistant Wilbur Kelly heat pieces of blown glass for the cap of an urn in a furnace at Viscosity Glass on Rainier Boulevard South in Seattle. Photo by Greg Farrar

 

Washington has one of the highest cremation rates in the country at 64 percent. With estimates for the entire nation to be at 80 percent to 90 percent in 20 years, what can we do sans tombstone to create a meaningful memorial for a loved one? 

Issaquah artist Mike Holberg recently started his own business designing and crafting hand-blown, glass memorial urns. His pieces offer something different than traditional urns.

“We just made them as works of art,” he said. “I think, ‘Let’s make a cool vessel, and we’ll just make sure it can hold a set of remains.’”

Last month, Holberg was featured on the cover of The Crafts Report, a national magazine, as part of its memorial art special. A glass-blower for 13 years, Holberg never thought about urns until someone called and asked him for one a few years ago. The client needed it quickly, and while Holberg wasn’t able to help her, it sparked something for him. 

“I started toying with colors and shapes,” said Holberg. “About the same time I got a prototype done, the lady across the street passed away, so I offered her daughter an urn. She was just crazy about that.”

He started to wonder if other people would be interested, and decided the most logical place to approach was a funeral home. 

“We’d thought we’d give him a try because they were so unique and pretty and one-of-a-kind,” said Kelly Browder, owner of Palm Mortuary in Las Vegas. “They have sold quite well for us.

“I think what sets Mike apart from other urn providers we use is that Mike has no problem talking directly to the family to try and meet their exact needs, even if it’s just down to what color they want on top.”

Though he has achieved national recognition for his glass, Holberg started out doing other types of artwork. 

His family moved to Issaquah’s South Cove neighborhood 30 years ago. He and his wife, Suzy, worked at Puget Sound Bakery, which her parents owned. In addition to decorating cakes there, Holberg made paintings, drawings and stained glass. 

One day he and Suzy were watching the glass blowers at Seattle Glassblowing Studio.

“I turned to her and said, ‘Well, I could do that,’” he recalled. “And she said, ‘Oh yeah, why don’t you sign up for a class?’

“I sat down and just knew that was it for me,” he said with a grin. “I loved it from the beginning.”

Since glass blowing is quite an expensive hobby, Holberg tried to decide what he could make and sell. He started off with indoor fountains and was able to use the profits from those to finance other pieces. 

In 2000, Holberg left the bakery to work in the hot shop of the world-renowned Chihuly Studio in Seattle. 

After three years there, he went back to his day job as a purchaser for Milestones Products, a craft kit company. He continued blowing and showing his glass around the city.  

Then, in 2004, Holberg began crafting his memorial urns. By late 2007, he turned them into his own company, Personal Temples. 

Currently, there are seven regular designs, plus a special one for pets. He has also done very ornate, personalized pieces that retail for up to $7,500. 

Each urn takes about an hour in the hot shop, 24 hours to cool, and then some cutting work for the top. Depending on how many assistants he has, they can make about a dozen in one day. 

Holberg is now experimenting with photosensitive glass, which would allow clients to add a picture. 

“I don’t know anybody who’s doing it,” he said. “The possibilities would be limitless — all you need is a photo.”

There are other glass urns out there, but Holberg has found a niche for himself thanks to the relative affordability of his pieces. According to him, most others solely make one-of-a-kind designs that cost thousands of dollars. His start at $795. 

Though the designs follow a similar pattern, each urn is distinct in color and pattern.

“To know that my mother, who is unique and beautiful, ended up in something unique and beautiful was so special,” said Stephanie Fitzgerald, the neighbor who received Holberg’s first urn. “It was really comforting to the whole family.”

“If you put the remains of a loved one in a beautiful urn, every time you look at it, you will have good thoughts about how he or she would really like it,” Holberg said. “It makes you feel good, and it brings up good memories of the person that’s passed.”

Makenzie Greenblatt is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.

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