Saturday, April 23, 2011


Are statues and sculptures the same thing?  I looked up their definitions and found this:

an individual piece of carving, modeling, welding, or otherwise figurative or abstract work of art in three dimensions, as in relief, intaglio, or in the round.
a three-dimensional work of art, as a representational or abstract form, carved in stone or wood, molded in a plastic material, cast in bronze, or the like.

Huh? Can any of you art experts shed further light on the subject?

Anyway, when we went to San Francisco in February, the dozens of murals painted on outdoor walls all over the city really jumped out at me.  In contrast, I didn't see many murals in New York City, but the statues/sculptures were fantastic.  Here is a sampling of my favorites:

Debris from the collapse of the World Trade Center Twin Towers after the 9/11 terrorist attack in 2001 knocked down a 100-year-old sycamore at a nearby church. The roots were used to create this awesome piece of art next to Trinity Church:

The oh-so-austere Apostles in the niches of the Trinity Episcopal Church watch over the tree roots, as if preventing future destruction in the city:
The grave of John Watts (174901836), a NYC politician, really stands out among more modest burial sites in the Trinity Church graveyard:

The Statue of Liberty stands on a city street. Wait! Shouldn't she be out in the harbor?

Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first native-born American to be canonized by the Catholic Church and the patron saint of Catholic schools, stands in one of NYC's churches:

A Pieta by William Ordway Patridge found in St. Patrick's Cathedral is not as powerful as the Pieta by Michelangelo in St. Peter's in Rome, but there are many similarities that made this very appealing to me, including Mary's tenderness and the limp peacefulness of the body of Christ:

Two statues in Chinatown: Lin Ze Xu (1785-1850, Pioneer in the fight against drugs) and Confucius (551-579 BC):

A 3-D model of Salvador Dali's melting clock from his famous painting The Persistence of Memory: 

Dali's sculpture The Snail and the Angel:

I love, love, LOVE this sculpture by Jim Shore entitled Keys to the Kingdom. It was outside the Lincoln Center Branch of the American Folk Art Museum. The artist is more commonly known for his resin Christmas figures that wear clothing painted with bright scenes. This angel is made from "found" objects. Her wings, for example, are made from keys:

I ADORED these gargoyle-like men hold up a balcony:

The Peace Fountain (1985) in the yard of the St. John the Divine Episcopal Church depicts the struggle between good and evil as represented by the Archangel Michael slaying Satan, whose head is hanging grotesquely over the edge of the platform:

Michael is snuggling a baby giraffe, a symbol of peace:

Saints and apostles stand as guardians to the doors of St. John the Divine. The figures are wonderfully human and approachable. Notice the small figures above the larger ones that have colored clothing and skin:

The columns show various NYC scenes, including the Twin Towers (left):

 In some ways St. John the Divine Cathedral reminds me of Gaudi's Sagrada Familia Catedral in Barcelona, Spain--not quite finished, a mixture of styles, a very contemporary feel, and unexpected elements everywhere.  I'd recommend making a detour to see it if you plan a trip to NYC.

There is something in the heavy, permanent feel of a statue that fits New York City, just as the bright, airy, impermanent murals seem to fit San Francisco.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


My favorite cemetery of our recent trip was Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts.  It had a section called "Author's Ridge" where the literary greats of America's 19th century Transcendental Movement are buried, not by themselves, but alongside their fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers, and in some cases, next to their descendants many generations down the line.

Here is the stone marker listing the names of of those buried Thoreau family plot:

And this tiny stone (see its relative size in the first picture above) with its single red rose marks the grave of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), author, poet, naturalist, philosopher, surveyor, and historian:

Thoreau was very good friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Emerson, who was 14 years older but lived 20 years beyond Thoreau's death, delivered the eulogy at his friend's funeral. He said, in part, "This country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost. . . . His soul was made for the noblest society; he had in a short life exhausted the capabilities of this world; wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home."  Beautiful.

The Hawthorne family plot (seen from behind):

. . . and the marker for Nathanial Hawthorne (1804-1864), author of The Scarlet Letter, The House of Seven Gables, "Young Goodman Brown," "The Minister's Black Veil," and more:

The Alcott family plot:

. . . and the very unpretentious marker for Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888), author of my beloved Little Women and many other novels:
(What's with the small change tossed at this marker?  Well-wishers remembering the erstwhile poverty of the Alcott family? Royalties from continuing book sales? A lively game of "Hit the M"?  I'll never know.  Like the other graves, however, it was decorated with a somewhat limp red rose.)

And then we saw our favorite of all the favorites, the Emerson plot.  Family members continue to be buried here, creating a wonderful chain of ancestors and progeny:

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), Harvard graduate, minister, poet, and one of the greatest of all American philosophers, was well-acquainted with death.  His father died of stomach cancer when he was only eight, and his first wife Ellen Tucker, who probably already had tuberculosis when he married her, died after only two years of marriage.  For many years he visited her grave daily, and a year after her death he wrote in his journal, "I visited Ellen's tomb and opened the coffin." (!)

Four years after Ellen's death, Emerson married Lidian Jackson.  They had four children together, Waldo (who died at age five--another death),  Ellen (named after RWE's first wife), Edith, and Edward.  A very intelligent woman, Lidian was RWE's soul-mate in many ways, and she outlived him by ten years. She is buried next to him, and their oldest daughter Ellen, who never married but lived in Concord all her life and cared for both of her parents until they died, is buried on his other side:

The large, craggy rock that marks Emerson's grave is the most unique headstone I have ever seen. (Note to family: Bob wants one of these for his grave, and since I'll be buried in the same plot, I like the rose part):

The rock is almost as tall as I am.
The epitaph engraved on the metal marker affixed to the rock reads: "The passive master lent his hand / To the vast soul that oer him planned."

