Jennifer Ewing didn’t set out to become a shipbuilder. After the 2004 death of her father, the San Francisco painter and sculptor began meeting with a curandera, or Native American healer, to work through her grief. At the time, Ewing had been painting Italian hill towns, working at capturing the geometry and a sense of place. But she couldn’t shake the boat imagery that appeared to her in her counseling sessions—and the following year, the devastating images of New Orleanians escaping the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina in lifeboats.
Deeply mourning her own loss and the national tragedy, inspiration struck. Over the next few years, Ewing became preoccupied with boats as powerful metaphors for drifting, navigation, and survival. She began cutting up plastic water bottles to create hulls, decorating the tiny vessels, and eventually exhibiting her newly constructed totems. In January 2011, she was the artist in residence at San Francisco’s de Young Museum, where she held drop-in workshops for museum-goers to create their own works, “Spirit Boat Directions: Totems for Personal Journeys.”
Ewing wasn’t surprised that her work elicited strong reactions from visitors. “[What I was doing] became about people, and the universe, and where people could go to in my work,” she says. In addition to the spiritual sculptures, which span the spectrum in terms of size and shape, she shifted her painting focus to ships and the sea.
Based on the positive responses to her workshops at the de Young, she began teaching boat making at children’s art parties, adult grief groups, and even corporate teambuilding events. “This is a culmination of many years,” she says of helping others find peace and healing through art. “It’s been an experiment of sorts, encouraging people to feel their way through grief. But it’s worked.”
Follow these steps to create a spirit boat of your own.
- Construct. Using a small, sharp knife, carefully remove the top and one side panel of a plastic water bottle, carving out a leakproof, floatable hull.
- Embellish. Collect various lightweight materials—tissue paper, feathers, leaves, and twigs—to glue or tie to your boat as decoration.
- Commemorate. Recite a personally meaningful poem or prayer in remembrance of your loved one. Or write a verse on a small piece of paper and place it in the hull. You can also name your boat.
- 4. Display. Don’t sail your boat out to sea and add plastic pollution to ocean waters. Instead, find a sunny spot in your home to display your totem as a visual reminder of your healing journey.