Memento Vitae

Cora McKenzie, Graphic Design MFA 2020

Cora McKenzie is a graphic designer, researcher, and educator working at the intersection of visual communication and science. In today’s chaotic landscape of politically-muddled scientific information, her work uses graphic design as a critical tool to bring clarity and beauty to complex topics such as climate change and the Anthropocene.

Project Overview

Ecological grief is the overwhelming sense of loss experienced by humans in response to today’s chaotic landscape of environmental destruction. In Memento Vitae, McKenzie borrows from the practice of mourning jewelry, a medium in which hair of a loved one is incorporated into pieces used to celebrate and/or mourn. Here, nostalgia and materiality coalesce, paying tribute to three faltering habitats connected to the designer: forests, coral reefs, and glaciers. Through the intimate act of donning each ecological piece, users can redefine their relationship with damaged ecosystems, channeling grief into a tactile object while celebrating its beauty.

All photos above by Dan Meyers, except book details


I began Memento Vitae with the intention of creating an object in which one can channel ecological grief. In addition to this concept, my research surrounding grief, mourning jewelry, and ecology strengthened the project. I was able to meet with mourning jewelry specialist Nicolle Mogavero, for example, who told me about sepia—hair of a loved one ground up in paint for use in jewelry decoration. My work reappropriates this idea by embedding data within each piece, creating a modern-day ecological sepia. For production, I was challenged to learn 3D modeling in Rhino in a matter of days in order to create the necklace and ring. The accompanying book weaves together data, personal narrative, and concept in the form of a scrapbook.


To answer my research question, “how can we create an intimate relationship with absence that is both celebratory and reflective, by adorning ourselves with elements of a destroyed ecosystem?” I began by talking with mourning jewelry specialist Nicholle Mogavero. Mourning jewelry, such as this piece from the Georgian era (shown in the “process” section above), was worn to commemorate a loved one that passed away, or could even be given to a suitor as a token of love. Oftentimes mourning jewelry incorporates hair of a loved one, whether it was physically shown, or ground up and mixed into paint, called sepia, as the one shown in the “process” section above. 

These mourning objects, therefore, contain both a positive (celebratory) and negative (death) perception within a single vessel. With Memento Vitae, wanted to explore how I could channel my ecological grief into a line of modern mourning jewelry.

I combined data (i.e. meaning embedded into the piece, much like sepia) and locations that feature a faltering ecosystem, in which I have a personal relationship. Here, I chose a glacier in Iceland, Skaftafellsjökull, I hiked on earlier this year. The glacier has been receding since 1890, and each layer of the ring shows this. In addition to the glacier levels melting on Skaftafellsjökull, I also visualized data in the form of a necklace and brooch (Cayman Island coral reefs and Alabama forests, respectively). Even though these locations and species are important to me personally, I aim to have wearers each insert their own narrative to each piece in order to come to terms with their own ecological grief. 

This project would not be possible with the help of the UNRVL team: Annet, Ryan, Alan, Vic, Paul, Margaret, and class—for concept development and support. Special thanks to Alan for connecting me with Nicholle. And huge thanks to DFAB techs for providing tips and tricks to make the Rhino learning process easier!

Learn More

Want to know about Cora’s process? Check out her Creative Process Journal, or see her other design work on her website. You can contact Cora via email at for further questions or comments.

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