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2 Riverhead displays share death as theme

Hanging on the walls behind some old-fashioned glass frames, the newest decorations on display at the Suffolk County Historical Society in Riverhead resemble dried flowers, carefully preserved for decades, a reminder of some springtime long ago.

Only they're not flowers. The decorations are made of hair from dead loved ones.

"People started doing this around the time of the Civil War," said Katherine Curran, director of the not-for-profit museum. "It was in memory of their loved ones."

The exhibit -- "Death Becomes Her: The Objects and Art of Death and Mourning" -- gives the museum a chance to bring out some of its more unusual and rarely seen pieces and borrow items from other museums and private collections.

There's an undertaker's table -- the kind brought to private homes to display a body in the late 1800s -- and the ax used in one of Long Island's most notorious murders, the 1864 killings of prominent Cutchogue farmer James Wickham and his wife, Frances.

Meanwhile, down the block at the nonprofit East End Arts, a juried show, "La Morte," will also debut, and both shows will begin with a reception Friday. "Death Becomes Her" runs through May 26; "La Morte" ends June 1.

That the shows' openings coincide was no accident, said Jane Kirkwood, director of the East End Arts Gallery.

While each group set up its own program, they collaborated in one area -- several works submitted to East End Arts but not chosen for display were borrowed by Curran for the Historical Society display. Those paintings and photographs give a subtle texture to the exhibits, she added. Visitors viewing the black costumes worn by mourners also see a photo of a decaying barn or a death mask.

"The artists have a completely different perspective . . . it's visually fascinating," Curran said.

Meanwhile, the East End Arts exhibit has proved popular with the artists and poets submitting their works.

"We normally get about 150 entries for a show," Kirkwood said. "For this one, we got 288," adding that while only 45 paintings and photographs are on display, others can be seen at the Historical Society.

"Strangely, this seems to be a popular topic," Kirkwood noted. "Everyone has something to say about death. This may be one of our best shows."

One stark entry that impressed Kirkwood is a journal kept by an organist, who made drawings and notes after playing at funerals. It is displayed on a stool, with a black veil over it.

The Historical Society is at 300 West Main St.; East End Arts is at 133 East Main St.

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