Update on the Spirit Houses
by Jennie Chien
April 2, 2016, 4pm- 5pm @ RiverWinds Gallery
Letters to the Dead: Beyond Words is a conceptual and performance art piece that began by gathering letters from those who had lost someone special. Workshops were held in five different locations to explain the project and collect letters: Nyack, Pomona, New City, Haverstraw and Beacon, NY.
The artist, Jennie Chien, made both papercast and clay Spirit Houses, which, through the process of creating the houses, were embedded with the spirit of their written words.
Forty two participants wrote letters to 61 departed ones, which were photocopied onto colored paper, shredded and cast into paper Spirit Houses. The name of the recipient, in the writer’s handwriting, was incorporated on the front of the papercasts.
Clay Spirit Houses were also made and raku-fired. Raku is a Japanese fast-firing technique that creates metallic patinas and blackens the clay. The public ceremonial firing, in which letterwriters were invited to view, took place at Rockland Center for the Arts in West Nyack, NY on November 1, 2015, the traditional Day of the Dead and All Saints Day.
The original letters were placed in a reduction chamber. They burned when the red-hot house, designated for the intended recipient, was removed from the kiln and placed in the chamber. This burning carbonized the clay and spiritualized the words by turning them into smoke. This released the words for delivery to their intended recipients.
The Spirit House appears in many cultures but in these pieces they are the artist’s
interpretation of the spirit tablet which sits on a Chinese family altar. These consecrated tablets contain part of the soul of the departed. In this form, a loved one stays an active part of family life and is visited often.
After the exhibit of the Spirit Houses at The Nyack Library, they will be gifted to each letter writer as a remembrance of the person they had lost. A total of 109 houses were made. This Individual Artist Project ran for one year, from March 2015 to March 2016. The project is dedicated to the artist’s father, Linsan Chien, as a year of mourning to mark the 25th anniversary of his passing. For more information about the project, go to
The photo above is of Jennie Chien with her father for the 20th anniversary of his death..
Spirit Houses - by Jennie Chien
October 10 - Nov 8
Artist Reception Oct 10, 5 - 8pm
Letters to the Dead: Beyond Words
Workshop by Jennie Chien
Oct 24, 2015 10 am - 12 noon
RiverWinds Gallery at 172 Main Street, Beacon, NY is presenting "Spirit Houses" by Jennie Chien. The Spirit Houses evoke memory and eternity. The show opens on October 10 with an artist reception 5 - 8pm and runs through November 8, 2015. There will also be a two-hour workshop: “Letters to the Dead: Beyond Words” led by Jennie Chien, Saturday, October 24, 10 am - noon, at RiverWinds.
Jennie Chien’s pieces evoke the symbols of the sun, the eternal, wholeness, enlightenment, and the self. With her pieces, viewers go down into the quiet within themselves through the power of the archetype and their contemplation of the organic and timeless qualities of works’ form and surface. Her ceramic vessels are spiritual, inspired mainly by Buddhist and Zen thought. The Spirit Houses are a combinations of Western archetype of house and the Chinese concept of ancestor worship.
Chien, an informally trained fine artist, is an award-winning graphic designer with an MBA from Stanford Business School and a BA in Economics and Far Eastern Studies from Columbia University. She is in Who's Who in America and Who's Who in American Women, and is involved in many art programs and panels in Rockland County. Jennie is the winner of eight artist grants and awards, and more than 25 awards for design excellence. She works in clay and welded or cast metal.
Letters to the Dead Workshop October 24 10 - Noon
$40 per person includes personalized cast paper and raku Spirit Houses
Pre-Registration is advised as there is limited seating.
Call RiverWinds at 845-838-2880 or email at
This workshop gives an overview of the project, guidance in writing, and supplies materials, offering participants the opportunity to send a letter to someone who has passed away.
"The letters to departed ones will be collected, shredded and cast into paper Spirit Houses, " explains Chien, "which will be the vessels that hold your words." On November 1, the shreds of their original letter will be used in a raku firing of a clay Spirit House. The burning paper infuses the clay spirit house with the spirit of their written words. Participants will receive both a paper cast and a raku fired Spirit House.
"Grieving is a primal emotion that can be uncontrollable. The physical act of writing to someone who has died engages the higher process of the brain and memory, which helps to control the grief. It doesn't eliminate the grief, but having processed it, the grief becomes a part of you rather than controlling you.," Chien says. "My father died 25 years ago and I could never talk about him without tears in my eyes. After sending him a letter and infusing the words in a spirit house, I felt more at peace with his memory."
The paper houses will be burned to release the words to their intended recipients, in a ceremonial raku firing at the Rockland Center for the Arts in West Nyack, NY on November 1, 2015. The firing is both cathartic and transformative. The shreddings from the burnt letters in the firing infuses the clay with the spirit of the written words. The cast paper and raku Spirit Houses will be displayed in March 2016 at the Nyack Library, after which they will be given to the letter writers.
The Letters Art Project is created by Nyack, NY sculptor Jennie Chien, for the 25th year anniversary of her father's passing. Jennie Chien is an informally trained sculptor, exhibiting in galleries and art spaces in the tri-state area. J ennie is the winner of eight artist grants and awards, and more than 25 awards for design excellence. This project is made possible with funds from the Individual Artist Grant Program of the Arts Council of Rockland and the Decentralization Project of the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.
Thanks to everyone that came to Jennie's Opening on October 10.... fascinating to hear about her process and what inspires her.