I think Emerson, with his belief in the great unity of all things, would like his stone monument and his gravesite overlooking the rather unkempt, hilly cemetery with its irregular placement of stones that are being upended everywhere by aggressive tree roots.  Many years before his death, he penned this poem titled "A Mountain Grave" that describes his final resting place quite well:

Why fear to die
And let thy body lie
Under the flowers of June,
Thy body food
For the ground-worms' brood
And the grave smiled on by the visiting moon.

Amid great Nature's halls
Girt in by mountain walls
And washed with waterfalls
It would please me to die,
Where every wind that swept my tomb
Goes loaded with a free perfume
Dealt out with a God's charity.

I should like to die in sweets, [definitely my favorite line]
A hill's leaves for winding-sheets,
And the searching sun to see
That I am laid with decency.
And the commissioned wind to sing
His mighty psalm from fall to spring
And annual tunes commemorate
Of Nature's child the common fate.

As a young girl, I was a great lover Little Women and every other book by Louisa May Alcott that I could get my hands on. Seeing her home and learning about her life in Concord was a revelation to me. I picked up Eden's Outcasts by John Matteson, the winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for biography, after our trip.

The details of Louisa's relationship with her father, the well-known philosopher, reformer, and writer Bronson, are fascinating. Alike in so many ways, such as in their love of the natural world and their desire for justice, they were nevertheless extremely different and had a rather volatile relationship. Ultimately, Bronson's itinerant lifestyle and radical education philosophies didn't help the family economics, and Louisa had to take on the financial responsibility for the family.

The book also covers in great detail the progress of Louisa's writing career as well as her connections to the other great thinkers of the Concord region: Hawthorne, Thoreau, Emerson, and others. It's a great read for someone who loves Alcott and her books as much as I do.

Saturday, April 9, 2011


(I thought about saving this post for Halloween, but I decided I'd probably lose interest by then, so here it is now.)

I have a confession to make: Bob and I are obsessed with cemeteries.

Or at least it would seem that way if someone took a cursory look through my photo files.  I'm not sure what is so appealing to me about cemeteries, but I don't think it's a fascination with the macabre.  After all, I was raised with great respect for cemeteries.  My mother took us to the cemetery to visit our dad's grave at least twice a year, and I have good memories of running and playing among the familiar stone markers.  As I grew up, I found the cemetery, with its dedication to memory, to be a peaceful and poignant place. My mother also took my siblings and me to the narrow, quiet lanes of the Payson cemetery to teach us to drive. What's not to love about that, right?

Joseph Anderson, an American clergyman, said, "The Christian cemetery is a memorial and a record. It is not a mere field in which the dead are stowed away unknown; it is a touching and beautiful history, written in family burial plots, in mounded graves, in sculptured and inscribed monuments. It tells the story of the past, not of its institutions, or its wars, or its ideas, but of its individual lives,--of its men and women and children, and of its household. It is silent, but eloquent; it is common, but it is unique. We find no such history elsewhere; there are no records in all the wide world in which we can discover so much that is suggestive, so much that is pathetic and impressive."

Perhaps my current fixation with strangers' graves started in December of 2000 when our family visited Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, France.

We had to hunt and hunt to find the grave of the great Polish composer Frederic Chopin, who died in Paris in 1849:

In contrast, we just followed the crowds to the cemetery's most visited grave, that of Jim Morrison of The Doors, who died in Paris in 1971:

Morrison's stone was covered with flowers, and we still laugh about the earnest young man who was staring mournfully at the grave, quietly singing what we assumed was music from The Doors while swaying back and forth. Such homage!

A few years later we had a similar experience at Graceland.  (Well, Rachael and I did.  Bob refused to pay the admission price to take the tour, so Rachael and I went in without him.  It was worth every penny.)  I think Elvis's grave (located not very far from the house, as if the family already had a Graceland museum in mind) was one of the most decorated I have ever seen. He is buried next to his parents and paternal grandmother. Lines of people filed quietly past the markers, some reverentially adding flowers to the piles already there.  You would think this was the final resting spot of a former President of the United States and his family. In fact, with 600,000 visitors a year, Graceland is the second most visited private home in the United States--behind only the White House.

On our recent trip to New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, we enjoyed strolling through several cemeteries that exemplified what Anderson described as "a touching and beautiful history." One of the things I love about the big cities of the Eastern U.S. is the way that history is so nonchalantly interwoven with the present. Cemeteries with three-hundred-year-old graves and hundreds of individual stories are located next to impersonal, towering skyscrapers, as in this cemetery next to Trinity Church in the Wall Street District of Manhattan:

It makes you wonder what these guys will think and say on resurrection morning! ("Hey, Martha! Look at that great and spacious building!")

I loved this cemetery in New Haven, Connecticut, seen through the iron fence surrounding Yale University:

In Boston, the dead lie buried all over the city in churchyards and public parks:
This is probably the most famous cemetery in Boston, the Granary Burying Ground, where many of the Founding Fathers were laid to rest (such a lovely euphemism, don't you think?):

Every now and then we stumbled into a name we recognized:
Samuel Adams, a member of the Continental Congress, Governor of Massachusetts, and founder of a ubiquitous ale brand.

Paul Revere, patriot extraordinaire
John Hancock, whose stone was appropriately large among the smaller stones of the cemetery
It was thrilling to see these memorials, some original and some of recent vintage, to the men who shaped our country's history. Compared to Jim Morrison's or Elvis Presley's graves, they were rather plain and unadorned. It seems to me that we should be doing more to honor the sacrifices and phenomenal contributions of these American icons. But then again, they were just colonists, not kings; they were mere citizens, not royalty. For the most part, their graves reflect that.

We visited my FAVORITE cemetery, however, on the last day of our trip.  Come back in a few days to find out where it was.