A mortuary job inspires an artist. | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A mortuary job inspires an artist.

Skulls are the big motif in Mike Egan's The Day That Death Stayed Home.

Mike Egan's "Our Collection."
Mike Egan's "Our Collection."

Artist Mike Egan admits he "isn't really a people person." So perhaps it's no surprise that when he was seeking a side career in 2004, he enrolled at the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science. The two-year program was run out of an office building on Baum Boulevard: By the time he graduated with a class of 25, Egan recalls, he'd learned "a lot of chemistry, some embalming, a little microbiology and enough accounting to prepare you to run your own funeral home."

As day jobs often do, the work influenced Egan's art, particularly the pieces on display at the Gallery on 43rd Street, in The Day That Death Stayed Home. Paintings show Day of the Dead-like skulls, individually or in stacks, drawn as clear, simple shapes in rusty blacks, whites, yellows, reds and greens.

Previously, Egan had fancied himself a printmaker. But his stints as an embalmer for funeral homes in Saxonburg and Reading, Pa., often separated him from printmaking equipment. Mortuary workers are on call during odd hours, waiting for hospitals or nursing homes to request a pick-up. (Egan says he responded to 500 such calls in a single year.) So while cooped up and waiting for people to die, Egan resorted to simpler materials.

"I went to Lowe's and bought several boards of wood and just started painting on them," he says.

Slowly, his macabre line of work seeped further into his artistic life. Frequent trips to churches inspired stained-glass-like symmetries in his paintings, and he found himself "working harder at being an artist because I was always reminded of my own mortality."

Despite having a BFA from Edinboro University, Egan thinks of himself as a folk artist, a definition that can be seen in the self-construed symbols appearing in his work. The number 77 (for 1977, the year he was born) pops up as a symbol of good luck, and the devil stands alongside the skulls not necessarily as a symbol of evil, but as one of power.

By bunching the skulls together, Egan, who was raised Catholic but now describes himself as more of a "seeker," tries to drive home an uplifting message. "The idea is that we are all together, reunited, in the afterlife," he explains. He adds drily, "I don't find my work depressing or creepy. In fact, a family recently commissioned me to do a portrait of them all as skeletons."

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