Mary Shannon Johnstone is one of the first artists I learned of who was making exactly the kind of work I wanted to make. I had the wonderful opportunity to meet her, at the Living with Animals conference in the spring of last year, seven years after I first saw and was so influenced by her photography. We had a portfolio review together and I got to see her new project, Stardust and Ashes, in person and hear about how her father’s death had a role in the work. It was one of those bodies of work that is so beautiful, meaningful, and powerful that it leaves you almost speechless. The series is a perfect descendant of Shannon’s Landfill Dogs and Breeding Ignorance; using the cremains of shelter animals that were euthanized before they could find homes, she creates cyanotypes that resemble astronomical objects and celestial events. The resulting images are so poignant, a reminder of animals’ (human and non-human) tiny existence in a massive universe, and of the unique and complicated gift that is mourning a loss of life.

From the artist’s statement: “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” – Carl Sagan, Cosmos

I made these cyanotypes with the ashes of euthanized homeless animals from an animal shelter’s crematorium. These animals died with nobody to mourn their passing, except maybe a few overwhelmed shelter workers.

I hope these images serve as a memorial to these animals, who were nobody and nothing. Turned to dust and returned to the cosmos, they become everyone and everything. Just as we all will someday.

For the past decade I have been working with homeless pets and exploring ways to visualize the tragedy of animal overpopulation. Up until now, I have used traditional lens-based photography. For this new work, I was inspired by artists who use simplicity, pulchritude, and heartbreak as their tools. Artists such as Chris Jordan, Michal Rovner, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who draw you in with beauty, but then hit you in the gut with sadness.

Using my own breath and fingers to manipulate the ashes, I work the ashes into celestial configurations while the sun exposes the cyanotype turning the negative space Prussian blue. Then I use the cyanotypes as negatives; scanning, layering, enlarging, rephotographing on a light box, and sometimes adding color. With these images I hope to mourn the passing of thousands of our forgotten companions, and remind us that we are all connected and headed for the same fate: reduced to dust and returned to the stars.

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