A vibrantly lit blue-and-yellow girl with an alluringly feline gaze transfixes passersby from a frame on the wall, while a soft-focus beige angel reposes quietly in the corner, her eyes closed forever. There’s a reason that in this eclectic art gallery along Fairbanks Avenue visitors notice the living girl first. The funeral director wants them to.
On Friday night, Winter Park’s Carey Hand Cox-Parker Funeral Home will animate itself with an art exhibition born of a modern movement among takers of the dead — more life, less death.
The old model of the funeral business has had a proverbial foot in the grave for years, Cox-Parker’s Lisa Coney said. Think of a funeral home and immediately there flood Tim Burton-esque images of pallor and darkness among wooden pews and solemn sermons. But some of the more vivacious funeral homes have made recent attempts to shake off the stodginess of the past.
Take a morning trip to the Woodlawn Memorial Park & Funeral Home in Longwood for a pick me up. They’ve got a Starbucks, Cox-Parker market manager John Guelde said. Twelve hundred and eighty one golfers can enjoy an everlasting slot on the leaderboard at Sunset Hills Memorial Park in Bellevue, Wash., watched over by an homage to Bobby Jones, teed up, his granite arms ready to launch one last drive past a fairway full of golfers gone away.
Among golfers there are oddly specific settings for an eternal trip to the links. If eternal rest beneath a fairway isn’t your thing, in Colorado there’s a cemetery where you can work on your short game from 6 feet under a putting green.
And at Cox-Parker, as of Dec. 7, there’s an art gallery.
All of this is designed to appeal to how a person lived, Coney said, regardless of whether they still do.
“Our goal is to teach people to celebrate life,” Coney said, focusing on the deceased’s loves and passions pre-mortem.
So as Cox-Parker art gallery curator Bev Hendricks and designer Glenda Losh cast pensive stares at gilded-frame watercolor fowl and Beetlejuice-chic blue cartoon grandfather clock sculptures, searching for their perfect spots on the stark white walls and wood floor, they’re looking to exude vivacity. Considering what this room used to be, that’s an otherworldly order.
There are three double-doorways along the entry wall spanning the length of Cox-Parker’s new gallery, because this one room used to be three. But the faux walnut sliding accordion walls that separated them are gone. So are the three caskets that would have been here.
In order to turn a room formerly filled with literal corpses into a buzzing, entertaining artistic speakeasy, Coney had to exorcise the ghosts of the past.
“It was all old carpet and striped furniture and oil paintings of dead funeral directors,” she deadpanned, waving a hand around the shiny wood floor and pinpoint mood lighting. “We wanted this to be about the living.”
That doesn’t stop with pastels, paint and titanium frames. Coney leads the way through a series of doors and eagerly announces what’s gone: the ’70s wallpaper, the stuffy couches and pews, the enforced somberness.
In what used to resemble a church’s main hall, circular tables surrounded centerpieces of wine bottles or beach sand or even spicy chicken wings — yes, it’s been done.
Cox-Parker has hosted a funeral where the main attraction was a soccer goal surrounding a casket next to a four-wheel ATV.
“Every life lived deserves a grand finale,” Guelde said. “We want to celebrate you the way you want to be celebrated.”
Even in the consultation room, where final respects are awkwardly broken down into cold, hard numbers, the mood has been purposefully lifted, Coney said.
Just across the hallway from the gallery, in a side chamber the size of a walk-in closet, shadowy Instagram shots of electric pink and white horses riding a merry-go-round hang next to a close up of what looks like a serial killer’s hands, all photographed by Michael Hill, fiancé of an employee. This used to be a dour consultation office. Now guests can pour a caramel latte from a high-end Keurig coffee machine and relax, she said.
But her flair for reconstruction goes well beyond Cox-Parker’s front doors. She’s hoping for a larger revival along West Fairbanks Avenue, branding the area as its own cultural enclave, drawing on the odd mix of businesses — the electric cigarette slash scooter store, the auto shop turned barbecue mecca of 4 Rivers Smokehouse, the flying saucer and zooty ’50s rocket bomb on the roof of Skycraft Parts & Surplus.
Meet the artists and enjoy live music, wine and hors d’oeuvres at the grand opening of 1350 West Art Gallery at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 7, at Carey Hand Cox-Parker Funeral Home, 1350 W. Fairbanks Ave., in Winter Park. Selected works by Winter Park and Orlando artists will be exhibited and available for sale, with a portion of the proceeds benefiting Hospice of the Comforter Foundation. Participating artists include Xiomara Aleksic, Brian Jones, Shari Sherman, Marla E, Cheryl Jones Evans and Sharon Omens. Visit carey-handcox.com for more information.
“We’re kitschy and eclectic,” she said.
And the first jolt of the revival was just a week away, as Hendricks and Losh still pained themselves over details. The art barely trickled in until a few days ago, when the ladies in charge of it all started getting nervous.
It had been hard enough just getting local artists to say yes in the first place, Coney said. Even the ones desperate for exposure had trouble seeing past the word “funeral.” Some wouldn’t even walk through the doors.
She couldn’t be choosy with themes. She’d have to take what she could get.
“We’re still deciding what our next theme is going to be for the gallery,” Coney said. “The theme this time is ‘Oh my God, you put an art gallery in a funeral home.’”
Even the woman who would design the gallery balked at the idea at first.
“I heard about it and thought ‘a funeral home?’” Losh said. “It’s weird. It’s creepy.”
But not Marla E. The sculptural painter boasts chunky plaster works as well traveled as Las Vegas and Rhodes, Greece. And now a funeral home just north of Orlando.
She didn’t require any convincing.
“Marla was like ‘oh my God, that’s fabulous,’” Hendricks said about her phone call with the sometimes-unpredictable artist on the other end of the line. “She immediately got it.”
But would the art even show up? Three days until deadline, it was looking like a no. Only a few pieces had arrived, with an avalanche left to go.
“Don’t worry,” Losh said. “They’re artists. This is what they do.”
In a matter of three days, it all came in a flood of procrastinated creativity. More than two-dozen pieces will fill the room on opening night, 5:30 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 7.
And Coney is hoping to fill it with people — living ones.